meaningful work

I’m going to take a little break from running and gardens and scenery today to talk about work.

I love my job

I get to hang around with intelligent, lovely people who want to, and do, make the world a better place. I work in a university, so I have access to an academic library – a place of joy. I have decent working conditions, good pay, plenty of holidays and an understanding, supportive boss. There’s even a lake full of geese near my office. Two days a week I get to work at home.

I’m aware that I’m fortunate. (I’m also aware that it took me many long years of doing less cheerful jobs alongside studying to get here, so it’s not all down to luck). I know a lot of the enjoyment of work comes from the people you work with, and right now I am glad to say I am not surrounded by idiots.

I spend my working days doing the things you’d imagine from a university researcher. Interviewing people, reading academic papers, and, at the minute, talking to the people who live and work in care homes. One of my projects is ending, so we’ve made a short film, and will soon present our work at conferences. There are meetings, of course – both ordinary departmental meetings, and with people trying to set up new collaborations. I write – journal articles, blog posts, funding applications.

Some of this feels like work, and I roll my eyes as much as anyone at the nonsense I sometimes encounter, but most days I feel excited by what I do, interested in what’s going on around me, and privileged to meet people who’ve led such fascinating lives.

What counts as work?

I think a lot about the nature of ‘work’ in general, and a few questions are rolling round in my head.

  • What counts as ‘work’?
  • Does work need to be meaningful? To you? Or to others?
  • Is it important to enjoy your work?

On a straightforward level, ‘work’ is what you do to earn money. It’s both the place you go to (whether physically or otherwise) and the things you do while you’re there, for which you’re given money in return. (Of course, plenty of people do unpaid voluntary work, but I want to write separately about that, and plenty of ‘work’ that should be paid, isn’t, but I’m not talking about that either right now).

Do some jobs count more as ‘work’ than others? I don’t mean are they harder work – it’s always going to be impossible to say whether being a farmer is more difficult than being a surgeon, for example.

We all know working in a shop, or a factory, or a school is ‘work’, and so is being a nurse, a pilot, or a bin man.

But what about being an artist? A musician? A writer? Are they jobs? Do they count as work? To the person doing them, yes, but to outsiders?

I’ve been mulling over these thoughts for a while, but finally sat down to write after yesterday finding myself in a poetry workshop, during work time. I don’t think of myself as a poet, and yesterday didn’t change that, but yesterday I did write poetry.

We were meant to be writing poetry about chronic illness, but as well as that we wrote about hair, families, bullying, dreams, and we pretended bad things that had happened never did.

And, get this, I enjoyed it.

Our small group left feeling energised, confident, and with a new way to explore the things we experience and research every day. We felt uplifted, and in the afternoon I bounced along, full of enthusiasm for both work and life.

Does work only count as ‘work’ if you don’t enjoy it?

What counts as meaningful work?

When I did my PhD I struggled to answer the question ‘but what’s it for?’ As far as people (including me) could see, it wasn’t going to change the world. I didn’t produce anything practical, like a glass jar or a banana or a pillowcase. So why bother?

A PhD is more understandable if you think of it as an apprenticeship. Yes, some people’s PhDs are more immediately useful, but what they all do is train you in the craft of being a researcher. Now I am a fully fledged researcher, my research is more ‘applied’, which means that I often research a particular thing (a policy, or an intervention) to see how well it’s working, and how it could be done better. It might not have a short term impact on people’s, but I’m hopeful that in the longer term, it will make some people’s lives better.

In that way, my work feels meaningful, both to me, and for other people.

But what if I worked in an archaeology department and researched the lives of people living in neolithic villages? Or in an English department, researching the work of an obscure seventeenth century writer? What if I adored my job, and others appreciated me doing it, but it didn’t make a difference in a practical way that other people (outside my field) could understand?

Would it still be meaningful? Would it be a legitimate job to have?

I write this, not because I think archeologists or English academics or artists or musicians don’t have meaningful jobs – far from it. I’d love to do the work that many of them do.

I’m writing this because I find myself too scared to think about doing a job that isn’t ‘practical’, at least in some way, in case people disapprove.

Which, now I’ve written it, seems quite ridiculous.

Or is it? I’ve heard people in similar jobs to mine criticise others in the university for doing ‘things that have no practical value’. I’ve heard people tell artists to ‘get a real job’. Some people think it’s acceptable not to pay the musicians at a music festival, but have no problem paying people who work behind the bar, mop the floor, collect the glasses, or work in the tea tent.


Is it because those jobs aren’t ‘fun’ in the same way as being a musician is supposed to be ‘fun’? Does something stop being ‘work’ once you start enjoying it – and should you therefore stop being paid for it?

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. Sometimes I feel I’d love to be a poet, but what stops me (apart from the fact that I can’t write poetry) is what other people will think.

