What if our search for meaning at work is meaningless?

Oct 24, 2022

3 mins

What if our search for meaning at work is meaningless?
Albert MoukheiberLab expert

Doctor in neuroscience, clinical psychologist and author

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” This quote, attributed to Confucius, has become such a cliché that it heightens our propensity to endorse aphorisms, especially ones that don’t mean anything. I’ve never had anyone say to me, Awesome! I’m so excited to go to work tomorrow!” Work is sometimes (let’s be honest, often) a series of arduous tasks we’re obliged to do.

Today at the top of new social demands, professionally and personally, is the search for meaning. The food I eat, the people I educate, the work I do, the vacations I take, the clothes I buy…everything must have significance. However, is the search for perpetual significance similar to the empty aphorisms? And if so, is the frantic search for it in all walks of life doing us more harm than good?

Hoodie philosophy

Humans have sought existential meaning in their lives since the beginning of time. Even from the earliest philosophical writings, we find an exploration of the meaning of life. However, if these questions have always existed, why are we recently witnessing a flood of interest linked to life’s meaning? Applied to the work world, this phenomenon creates powerful storytelling now embraced by companies aspiring to attract new employees. So much so that we’re experiencing a reversal: it’s no longer the individual who must find meaning in their work, but rather it’s the company’s responsibility to impose meaning on the individual.

“Pseudo-deep bullshit” is how Canadian cognitive scientist Gordon PennyCook theorizes the silliness of the times. These phrases are nonsense; they seem deep at first glance, but don’t really have meaning. The question we should ask ourselves is this: “Is the hunt for meaning that we’re constantly fed pseudo-deep bullshit?” How do we find meaning in food service flipping burgers? How do we find meaning in working for a huge corporation that promotes greenwashing?

I recently learned that we built the world’s first factory capable of capturing CO2 from the air and converting it into oxygen. Of course, responsible companies are the only ones that make sense, but in reality, what this organization has just invented already exists: it’s called a tree. Driven by the chase for meaning, this business chose to destroy an ecosystem, demolish an entire piece of land, and build a factory to do what we’re already supposed to know how to do. This race to conjure up meaning is found in every nook and cranny of statements promoting responsibility and usefulness in the modern work world. How many times have we heard the words, My work serves a purpose?

In reality, this “pseudo-deep bullshit” is making us feel less guilty, but also less empowered. It even diverts us from a genuine meaning in life that requires us to face legitimate challenges such as the battle against discrimination and social inequity and the immense struggle against climate change. The demand to find meaning turns out to be an excuse provoked once again by our jobs taking a central place in our lives. For many of us, work is a necessary evil in order to do something else on the side. Why not ditch this pursuit of bullshit in order to achieve something better that makes more sense?

Protecting ourselves from our own existentialism

How do we protect ourselves from nonsense and craziness? First of all, beware of catchy, ready-made phrases. At best, they don’t mean anything; at worst, they’ll lead us in the wrong direction. We need to ask ourselves if what we’ve just read really makes sense or if it’s just pretty words strung together.

On the other hand, we could embrace the nonsense. Accept living with it. Whatever we do, we should acknowledge that the world is illogical, as Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran says. Cioran tells us that life has no meaning and this is why it’s worth living. If we believe life has a meaning that’s imposed on us, we have no more space to exist independently. However, if I declare that life has no meaning, I’m able to leave room for the genuine things that have a concrete impact on the world in which I live. Paradoxically, when we’re not looking for it, we can find deep meaning in what we do.

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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