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The meaning of work
A while ago I have read  Alain De Botton’s book “The pleasures and sorrows of work”. It’s a fascinating contemplation on why people work. De Botton touches with whit the full bandwidth of working. At the end he states that it’s better to work to prevent us from doing nothing. The meaning of working lies in the fact of being busy ?
Process vs Achievement
Compare it to a bicycle ride. Is the fact of reaching your destination, more important than the ride? What’s the meaningfulness of reaching your destination? If you’re into recreation you would say that you’d like to enjoy the view. And maybe you will state that the exercise itself is beneficiary. If you’re a competitive type you might want to reach your target before the others do, or in a better time than before. The meaningfulness is derived from your targets.
De Botton describes the passion of a painter who paints a multitude of similar paintings with nothing but a tree on it, and always the same tree. You might think that this is useless and even a little maniacal. Many artists and works of art would be categorized like that. So what’s the meaningfulness of the work of an artist ? He produces art for the sake of art.
There are many professions that are looked upon by others in a judgmental way. I have friends who were not allowed to study what they wanted. The fathers made up a list of acceptable fields of study like economics, law, engineering and medicine. The other list was longer : history, psychology, philosophy, art, archeologgy, Latin, Greek, … These ‘useless’ studies do not teach you a real job and do not prepare one for the tough life out there, or there were simply too many people already unemployed after having studied this. The fathers thought it was in the best interest of their offspring to make a choice. But those fathers forget that children need to make their own choices.
And if you want to be certain to have a job, you might want to consider a profession like plumber, or carpenter. You might consider to be a craftsman. Where I live there is a shortage of good plumbers and carpenters. But those professions are often not on the list of people that want the best for their children. I think those jobs are very meaningful. Belonging  to the category of clumsy people, I have a high esteem for people that are able to keep my house dry and make sure that there is clean water running from the tap. To me it’s meaningful that a carpenter repairs the broken window or that the guy that mends my roof does it fast before the next rain is falling.
Meaningfulness derived from others
So where does meaningfulness come from ? It comes from the person whom you are doing something for. It must be great to be a plumber. People are happy when you show up. People are thankful that you have solved the problem. There is relevance.The same goes for teaching. Isn’t it great that you give your kids into the hands of a teacher when they are about 6 years old and that 6 months later they are able to read and write ? This is a great achievement. Parents should be thankful. I can draw up a list of professions that are very meaningful to people and society, even when they are not very popular. Judges, policemen, the men that collect the garbage, the nurse in a ward for the terminally ill, …
De Botton also describes the jobs of accountants and auditors. Someone states that without audits capitalism would not be possible. Auditing is a very peculiar profession. When the Sarbanes-Oxley (Sox) law came into place there was a massive increase of the audits being performed in companies. The tasks of those additional audits is to check on the governance, avoid scandals like Enron and detect risks as early as possible. Did it help ? No it did not. Fraud is still out there. Madoff was found out only years after Sox came into action. And he was only caught because of the real estate crisis that launched the biggest post-war financial crisis. He could not keep up the facade and no governing body had seen it coming. So is auditing meaningful ? Is it more meaningful than teaching children to read and write ? I cannot judge.
Again, where does the meaningfulness come from ? To me it comes from someone else but you. If you think what you do is meaningful, but you’re the only one, you might have a problem. The undiscovered artist that gets no acclaim could say that the whole world is wrong. Or he could decide to work for people who don’t know his work yet. But he’s working for an audience, even when it’s a virtual or future one.

Van Gogh

Portrait of Van Gogh

Van Gogh did not sell much during his lifetime. He was not rich when he died. He had only one big fan, his brother. Who did he paint for ? Was what he did meaningful, or mad ?
Meaningfulness and meaningful work is the key to engagement.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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