Thursday, March 04, 2010

Reflections on Meaningful Work

I have talked about doing meaningful work before, but have not substantiated what I meant by that.

But before that, a note on context. My point about wishing to spend 2010 doing meaningful work implied that what I have done before, or doing now, is meaningless. While it is possible to clarify and elaborate such a statement, this goes against one of my core beliefs: No work is absolutely futile. While I may be deeply frustrated by what I am doing, primarily on account of my inability to move forward on any front, this work also presents me an enormous opportunity to learn, and explore various aspects of international business. That can't be meaningless; work rarely is.

I must admit that the current job that I do taught me a lot about work. One of the key lessons have been that you can not be a quitter. I have faced enormous difficulties while at work, not least because of the recession. I thought the project I was involved in was not important, had to deal with colleagues who took a fairly narrow view of the world, and face various other difficulties. In some of my previous workplaces, I had quit at this point, understanding the sheer futility of carrying on. This time, however, I was only too mindful that quitting does not get anyone anywhere. I know no one earns any hero's medal anymore by staying on a sinking ship, but I almost had to redeem myself of my past mistakes.

The fact that I stayed on was interpreted variously by different people. Some people saw a sense of guilt in me, which it indeed was, but not for reasons they were thinking. Some others saw it as an weakness. Others saw it as a sign of loyalty - though I did not think or claim as much. The staying on came at a great cost to me, in terms of money, career progression and even respect from some of my colleagues. However, those did not matter, because I was being solely guided by an internal benchmark. I did not want to be a quitter, and leave without having carried out what I thought to be my duty as a professional.

This, as you can see, is my quest for meaning in work. It is an interesting revelation for me, as my professional life, if one looks closely, appears like an incessant search. What I was searching for was meaningful work. This was a long way off from my usual middle class upbringing, which prepared me, emotionally and in terms of skills, for a life of a bureaucrat. My preparation was all guided towards a stable, very predictable, work life. It was to be all about the money it earns and none about what I actually ended up doing. My output was to be measured by time - I was taught - and never by the impact. My youthful enquiries about what work meant were dealt with ridicule.

But, then, I was very average and I grew up with a dislike of the average and the ordinary. I did want to stand out. My greatest fear was about being without a meaning. I found the prospect of the staid provincial life, laid out in front of me with great certainty, utterly disconcerting. I did not then know how to say it, but if I knew I would have said - I was desperate to make a dent in the universe.

And, this is why I looked for meaningful work ever since. Meaningful not in terms of the money it generates and materials that money buys; but the impact it creates - for other people, and if I must brag, in making the world a better place. I somewhat looked up to my grandfather, who toiled and built a business based on a certain set of values, old school staff but enough to build a successful business earn us enough money for three generations of affluent living. Growing up, I saw him putting in his hours till the very last day of his 90 years of life. And, I saw him to be a disciplined, ethical, deeply proud man, who did his bit for others, was intensely affectionate for all of us and deeply conscious about the society around him. I grew up in his legacy. I saw his life as meaningful.

What I missed, admittedly, is that meaning of work does not reside in work itself; it resides in the person doing it. It is about ME, as I found out now. This private commitment not to be a quitter, to keep my commitments in a very private way, is enormously meaningful. Yes, I disagree with my employers more times than not. I do not share any of their zero-sum perspectives of the world, none of their racial stereotypes, and can assume none of their imperial pretensions. I am not ad hoc, short term and a money-fetishist. But, work is not about them - it is about me.

It took me some time to realize this. Work remains about 'them' as long as one is tied to the results of work - money, stability etc. One needs freedom to make it meaningful. Once I realized this, I resigned, but did not quit. It sounds dumb, indeed, but it is probably the smartest thing I ever did. I went up to my employers and said that I am resigning, and they can remove me from my position at any time they like. But, then, I don't want to be a quitter, and would carry out the job in hand till I have met my own benchmarks for success, or till the day they actually ask me to go.

Such open relationship helped me to remove one aspect that hindered my quest for meaningful work. Fear. Fear of losing the job, paycheck etc. I have realized that the distinction between a job, which implies some form of dependent living, and enterprise, is the centrality of fear. Once I removed fear out of the equation, I lived in the constant twilight zone that the next month's paycheck may never materialize, which is not very different from the life of an entrepreneur. I paid down my debts, and become ready to move, in a few days notice, from the rented home that I live in. It was like living on the edge, I must admit, but this experience itself added meaning to my life and work, and prepared me for the eventual independent life that I must lead.

However, work's impact is not just about private peace and integrity, but also how it affects others. This is the 'making the dent in the universe' bit. It can not happen without achieving the freedom of mind and discovery of own set of values [which can happen only in the condition of freedom], but it needs more than just private initiative to make work meaningful to the wider world. This is the second step, which I feel ready for now. I am bringing in my current job to a logical conclusion, a structure that can support a sustainable business, one point I wished to reach privately. I am planning to exit now, because I do not wish to spend rest of the years of my life toiling for a private millionaire lifestyle. I would rather do something which, if I must repeat, makes a difference, by creating possibilities that do not exist today and changing lives of the people. This is step two of meaningful work - not just private peace but the creation and realization of possibilities - which I feel ready to embark on now.

Of course, this means living on the edge yet again, and enormous strain on all the family and social relationships I have. But I made the choice - I say - early in life, not to pursue to staid life leading to private mansion and millions. Legacy that I aspire for will not be confined to a numbered bank account, but in the number of possibilities I help to create. I feel impatient. I wish to get started. However, I am also mindful that, in the great scheme of things, nothing is lost, ever. I know my days, today, yesterday, this moment, spent in various pursuits, will all flow together in this search of meaningfulness, even if those appeared trivial and without consequence at the time of living.

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