The importance of meaningful work

Autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward are the three qualities that work as to have if it is to be satisfying. It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five – it’s whether our work fulfills us. (…) Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful. Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig. (…) If you work hard enough, and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” – Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

I’ve just finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and found it a fascinating book. The passage I quote above explains what, in his view, it takes for work to be meaningful. I would tend to agree with him on the ingredients of meaningful work, but I also think he understates the importance of meaningful work: it doesn’t just make you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig – it gives a meaning to the better part of your daily life.

I think there is nothing so depressing as a life without meaning: I have seen people go to work every morning dreading the very job they were going to, and I have seen people enjoy their work and look forward to another day of it. The latter group is a much happier, livelier group. They enjoy life and that enjoyment is often contagious. They are usually also more productive at the work-place and more loyal to their employer. The former group drag their way to the office, are usually glum and tend to take the ambiance down with them. De-motivation is at least as contagious as motivation can be and the only thing that keeps a de-motivated worker at his job is his need for an income and the belief that he can’t find a better job. As soon as a better opportunity comes along (and despite our current economic situation, one inevitably will) the exodus commences.

So, from a business perspective, motivation – and therefore meaningful work – is very important. However, from a personal perspective, I would argue it is even more so, and I would argue that if your work isn’t meaningful, you should quit. If you need the money (as most of us do) try to save as much as possible so you can do for a few weeks – perhaps months – without a regular income. Try downsizing your expenses for a while and start looking for a job.

About rlc

Software Analyst in embedded systems and C++, C and VHDL developer, I specialize in security, communications protocols and time synchronization, and am interested in concurrency, generic meta-programming and functional programming and their practical applications. I take a pragmatic approach to project management, focusing on the management of risk and scope. I have over two decades of experience as a software professional and a background in science.
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