Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Personal Note: On Finding Meaning At Work

I need a meta-theory to explain whatever happened in my professional life, as I reach another decision point, where, yet again, I have to do some explaining for what happened so far. When I narrate the story of my career, which is a sequence of several mini-careers, it appears like a dance than a journey, the usual metaphor most people would be comfortable with. I moved vertically, did things which seemed like going back on time, took risks commonly deemed unacceptable, and mostly lived on the brink. I may have achieved too little, reached the right place often too early, and preached, to those who cared, a view too antiquated. Someone, who was my Line Manager for several years, told me that I was the most intelligent person she ever worked with, but I should be mindful that intelligence is a double-edged sword: The wisdom of her words is beginning to dawn on me only now.

There is one easy explanation of my relationship with work: That I sought meaning. I was motivated by the story of the third bricklayer, who was building the cathedral, rather than his colleagues, who were content just to lay the bricks or to build a wall. I wanted visibility of what my work does, its purpose. This sure helped: I loved what I did, work meshed seamlessly with my day to day life, work gave me pleasure. In whatever I did, I wanted to have impact: I was working not to pay a mortgage, or to pay my bills, nor even to retire, but for the pleasure of work itself, for what does or at least meant to do. My seemingly quixotic views about integrity went perfectly with this out-of-date search for meaning at work, but often at odds with the imperatives of a normal, linear career.

I have never lacked ambition though. I had an interesting conversation with a young colleague during the course of a performance review recently, when she told me that she wanted to be the best at her job. It was a casual utterance, and she was wholly unprepared as I was enthused by that statement, and wanted to clarify what she wanted to be the best in. I took this to be a completely natural ambition, given that she was so capable: However, she apparently decided, at this point of conversation, that I might be mocking her and changed the statement to say that she wanted to 'do her best'. I knew that she was trying to be safe, because in most organizations, the ambition to be the best, in anything, within whatever domain, would be considered dangerously ambitious, or impractical, or both. However, personally, I have always followed the aspiration of being the best, in my case in designing education offerings to change lives of large numbers of people, and made no secrets about it. All the things I have done so far in my career, and all the things I want to do, are strung together in the search of this one objective.

Sometimes, puzzlingly, I am told that I lack focus. I concede that I really don't know how much money I want to make, if I want to buy a house, where I want to settle down. However, I know that I want to build an education organization, which works with people who would usually be left out by the elite higher education institutions - people expected to be workers, excluded from the driving seat of life, people expected not to think but live in abject submission to the demands of mortgages, bills and reproduction - and enables them to think for themselves and creates opportunities for themselves and others. It is a wholly utopian view of what education should do: This is about breaking the dichotomy of Higher and Lower Education (one designed for thinkers and other, for the workers) and taking thinking grassroots, and in turn, making work meaningful. My search for meaning at work is based on the quest to make work meaningful for all.

Admittedly, this is not an easy goal. This is, actually, dangerously revolutionary. The public education system is always designed with the objective of maintaining public order, just like the police, so that it reproduces a certain number of thinkers and a certain number of workers and carefully preserve the boundaries of definition and meaning for all comers. The For-Profit, the business of education, despite its challenger status, is actually an extension of the same model: It is about obscuring the meaning at work but producing functional specialists with a narrower focus. I have taken on studies on For-Profit Education for several years now, in order to see from close quarters its mechanics of subverting the status quo, which I approve of, and its creation of a new model, which is deeply dichotomous, and which condemns its students to a slave life of consumption imperatives, which is the one I wish to change. 

This is surely going against the tide, in a society where super-specialization is seen as the path to knowledge and the meaning and purpose of work is completely obscured behind the job descriptions, performance reviews and other managerial rhetoric. It is the same in education, where learning outcomes trump wisdom, and assessment scores is treated as knowledge. The hope is in realizing that all of this is now falling apart. Education isn't educating anymore: It is either producing people completely disconnected with their social roles, or people who retreats behind the walls of specialization and denies all responsibility outside their own consumer commitments. The work of experts are falling apart, as the complexity levels have reached monstrous proportions and spun the world out of control for all. The failure and alienation at work is now coming back as meta-theories of chaos and complexity, and suddenly, after centuries of human progress, we are not in charge any more. Those in control has lost control: There were never a better time to construct an alternative and restore humanity at the working end of the education spectrum. I see this as an opportunity, something that I worked for, knowingly or unconsciously, for last twenty years.

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