Do you love your job? Are you in love with it?
That’s what we expect to feel. Each day we’re sold a story of work – online, on tv, in magazines, music and movies. We’re told that work should be about two things: making money and finding fulfilment, our one true meaning as unique beings on this planet. Freelancing, the story goes, is meant to give us everything we dream of. But does it, truly?
Today’s world is more meritocratic than ever. Humans now have the opportunity to achieve just about anything, and satisfying work has become not only a cultural expectation, but one of the main focuses of our entire lives. As a result, many of us are feeling more than a little freaked out.
‘It’s fiiine, but is it really how I should be spending my life?’
It’s tempting not to ponder this question too deeply, to brush it aside and carry on within our system of exchanging time for extrinsic value – things like money or status. But here at Holvi, we see things differently. And we see a potential solution…
Real work is no rom-com
Similar to how romantic relationships are portrayed in rom-coms and animated films, we’re sold a myth about work. To find our one true calling in life, to stay ever-infatuated and to commit with boundless enthusiasm day in and day out, until easy retirement? Come on, get real!
In truth, our relationships to work are much more complicated, more nuanced, full of ups, downs, heartbreaks and lucky coincidences – just like our romantic relationships in real life.
But to fully appreciate why this disconnect exists between how work should be and how it really is, we need to step back and look at a major historical change.
The rise of productivity
Up until the late 18th century, work was done on a much smaller scale. Say you worked in a clothing store. You might have shared the shop with two others. When a customer walked in, you and your colleagues would be responsible for greeting them, taking their measurements, cutting the cloth, stitching and sewing, touching up alterations, counting the money and filing the paperwork.
Then in 1776 a Scottish economist named Adam Smith wrote a hugely popular book called The Wealth of Nations. In this book, Smith made famous an old idea called ‘the division of labour’, a theory that, together with technology, would power the Industrial Revolution. By dividing work up into lots of smaller, more specific tasks, people could become highly specialised in one tiny area. This specialisation leads organisations (and nations) to more productivity and more profitability.
Now, instead of three people doing a bunch of different tasks at your clothing store, you might have thirty or forty people working on highly specific jobs, increasing the number of garments produced and sold.
What makes work meaningful?
This kind of productivity starts to have an impact when we think about how people find meaning in work. For work to be meaningful, people need to take a degree of pride in what their business is trying to achieve, and feel that their labour helps the business achieve its goals.
As human beings, we find meaning chiefly by helping others. This might sound surprising, but deep down we all know it’s true. Whether you’re a truck driver, an artist, a yoga instructor or hairstylist, you want your labour to have a positive impact on society – or else be neutral and demand few hours, affording an intensely fulfilling life outside of work.
Of course, we also want to be good at what we do and occupy roles that suit our personalities. But above all we want our effort and time to go to a worthy recipient.
If we work all day selling a product we don’t believe in, our souls slowly wither and die.
To complicate things, society’s habit of placing so much importance on work puts enormous pressure on us. We’re constantly evaluating and re-evaluating if we are, truly, spending our precious time wisely.
Friendship means a lot
We also love connecting with others. Having a friend at work makes work much more fun, giving meaning to our office hours but not necessarily our jobs. Entrepreneurs have to form connections differently.
But more is good, right?
Going back to our clothing store example, you might ask,
‘Isn’t making and selling more clothes a good thing?’
And the answer is… maybe, depending on what you value. Emotional intelligence think tank The School of Life writes:
|‘The tragedy of most businesses is that their true objective – their deepest aim – is not to help or be genuinely useful, but first and foremost it is to reward their shareholders, a goal which employees must always rightly resent sacrificing their lives for.’|
The problem with productivity and profitability being the central reason for a company’s existence is that it results in a slow decay of meaningful work. For employees in Henry Ford’s car factories, creativity was seen as a problem – a bug, to be stamped out in the name of efficiency.
By creating more specialised roles aimed at boosting productivity, people’s focuses become smaller and more detached from the bigger picture:
Who is actually using the final product, and how valuable is it to the wider world?
A nightmarish vision
Way back in 1776, Adam Smith predicted the erosion of personality through the mind-numbing work we so often see in today’s society. Scarily accurate or what?
Diminishing returns on meaning
Picture a big multinational corporation with half a million employees. How close do you think each person feels to both the company’s mission and their customers’ satisfaction? An average worker might think,
‘If I weren’t here, someone else could do this.’
Isn’t that heartbreaking?
Now, picture a small company with five or six workers. Each employee is much closer to the company’s heart, to one another and to their customers. Their roles aren’t set in stone. Sure, one person might be an accountant, but if they spot a competitor’s nifty idea in the street they can just chat to the company director and influence business direction. At this company, employees share a stronger sense of connection and purpose.
So the question is… if a sense of purpose is diminished as a result of large-scale productivity and profitability, what does that mean for the self-employed?
Diversity is good for the soul
Humans have a built-in drive to create. There’s actually a place in our brains (called the ventral striatum, or ‘seeking system’) that urges us to explore the limits of what we know. A leading theory of worker engagement is that humans crave diversity and creativity, and shy away from monotonous work!
The pinnacle of purpose
When you run your own business, you’re single-handedly responsible for your company’s success. You can have full control over what kind of work you do, its level of specialisation and the customers you choose to work with.
You alone have the power to make your customers happy.
Plus, there’s often no middle-person between you and the beneficiary of your hard work, so you get to witness this happiness first-hand.
Self-employment has the potential to be the pinnacle of purpose.
Working for yourself also covers the diversity worry. As a small business owner, you have lots of competing tasks – business development, marketing, accounting, not to mention your actual product or service. There’s never a lack of different things to do and learn!
In our highly consumerist culture, a slow shift is taking place. And the self-employed are driving it. People are choosing to take back their time. Don’t get us wrong, self-employment is no rom-com version of work – but then, neither is any kind of work. It’s complicated.
In a society that’s geared up towards favouring money over time, profitability over purpose, Holvi gives you back time while taking care of the financial worries.