The Future of Work and Purpose
An essay on our work, on our purpose, and how I hope it evolves to better serve our futures.
I have been struggling recently with the thought of work and purpose.
I was raised in a household that was solidly subscribed to the American Dream. My path was set in stone from birth. I watched my father make a decent living in a white collar job and support his two daughters under this dream. I saw the step up he took from his own father’s path — a blue collar plumber. I saw the power in his college degree, the things he attained by sticking to the prescribed plan. To be successful, I was to go to college, work hard, and then I would experience success. He would tell me, on country drives in his used car:
Rigor, Veronica. You need rigor to survive in this world.
Those words are burned deeper in my mind than my tattoos are in my own skin. Rigor.
So I did this. I went to college in a lucrative and promising career field. I got a ‘good job’, and I worked hard. I fit the traditional criteria that were outlined for me, and I followed the plan. Or so I thought.
At the end of this plan, I found myself sitting in a job that didn’t serve me — feeling deeply unhappy.
Why? Because this work didn’t fulfill my life’s purpose. While I’m not entirely sure of my life’s purpose (yet), I knew that it wasn’t this. I began to consider where I might have gone wrong in my plan. Did I choose the wrong lucrative career field? Did I pursue the wrong name brand on my college degree? Am I in the wrong place?
After some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not the one that’s disillusioned. I believe that the one that’s wrong is the plan I followed — this American Dream, is broken.
This American Dream, is broken.
I mean this quite literally. I think that we were all lied to. The reality is that even if you stick to the plan — get educated, work hard, then find success — that last step isn’t a promise. You can do everything right in life, and still fail. This lie is so prevalent right now. We’re seeing skyrocketing rates of unemployment due to COVID. Millions of people who stuck to the plan, suddenly jobless. Student debt is at an all time high, in a time when one in three young graduates are underemployed in their jobs.
Why are we all fighting for this broken model of success?
Because it’s what we’ve been taught our whole lives. We have no other model to follow, and uncertainty is even scarier than the threat of failure. As a society, we’ve been taught to recognize that 9-to-5 employment is our meaning in life. We’re meant to wake up, press pause on our lives, go to work for a paycheck, and then come home and hit resume.
I saw this in my father. A company man, he’d take his dutiful commute to work each morning and clock in. At nights when he was home, he’d hit resume on the things he loved. His very passions in life were his hobbies. I used to sit, watching him tinker at his workbench in the basement each night. He was a man who could fix anything that you set on that work bench. Crafting intricate jewelry boxes from wood, restoring old cars, helping me build my first guitar. I would watch two different men wake up, depending on the day. On weekdays, one dreading the journey to his 9-to-5. Sometimes 8-to-6. Sometimes, “When is Dad coming home?” On the weekends, the man who would bound into my room and ask: “Do you want to go build some stairs?”
We let our passions become hobbies. We call our life’s work just a paycheck. And while this isn’t true for all, we’ve too peacefully accepted it as our majority. I think there’s a better way.
A future of meaningful work
When I quit my last job, I told them it was because it was not my passion. I recognized that I was privileged to be able to do so. I had skills that I could use to freelance and earn money on my own, putting me in a place where I could kiss a W2 and stable employment goodbye. But, at the same time, I don’t think I’m that special. I think that everyone has skills, passions, and talents.
I see a viable path to a good life for everyone. A life where they can move their passions from hobbies to their life’s work again. That is a better world, and some that creates a better dream.
My only remaining question is:
How do I make that dream come true?