I don’t know why I care.

But somehow, it seems, I do.

You know what, though? The man leading our workshop yesterday has touched the lives of far more people than I have. More people have walked away from him with a smile on their face and a lift in their heart than have ever done so from me.

And I like it that we live in a world with art and books and music. Can you imagine if we didn’t? I like it that people spend time finding out about ancient civilisations, and obscure writers, and any other interesting thing that on the face of it doesn’t seem ‘useful’ at all.

I wouldn’t want a world without any of those things.

So maybe it’s about time I changed my attitide. Maybe it’s about time that I stopped worrying about what other people think of what I do.

Which opens up a whole new question:

What would I do if I could do anything in the world?

I’ll get back to you on that one…

What do you think about work? What would you do if you could do anything?

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5 Responses to meaningful work

  1. Hazel says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who worries about things like this!
    I always knew I wanted to do something ‘useful’. I now have children and that does make you a bit more prosaic about life. I want to set an example to them about what I think is right, but equally there’s a bigger responsibility to provide food, shelter and security. I think I still have a rather idealistic idea from my teens that I don’t want a job purely for the money, even though the money is exactly what we work for.

    My dream job would be as a historical re-enactor. Apart from the fact that they tend to only be employed during the summer, making it an impractical job choice for me, is that useful? I think it is (you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been etc) but I’m the only person I know who would feel the need to justify it! Second choice profession (or maybe simultaneous?) would be potter (I haven’t made a pot for 25 years) with a small flock of sheep that I shear to spin (can’t spin), knit and felt with with a sideline of sheeps milk cheese. Realistic dreams!

    It is tempting to feel that work should have to be drudgery, but I don’t want to live in a world without art or music and I can’t expect that to be free, so it has to be someone’s job. Whether that job is worth millions of pounds, compared to the salary for caring for someone’s granny or teaching their children is a whole other question…

    Sorry, long comment, but I like this (part of a longer) quote by Tim Kreider; ‘More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.’ He’s actually talking about the delusion of busyness- that perhaps we kid ourselves our jobs are indispensable because they’re not. So many friends can’t explain their partners jobs. It’s usually selling something, but is very complicated and involves flying internationally. And I just want to ask why?!

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. Sorry for the rather rambling reply!

  2. cherisong says:

    Brilliant post and very thought provoking. I love thinking of you musing on this. As a child I dreamed of doing something artistic, dance, act, write, play a musical instrument (you know the story of the triangle) but I was always told that “wasnt a job” Ok, I said I will do something involving travel, courier, travel writer, expeditionist “but they aren’t proper jobs” came back the answer ( I should point out that this was always by teachers)so I thought that I should do something that would help people or change the world instead, that was a proper job right? 28 years later I have worked in Social Welfare, politics and now a charity helping young people. Have I felt that the jobs are worthwhile, absolutely, have I helped people? Of course. Is it any more important or worthwhile than, say, a cleaner or a bin man, a brain surgeon or a NASA astronauts? No, but it is equal to them. Without cleaners people wouldnt be able to carry on working in dirty offices or visitors to businesses would have the wrong impression and stop providing business, without binmen we would be back to plague ridden cities. Brain surgeons save people’s lives but so do bin men if you really think about it. Astronauts are carrying out research that advance medicine and technology whilst you carry out research that helps to understand how that kind of thing needs to be utilised to best serve their needs. The problem with the world of work is that people believe that some things are more important than others because they dont think deeply enough about it. Since the industrial revolution people have been forced into working in industries that they would never have chosen because they have to provide for their family. It is common for children to know what they want to do with brought up to believe that enjoying what you do is as important as making money then I guess we would all be more likely to accept musicians, artists, writers and the like as providing us a service equally as important ( more so in my opinion) than the man in the electrical store selling me a telly.
    Sorry long post

  3. Ooh interesting post. You could go back to childhood. How many children dream of being ballet dancers or astronauts but give up the dream as they get older to get a “proper job”

    I’m a part time youth worker and as I work from home (except for clubs etc) people make assumptions. They assume I don’t work as I am at home with my son and at the school gates every day picking up my daughter. Assumptions are also made that I only “play” with the children so don’t need to be paid for it as it’s not *really* work!

    Assumptions are quite often made that as I am at home I am not working. People expect me to be able to drop things and meet up with them or host them if they pop round with no warning.

    Would my job be viewed differently if I physically went to an office every day? Probably.

    • Really interesting stuff there about working at home and other people impinging on your time! And I think sometimes maybe people think ‘anyone could do that, it’s only…’ and diminish it a bit. But all jobs have their own skills and they should be appreciated.

      Thank you all for such thoughtful comments, obviously prompted people to think about things there!


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