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The third "exercise" in I Could Do Anything, If I Only Knew What It Was by Barbara Sher is called "meaningful work."

Take out a piece of paper and write down as much as you can about what you think the world calls "meaningful work." If you wish, name some people whose lives seem especially significant and explain why you think so. What makes work really worthy? Don't worry if anyone else would agree with you, you can't make a mistake here because we just need to find out what you think.

I thought about this, and had decided to post only a cursory response to this blog. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't know how to say it. Then, in a comment to my previous post on this topic, dblume saved me the effort with this observation:

"One of the questions in Inside Job was "Why is Wall St. so openly
corrupt, say, when compared to Silicon Valley?" The answer came back,
"Because we're not generating anything of value. All we do is attempt
to create the illusion of value to a prospective buyer to make our money
on the transaction. In Silicon Valley, they get to invent new stuff and
create new things of value."

This was exactly how I wanted to define "meaningful work." Meaningful work is about making things that have a purpose. Meaningful work is digging rocks out of the ground, smelting them into iron and steel, and building a railroad across a continent.

Okay, I know, "what about the environment," "what about the indigenous peoples." Look, it's an example, okay?

Bill Gates does meaningful work. He and his team of "smart guys" created real, tangible, useful products we all use or enjoy every day and which actually reshaped the way the world does things. He made a huge pile of money along the way, and now he uses that wealth as efficiently as possible to improve the lives of millions of people in the most impoverished areas of the world by focusing on specific, targeted, cost-effective strategies for eliminating (not "fighting" or "treating," but "eliminating") disease.

On the flip side, Gates' friend Warren Buffett made a similarly huge pile of money doing... nothing real. As dblume notes, Buffett operates in the world of "creat[ing] the illusion of value to a prospective buyer" rather than "invent[ing] new stuff and creat[ing] new things of value."

That's "meaningful work": making stuff. Anybody who makes things or does real, tangible, physical work is doing meaningful work, whether it's forging ocean liners out of melted desert rocks, hanging drywall, or mowing a lawn.

Of course, this exercise didn't leave me feeling particularly inspired. I have the skill set to mow the lawn (although maintaining a lawn mower is pushing my limits), but I don't like doing it. And even though I've read Atlas Shrugged, I would have no idea how to even begin setting up a steel mill.

It's reassuring to find agreement in my assessment of "meaningful work," though. Thanks, dblume!


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2011 08:34 pm (UTC)
Meaning-full works ... meaningfuill to who?

When you do something that other people notice and remember, things that change how other people act and live, then you are doing meaningfull work. (Notice I didn't say people should remember who did it, they just should remember and be grateful for the result)
Now that doesn't have to be physical. At all.

Actually, I put teaching near the top of the list of meaningful work. Cause teaching makes a difference.
Sep. 1st, 2011 10:58 pm (UTC)
I have to agree with Sjon. You're definitely doing meaningful work, being a teacher. It may not feel like it some days when you're hampered by policies and lack of resources, but ultimately you are making a difference.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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