‘Meaningful Work’ as the Last Motivator of Overwork

I am deeply concerned about overwork and about the overvaluation of work in Western culture. I have had far too many philosophical conversations with young and old over the years not to be so concerned. Most insidious, I have come to believe, has been the coinage of “meaningful work” and the hungry aspiration on the part of many to do meaningful work. I realize that this claim about its being so insidious may sound paradoxical, hyperbolic, or simply flat out wrong.

But we must face the facts (1-3, 6), a reasonable prediction (4), and a potent interpretation (5):

1.) According to Max Roser, a visual data researcher at Oxford, looking at data from 1974-2013: “Income inequality in the US is rising (probably not good)” and “Incomes are stagnating for most Americans (bad).”

2.) A very large number of people has credit card and student loan debt. Average college debt is $27,000 USD and up to $200,000 USD for those finishing law school or medical school. (As I have argued elsewhere, the perverse point of debt is to ensure that we’re committed to working.)

3.) Millennials in their early 20s are changing jobs once every 16 months and as often as once ever 3 years for those in their mid-20s.

4.)  Technological innovation in the coming decades will likely wipe out well-paying jobs in industries that have, so far, been most immune to such attacks.

5.) Most work today–especially service work–is manifestly what David Graeber calls “bullshit work.”

6.) It is becoming more commonplace for work to include (1) “shadow work” (all the things one is nudged to do outside of an office) and (2) “emotional labor” (all the ways that people are supposed to emote chipperness.) Shadow work is spreading to part-time employment and emotional labor to from lower to higher ranks.

Such is meant to open up a more accurate picture of work life today. Now for a few theses:

I. Most have adopted the Max Weberian view that we live in order to work.

II. Most believe that we are “supposed” to be working throughout the good part of each day and for the rest of our lives.

III. Those I speak with in entrepreneurial and innovation circles unduly narrow down “meaningful work” to that which is identified with “social change.”

The facts, the interpretations, the theses all show the extent of the mess we’re in.

Now for the conceptual innovation: “meaningful work.” I believe that the concept “meaningful work” operates as the last huge motivator to get people to work so much, for so long, with such dogged commitment to the point of wear-out, burnout, and death. If there were an evil demon, he would say to us, “I will not give you more money; you’ll get less. I won’t give you greater stability; you will feel greater and greater precarity. I won’t give you more leisure time or anything like this. No, everything about life will be harder. What I will give you is ‘meaningful work,’ and because you ‘love’ doing ‘meaningful work,’ you will put everything you have into it. So, you will be doing what you love!”

There is no such evil demon at this stage of capitalism. It is worse than that: a form of self-enslavement in which, as one conversation partner put it recently, “the winners are losers.”

Must we continue to fall into this trap, hungering after “meaningful work”? Or could we begin to think otherwise and look elsewhere? Could we start off with thinking about how to live simply? What role should work play in a well-led life? What role should leisure play? If we do start to think otherwise (and how!), we’ll quickly discover that many of our assumptions about how we live will have to be interrogated and let go of and that we’ll have to live otherwise.

Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’


Call me puzzled. I can’t help but recall a wealthy man I used to tutor while I was living in New York City. He was an heir to a famous American dynasty and was doubtless so wealthy that none of his grandchildren would ever need to work. Despite this, he worked very long hours, founding and co-founding companies, some of which would be very familiar to you. Why would someone who doesn’t have to work long, hunger to work–and to do scarcely anything else?

I’ve only begun reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was originally published in 1899. On the opening pages, Veblen makes plain that barbarian cultures initiated a class distinction between laborers and elites (who were engaged, variously, in politics, warfare, religion, and sport). Until very recently in human history, it simply appeared self-evident that, provided that an economic order had advanced to the point at which not everyone needed to work (there could be slaves, women, and a class of male laborers, say), leisure was regarded as obviously preferable to working, that one worked (if one did, if one had to) for the sake of leisure, and that whatever we mean by ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘significance’ must needs be sought in non-work. Furthermore, leisure was the honorable, dignified, laudatory term and the second term–whatever is not leisure, i.e., work–would be derived from the leisure concept.

It is therefore surprising (a) that the wealthy, early 50-something man I used to tutor should choose to spend most of his life working and (b) that someone who is out of work would, even if financially secure, find his life boring because he is not working. What is going on? It is a question I cannot yet answer.

