Finding the meaning in work again

[With asides.]

I think there is an epidemic going on at the moment. I think that for many people, work has lost meaning—or, they are struggling to make their jobs mean something within the context of so many other things going on: personal challenges and transitions, our political crisis, civil and human rights violations happening right before our eyes.

I used to believe I had a foolproof, clever hack for making my job mean something: work for mission-minded organizations in the social sector. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always been able to picture myself being  creatively fulfilled in for-profit jobs, too, and I am completely unopposed to making the type of money that lets me travel and pay for my kids’ education. But I can’t describe how earth-shattering it was to work at my first nonprofit job; to understand that society has these ginormous, fucked-up things going on, and that one of the best ways to NOT let these problems drag on and on and ON was to have smart, passionate people fight against that inertia. It was a huge privilege to be one of the warriors, for as many years as I got to do it.

(Aside #1: that first nonprofit job, I went from the rarefied, happy-happy world of children’s book publishing to a nonprofit organization that provided alternative sentencing for young kids and minor offenders headed for jail or prison. For the first six months of that job, I was like, holy shit, holy shit. I could not believe how so many young people faced messed-up lives from day one. I couldn’t believe how many kids I met who had all the natural gifts and talents I and my privileged friends had been born with, yet they had never known lives without gun violence, without knowing someone addicted to crack cocaine, without having incarcerated family members.)

So working in the nonprofit and then philanthropy sectors: I felt as if my work had purpose. I was fulfilled. This was a good feeling to have because at the same time, I was also realizing that work is work. There’s joy and satisfaction to be found, always, in a job well-done, especially after one has put in much effort and creative thinking, but there are also aspects about work that just plain suck no matter what you do. It sucks to have days when you get up to go to work in darkness and you come home in darkness. It sucks to feel chained to your desk, and peppered by endless emails. It sucks to encounter the same colleague archetypes no matter where you go, over and over again. Part of the issue of work suckiness is a peculiarly American problem, too—this society simply doesn’t value work-life balance, as evidenced by our retrograde attitudes towards things like health and exercise and national health insurance and minimum wage.

But when I had all those jobs in the social sector—working on health care reform and reproductive rights and education and climate change—I always felt like the purpose of the work outweighed the suckiness. That is, until recently.

I left my last job in December and by the time I left, I was terribly exhausted and stressed-out. I had a very long commute, I got up extremely early every morning to avoid the traffic and in bed by 8 pm, usually. I barely saw my family, except on weekends, and then I was usually exhausting myself running errands and doing domestic chores. I think my exhaustion and stress were compounded of all of those factors, but especially stemmed from the fact that I was holding the most senior position I had ever had during the time of the Trump assault.

(Aside #2: Why do I call it the Trump “assault?” Because fundamentally, that’s what it felt like—his words, his actions, and the actions and rhetoric of his Administration feel like an assault at every possible level of existence. There is the assault on values I hold dear, like, gender equality and equity and justice. There is the assault on the country I call my own, and love deeply in my soul. There is the assault on common sense, and decency, so unthinkable horrors suddenly become real, like letting people die after a hurricane in America and caging and bombing children. And finally, there is a feeling of being personally assaulted—of noticing how, since November 2016, more men scream toxic, sexist, racist things at me on the street or when I’ve been in my car, trapped in a traffic jam.)

The point of this post is not to say, it’s impossible to work during Trump! It’s more to ask: what do you DO about work when the equation changes? At my last job, my hack simply stopped working. As much as I loved that job, and that organization—and I really, really, loved them both, and still do—the sucky parts of the job were overwhelming the meaningful parts of the job.

I took the better part of 2018 off, and now have taken on a few consulting projects recently, despite my decision to look for a full-time job (or maybe because of that decision, because isn’t that the way life always works?). And I’m enjoying the consulting more than I thought I would, and loving the flexibility of my schedule. It gives me satisfaction to help my clients solve their work puzzles. It also gives me satisfaction to help people think about their careers and their lives. I’ve responded to many requests for mentoring and advice and resume-polishing help lately and it feels good, to be able to help others. It has given me satisfaction, too, to help my daughter get ready to go off to college. (Helping others, apparently, is the only thing that reliably makes someone feel good.)

But I find myself grappling with the prospect of a full-time job on an almost existential level. Like I said, I am feeling uncertain about whether the fundamental components make up a worthwhile job have changed. And I find myself asking the following questions:

–Is the objective to make work occupy less space in my life? (So I can spend more time writing. And breathing. Supporting my family. Making jam.)

–If work occupies less space in my life, does that mean that I can more easily tolerate the sucky parts of any job?

–If I can only find a job that occupies a great deal of space in my life, what, then, is the balance between meaningful purpose and the sucky parts? Because I’m not sure I have the energy to work through a bolus of sucky parts anymore. Out of the several jobs I’ve had, I’ve only worked at one organization where managers were properly supported and held accountable, where employees were valued and rewarded appropriately, where internal communications was as valued as external communications, where roles were clearly defined and understood. ONE. It’s daunting to think about finding another full-time job, with those odds.

I think these may be really, really important questions to think about, and it feels like so many others are facing similar questions. I suspect this is one of those times when the struggle – the feelings of being mired in uncertainty, of not knowing what the future holds—may be worth it, if it means gaining at least a measure of clarity on the balance between the meaningful parts of work and the sucky bits, and the balance between working for money, and doing the things that earning money enables one to do.