Purpose in life: “The poetry of work”

Purpose in life: “The poetry of work”

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In a recent column, “Labours of love,” Robert Fulford writes “an ode to those who take pride in their work.” He observes moving-company workers, a streetcar driver, and others who are outstanding in their work, as opposed to doing just the acceptable minimum. Fulford calls this the “poetry of labour:” people carrying out their jobs like professionals, delivering excellent performance and making their work enjoyable, and even a source of happiness, instead of drudgery.

Why do people adopt such approach to work?

For most of us, work demands a major share of time and energy. Sustaining life is a significant effort and the need for material values from meals and clothes to health insurance and cell phones is ongoing. If we approach work as drudgery, a necessary evil we must do in order to sustain our lives, it is difficult to be happy, enjoying life only in our spare time.

If work is meaningless drudgery, it is impossible to achieve a crucial value we need: a central purpose. Why do we need a central purpose and why must it come from work?

As Ayn Rand observed, life is a process of goal-oriented action. Either we pursue values continually or we die. We need material and non-material values on an ongoing basis to sustain and enjoy our lives. Food, clothing, shelter, art, recreation, entertainment, travel do not exist ready-made in nature but must be created.

To obtain all the values we need and want, a shotgun approach—randomly pursuing one value or another—will not work. How do we know how much time, effort and resources to devote to pursuing the necessities of physical survival and other values, such as spending time with family or friends, enjoying music, playing sports, and traveling?

Rand explains that as the major claimant of our time and effort, productive work provides the central purpose that helps to place the rest of our values in a hierarchy. A central purpose enables us to determine how much time and resources to allocate to each value, which makes achieving them possible. Work must be at the top of the hierarchy, regardless of the field and the particular job—a cook, a sales clerk, a hair stylist, a mechanic, a software developer.

Besides giving us the income for acquiring material values, when approached as “poetry” productive work gives us enjoyment and a central purpose that helps us rank and achieve the rest of our values.

The rest of the values and their ranking vary from one person to another, depending on their particular circumstances and interests. Typically these values include social relationships, recreation and entertainment. Such values cannot be the central purpose in a person’s life. (Stay-at-home parents are not excluded:  raising children is work). Rather, other values are a form of reward enjoyed after productive work.  Living vicariously through others (one’s children, family, or friends) cannot provide the central purpose of living one’s own life and achieving one’s own values.

Similarly, endless recreational pursuits such as travel, sports, or shopping, cannot provide a central purpose, as anyone who tries to fill their days with them will eventually discover. (This excludes travel writers, professional athletes, and personal shoppers, or anyone who pursues similar fields as careers).  

Even in retirement we need a central purpose (barring physical and mental incapacity) to organize our values in a hierarchy and to achieve them. However, when we are retired (or independently wealthy), the central purpose does not have to come from paid productive work. The source of purpose could be some meaningful activity such as a serious hobby, working for a cause important to us, or pursuing artistic creation.

In his ode to those who take pride in their work, Fulford includes his own father, manager of the national news at the Canadian Press agency. He remembers visiting the Canadian Press office as a child on a day of a disastrous fire in the Toronto harbor and observing his father calmly and competently directing subordinates amidst chaos.

Fulford writes: “Watching him, I realized that he loved his work because of what it demanded of him, in good times and bad. He was attentive, alert, purposeful. Working, he came alive.”

What Fulford observed was “poetry of work.”

“Poetry of work” is worth pursuing. It gives us purpose—and it gives us happiness.

Photo by Aaron Huber on Unsplash.

Originally posted 8 September 2013.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.