Finding a Deeper Meaning in Work

While it’s easy to get distracted by our crumbling economy and day-to-day concerns, we shouldn’t lose track of the bigger picture.

Ah, September. End of summer. Back to school. And, of course, back to work. But this week, instead of the typical practical DLandroid24 advice, I’d like to reflect on a more lofty subject. (Don’t be frightened. In the next DL24 column, I’ll bring it back down to earth with “The Art of E-Mail.”)

Now is the perfect time to take stock of your career and life.

As you do so, allow me, if you will, to challenge you to think more broadly about your job and how what you do fits into the world at large. Here’s the big, heavy question: How does your work help or hinder humankind?

So you’re thinking, “Huh? How could I possibly have time to consider this enormous question in the midst of an economic slowdown?” But you should be asking yourself this question at critical junctures in your career — even if you’re between jobs and don’t feel as if you have the luxury of pursuing anything nonpragmatic. An inspired perspective will make you not only more effective and energized at work, but also more attractive to potential employers.

With more than 770,000 U.S. jobs cut in the first six months of 2001, the telecom and high-tech sectors routed, and the Dow hovering below 10,000, you may ask what there is to be inspired by and thankful for these days. I’d say quite a lot.

First of all, even in our current economic mess, we still live in the most bountiful country in the world. As a professional workforce, we are extraordinarily privileged. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, our national unemployment rate as of April 2001 was 4.5 percent. That’s about half the average unemployment rate of the eight largest nations in Europe (8.2 percent) and even lower than that of Japan (4.8 percent). In the United States, the median household income is more than $36,000 (and the income of Business 2.0 readers is significantly greater than that). That averages out to about $100 a day. Thank your lucky stars for this, considering that outside our country, two billion people earn less than $2 a day!

Today, instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses, we should be concerning ourselves with the ever-widening economic gap between the haves and have-nots, both inside and outside the United States.

In his commencement speech at Vassar College earlier this year, author Stephen King made this point in a graphic way. “Picture the classic American family barbecue in the backyard surrounded by a white picket fence,” King said. “The dad is by the grill, with his big belly protruding from the apron. The mom and two boisterous kids are at the picnic table and all look as if they too have had too much fast food. And then slowly and steadily, hungry people start gathering all around the picket fence, looking longingly at the meal being wolfed down without even a thought. They don’t want to hurt you, but they stare on just the same, wanting to eat some of the crumbs. Well, this is how billions of people around the world look at the United States.” Pretty sobering picture.

Second, it bears remembering that business and professional challenges are rarely life-or-death issues. To demonstrate, ask yourself this simple question: As the world heads down its current path, what should we fear most? When I reflect on this, my list includes global warming and other environmental threats, such as the receding rain forests and shrinking water tables; the 50 percent of the world that suffers from malnutrition; the widening economic gaps in the United States as well as between our nation and the rest of the world; illiteracy among children and the broken U.S. public school system; debilitating diseases, such as AIDS and cancer, and the alarming rise of other diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, and food allergies; rogue nations and militant political factions with access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; and the intractability of interracial and ethnic intolerance.

Notice what is not on this list? The falling stock market, devalued employee options, and laid-off dotcommers. Let’s put what we all do in perspective.

Finally, as you chart your career and life course, consider working for companies that address issues you care about. For instance, take a look at Edison Schools and its attempts to improve K-12 education, or Amgen and its lifesaving biomedical innovations. If you can’t find an employer with a mission you admire, you can always donate your time or money outside of work to organizations that focus on important issues.

By thinking a little differently about what we do, we all have the opportunity to help address some of society’s most pressing issues. In the past decade, we’ve made tremendous strides in scientific, intellectual, and technological realms. Now let’s see if we can do the same to advance the social good worldwide.

Posted by on September 1, 2001