The Philosophy of Work

“When you find it hard to rise from your sleep, remind yourself that the fulfillment of your social duties accords with the requirements of your constitution and of human nature, whilst sleep is something that you share in common with animals devoid of reason.” -Marcus Aurelius

Sigmund Freud says in Civilization and Its Discontents that man needs two things for happiness: “Love and work, work and love." Here’s what matters first about work: we're meant for it. Even the laziest person in the world simply can’t be lazy all of the time. If you find that hard to believe, try going on vacation for a month or two. There’s a reason that after a significantly long period away from work, we’re ready to come back. Why? Because we’ve pent up all of this productive energy and we’re hungry to put it to use. As humans, we’re in our most natural state when producing.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [“meh-hall-ee cheek-sent-me-hall-yee”] writes in his book, Flow, about a study conducted amongst professionals in which their flow experiences were compared in two major settings: work and leisure time. For those who haven’t read the book and/or aren’t familiar with this psychological term, “flow” is the term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of optimal experience gained from complete immersion in one’s activity. Think of how you’re feeling whenever you’re doing your favorite thing (conversing with good friends, engaging in art, playing a game, etc.)—this is a time when you’re most commonly in flow. The necessary factors that must be present to achieve a flow state include the presence of some sort of challenge for which your skills are adequate, clear goals, and feedback.

So back to the study.

Csikszentmihalyi and his team gathered over a hundred working professionals during a weeklong period, equipping each of them with a pager that “beeped” at eight random points throughout the day and evening. At each randomly scheduled “beep,” the participant would write down what they were doing and how they felt at that very moment. The findings of the experiment can be best summed up by the following quote from Csikszentmihalyi. “What was unexpected [from this experiment] is how frequently people reported flow situations at work, and how rarely in leisure."

How interesting. In other words, people found “optimal experience” more often at work, than at leisure. We’re conditioned to see unstructured leisure time as an escape, expecting it to be supremely satisfying. What Csikszentmihalyi reveals to us here, in one of the most profound books I’ve read to-date, is just how inaccurate that conditioning really is. While rest and relaxation are good and necessary, they often don’t involve the engagement and concentration that are required of a truly satisfying experience (aka, flow). I’d confidently argue that society would be better off if individuals achieved flow in their lives more often. 

While some may have an increased level of ambition when it comes to their career pursuits, it's a safe argument that we're each at our best when engaged in deep work. Now, to confidently agree with that statement, we have to understand what we mean by “work.” Some of you may have a humdrum, relatively mindless job that’s not conducive to frequent flow experiences. While that's valid and worth recognizing, it doesn’t negate the idea that work is our most natural state.

Here’s why.

What’s that thing you’d be doing (or would want to do) if you weren’t working in your current job? [insert dream here] Think about what that would be, and freeze it in your mind for a second.

The very fact that you have an answer to that question is precisely what corroborates the concept of work being our natural state. Some of you may be thinking, “Obviously we have an answer. We have to work to survive, therefore work isn’t our natural state as much as it is our only option."

Wrong.

Imagine a society in which work was not your means of survival in the sense that we understand it (earning money to eat and live, etc.). In other words, imagine a society not predicated on the necessity of working. What would you be doing?

Working. You’d be playing the role most conducive to your strengths, talents and desires, and hopefully one that adds value to your community at the same time. Or would you expect everyone to just be, sitting around? We’re each too creative [read: desiring of productivity] at our cores for that to be the case.

The problem with work is in it’s narrow definition—not in the work itself. We’ve so closely associated work with survival in the monetary sense, that we assume the rest of life, aka leisure, is the only place we can be our truest selves. This mindset is a gross minimization of the significance of work. A simple change in our verbiage might help us to reframe this. Perhaps it shouldn’t be called “working for a living,” but maybe, “working for a being.” Because… To work is to be.

Think about that. Which question are you more inclined to answer with vigor? "What do you do for a living?" Or, “What do you do for a being?"

The response to the first question is [often] mindless; the response to the second is mindful. The second also holds us accountable to being intentional in what we pursue. Does our work bring forth some of the best parts of us? Just as we honor our work, our work, in a sense, should honor us. 

Okay. We’ve established that we, as human beings, are meant for work. Yet the deepest internalization of this fact doesn’t invalidate the reality that occasionally, we dread it. Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius addresses this very real dread in Meditations when he says, "I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for?"

When it comes to our work, we can either change it, or our view of it. The latter of which is always in our immediate control, and should thus, first and foremost, be our first course of business.

So when it comes to work, always remind yourself of the following three things:

  1. We were meant for work, and having any means of work is a blessing.
  2. Remember what my end goal is (I’ll be doing an extensive post on this concept at a later date, but for now, think of where you want to ultimately be, what you want to accomplish, the impact you want to have had, etc.).
  3. If my current situation aligns with my end goal, even in a slight way, I’m in the right place. If it doesn’t, waste no time in taking the necessary actions.

And let us not forget that no matter what work situation we find ourselves in, stress or frustration will inevitably rear its head at some point. The key is keeping perspective when this happens.

Okay. So we know that work is our natural (and often most rewarding) state. What do we do when, in spite of that fact, things get miserable? In addition to the three steps I listed just earlier, we must view philosophy as the ultimate aid to enduring. Before all else, your mind must be at peace. Leave it to my good friend Aurelius to put it best for us:

“So return to philosophy as often as you can, and take your rest in her; for it is through her that life at court seems bearable to you, and you bearable to your court.”

Re-read that in a modernized context by replacing the word “court” with “work.” It is through philosophy that life at work, despite the circumstance, is bearable. That’s why you don’t have to make rash decisions to quit. That’s why you don’t have to believe that you’re bound to a certain place forever. It’s because when you’ve taken your rest in philosophy, your mind is above the temporary. This frees us to enjoy work at its best, and peacefully trod forward at its worst.

"It’s because when you’ve taken your rest in philosophy, your mind is above the temporary."

"Love and work, work and love,” Freud says. We’ll get to the love part, but when we employ the right philosophy for work, we win much of life.