Continue reading “Two boo’s for ‘living in order to work’”

On leaving New York City

The time I spent in Scandinavia last month has led me to reflect upon the nature and course of my life. In an attempt to lead a simpler life (see Guidebook to Philosophical Life, Chapter 7: Living Simply), one that is more in tune with nature, I’m considering the possibility of moving away from New York City. The move may occur, if it does, as early as the end of September. My hope is that it will give me the leisure and contemplative silence I need in order to think seriously and finish my book on radiance.

In the short term, I’m looking for someone living around the New York City area who may be in need of a house sitter for a spell. In the longer term, I imagine I’ll be living closer to the countryside. If you have any house sitting leads, you can contact me via the Contact form or by email.



On cat days

When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; and when I am walking alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are sometimes elsewhere, for most of the time I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

–Montaigne, Essays


Watch the tabby cat. She basks and when she’s not basking, she preens. Anon, she stretches her tummy toward the earth and sky. Maybe she takes a bite or two. Or maybe her paws need flexing, so she flexes them a few times. That’s enough. The shimmering blinds now catch her eyes. Not now, though. Later perhaps. She basks some more, then awakes. Ah, the blinds: they’re stirring still she sees. Like a dancer, she catches them off guard, mid-swat.

When she has a minute to herself, she consults her checklist: play, bask, sleep, eat, swat. Yes.


Do you know that, in the winter, I like to wake up before the sun? I like to sit and watch the sun come up from my window seat. In the spring, I wake up with the sun but in the winter before. In the winter, I sleep longer and move more slowly. I can’t help it. It’s OK.

At 9 o’clock, I pause and listen for a moment, sometimes two, to the church bells ringing nearby. Ah, still out of tune, still lovely. At noon, the same, also the same tune. At 6 o’clock, it is now dark, has already been dark since half past 4.

A few weeks ago, the churchmen threw me for a loop. They changed the tune on me. At first, I was sad, a little, a little sad, but after a while I grew to love the 6 o’clock song as much as I love the 9 and 12.

In winter, my body gets tired early. Reading is the first chapter of sleeping. But before going to bed, I like to lie on the floor and think about the day. I think about the people I help, and I wonder whether I’m helping. At all. Enough. Ever. Enough. Sometimes I’m sad because–I don’t know why–maybe it’s because I said the wrong words at the wrong time or maybe it’s because I misled her by accident. But, to be honest, most of the time I’m not sad. I think I’m doing good and I think they’re doing good. To me, the day was sweet.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Spiritual Exercise: On Giving Pleasures Their Due”

‘Leisure is a school of wisdom’

Procellous \proh-SEL-uhs\, adjective:

Stormy, as the sea.

The plan traced on our chart will lead us through oceans procellous and perilous straits, amid regions where the atmosphere is cheerless and the sun’s rays are pale, and the spring blossoms no sooner unfold their petals than they droop and languish.

— C.C.C.P. Silva, M.D., The Western Medical Reporter, Vol. 10


Don DeLillo’s Thoughts on Daydreaming

A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it…. One’s personality and vision are shaped by other writers, by movies, by paintings, by music. But the work itself, you know–sentence by sentence, page by page–it’s much too intimate, much too private, to come from anywhere but deep within the writer himself. It comes out of all the time a writer wastes. We stand around, look out the window, walk down the hall, come back to the page, and, in those intervals, something subterranean is forming, a literal dream that comes out of daydreaming. It’s too deep to be attributed to clear sources. (Quoted in Michael Casey, Strangers to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of the Rule of Saint Benedict, p. 35)

Michael Casey’s Case for Leisure

There are two happy outcomes to a satisfactory resolution of the issue of leisure: mindfulness and patience. Mindfulness comes from having learned to listen to reality and not reducing it to echoes of what is happening inside ourselves. We put aside our heedless habits and begin to pay serious attention to the world outside. Today matters. This is the day the Lord has made; it is the only one that we have. From this we have also come to realize that before we act, we need to accept that there is a season for everything under the sun (Eccl. 3:1). Leisure teaches us to recognize that everything is to be done at the opportune time, as Benedict insists (31:18, 68:2). We have learned to read the signs of the times as a means of ensuring that our action is called forth by the objective needs of the situation and not by our subjective need to act. In many cases we need space and time to consider at what moment our contribution will bear the fairest fruit. In the final analysis, leisure is a school of wisdom. (Ibid, pp. 36-7)

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “On Smoking”

Andrew Taggart, “On Psalm 118.24 and Cosmic Gratitude”