FINDING AND CREATING
Trust that which gives you meaning and accept it as your guide.
- Carl Jung
Meaning is very personal and unique to each individual and community. No one can judge another’s work and say it is meaningful or meaningless. But we can attempt to generalize and define it along the lines of wants and needs. Abraham Maslow famously created his hierarchy of needs: as each base need is satisfied, the next one up the pyramid becomes more important, beginning with physiological needs (food, water), to safety, belonging, esteem, and finally, self-actualization. Anyone engaged in fulfilling their own, other people’s, or their community’s real needs is probably doing meaningful work.
As an example, one could argue whether or not shaving is a need, but for many it is. Razors occurred in the Bronze Age, and a nick-name for the straight razor in modern times was “cut-throat” razor. The safety razor was invented in the mid-1800s and allowed more people to shave themselves safely.
The safety razor with disposable blades was invented in 1903. Was that meaningful? Then the dual blade safety razor was invented, and now we have 5 and 6 blade disposable safety razors that are silly and extremely wasteful. Consumers who were perfectly satisfied with the twin-blade safety razor can no longer buy one. Somewhere along the line inventing and making safety razors lost meaning by going from a need to a want and on to competitive one-upmanship.
To find or create meaningful work we first need to find our passion.People often misquote Joseph Campbell “Follow your bliss and the money will come.” But what he really said was “If you follow your bliss, you will always have your bliss, money or not. If you follow money, you may lose it, and you will have nothing.”
Then we can determine if our community’s needs fit with what we are here to do. Our community may not purchase a product or service that is our passion, so we either have to educate them so they understand the need, or support ourselves in other ways so we can do what is meaningful to us on our own time. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his life and was supported by his brother, but the world eventually caught up with his passion. How much are you willing to sacrifice to live your passion?
Another alternative is to either tweak our passion to fit the community, or tweak the community to fit our passion. Unfortunately, we live and work in a throwaway consumer culture, built on cheap energy, which is unsustainable and produces much that is totally meaningless, unneeded and harmful. But that is beginning to change as energy prices rise and we become more locally focused. Years ago E.F. Schumacher said, “Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant, and the beautiful.”
There is so much meaningful work that needs to be done to get us from where we are now to where we need to be that there is an almost limitless need for meaningful work that will match up with our own passion. If the community refuses to support your passion, then you may need to get passionate about changing the community. A local radio personality used to say “If you don’t like the news go out and make some of your own.”
Finding or organizing an affinity group is the final step. We are much more effective working together than working alone, and work is much more meaningful when it is part of a shared, cooperative process with others who have similar values. We may turn our group into a small, local business or a non-profit community organization. Purposeful, progressive change that makes the world a better place takes risk and daring by people who care and work together for the common good.
It is incredibly difficult to finance and build the successful entrepreneurial, outside financed, fast growth, early-exit, get rich quick business that is so celebrated by our business culture. And most of it is so meaningless -- little variations on a theme rather than something really new -- that the main motivation is often to get enough money that we can get drunk everyday and go sleep on the beach for the rest of our lives and never have to work again. Is this really what we all came here for?
The alternative is the local, small, service-oriented business that provides a service or products that are needed and delightful…friends and family scraping some capital together to create a business that serves its community, and that the community loves. As rising energy prices erode the economic viability of the huge transnational businesses with long supply lines that now dominate our economy, it will be the small local farms, shops, and trades that will once again form the heart of our communities.
The basics of good business will still hold: find a need -- a real need -- and fill it… organically, gently, non-violently, elegantly, and beautifully.
Dave Smith is the co-founder of Smith & Hawken and author of: To Be Of Use – The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work.
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