The Search For Meaningful Work

By Francisco Dao , written on July 24, 2012

From The News Desk

My old roommate “Joe” hated his job, even though there really wasn’t anything to hate. He was a white collar guy working in the finance department of a big tech company and frankly, the job was everything he could have expected, growing up as an average kid in San Jose. But to hear him talk about it, it was lacking in every way.

Of course he compared himself to his friends who made more money, and how at the age of 32 he “deserved” to be doing better, but his strangest complaint came one day while watching TV. I don’t remember the exact show. "Biker Build-Off," I think. But Joe, who was one of the least mechanically inclined people I’d ever met, turned to me and said, “Look at these guys. At the end of the day they’ve built a motorcycle. What have I done? I just move numbers around on a spreadsheet!” And with that complaint, he got me thinking about entrepreneurship in a whole new way.

Most people think starting a company is about being your own boss or making a lot of money. Some say it’s about changing the world, but if we’re being completely honest that’s mostly just self-affirmation talk, since few of our companies will make a lasting difference. But maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about changing the whole world but just finding meaning in our own world.

One of the key components to finding long term happiness is doing meaningful work. But in the modern world, meaningful work has become increasingly more difficult to find. A couple of hundred years ago, a person could look back on a day and see the field they planted that would feed their family. Today, we often don’t know what our work produces.

Instead, many of us find ourselves doing jobs by rote without any connection to why or what we’re accomplishing. For Joe “moving numbers around on a spreadsheet” seemed to produce nothing and therefore meant nothing. How he could wake up everyday and knowingly barter away the significance of his life for a biweekly paycheck was beyond my understanding.

I wonder how many of us became entrepreneurs because we were searching for meaning, trying to fill a void. I suspect the number is significant. Of course, most entrepreneurs subscribe to the belief that they have to present a perfect facade and would never admit to such a personal weakness. But I don’t see the quest for meaning as a defect. To the contrary, I think all human beings crave a meaningful life, and I wonder what opiate the working man has used to numb his passion for living that he can grind through the days, year in and year out, without producing any work that instills him with pride.

If anything, we should embrace the search for meaning, for it is a far more satisfying prize than the spoils of the mercenaries who become entrepreneurs for ulterior motives. Meaning is what draws people to this community, what gives it energy, and what makes it always feel like there is something special about being a part of it. But just as easily as Hollywood stars so often lose their way amidst the trappings of fame and fortune, we too can find ourselves on top of the world with everything but our integrity, if we don’t stay focused on what drove us to start the climb in the first place.

I often hear a hint of disdain in people’s voices when they ask me how I plan on scaling 50Kings, since it’s impossible to scale, as if scale is the only thing that matters. The question saddens me a bit, not because I’m offended but because it’s clear they’ve failed to understand the “why” behind what I do. When I tell them, “Why would I scale it? I get to share amazing experiences with people whose companionship I don’t deserve. Why would I want to risk screwing that up by scaling it?” the answer they always come back with is, “to make more money.” But I would never trade something that I find so meaningful for a few extra dollars.

When I was in my 20s, I had several businesses, none of which I cared about. I started them or got involved with them because the math made sense, but they held no meaning for me. And even when they were doing well I found myself chained to an intolerable master, asking myself the same question that Joe would ask me several years later, “What have I done?”

In many ways those who become entrepreneurs for reasons other than to create meaningful work for themselves have squandered the greatest opportunity. Maybe the question shouldn’t be “Are you changing the world?” but the more personal “Does this really mean something to you?” If it doesn’t, you may as well be my old roommate Joe.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]