Flat Jobs and Thick Desires
Working with 3-Dimensional Vision—the Objective, Subjective, and Transcendent Purposes of Work
TL;DR: Finding two new dimensions of work changed my life—they added height and weight to everyday tasks and infused them with meaning and purpose. I believe this 3D mental model of work (described below) explains the increasing dissatisfaction people have for “flat” jobs, and it’s due to an awakening of desire for these new dimensions.
During the current “The Great Resignation”, where the r/antiwork thread on Reddit is popular (“Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”), the nature and meaning of work has been on my mind a lot.
What is work, exactly? Is it a punishment for sin? A sign of righteousness? Just something we do (reluctantly) to pay the bills and get on with real living? Is it an activity that allows a human being to give self-expression to their gifts and talents? Is it a form of status-seeking and identity formation? Is it about Adding Value™ in the world?
It may be one or more of these things, but none of them capture what is uniquely human about work. We share 98.8% of our DNA with the chimpanzee, but a chimp has never worked a day in his life. We do.
So here is a basic anthropological truth that I’d like to propose: true work is a spiritual activity that is uniquely human.
The Human Difference
I’m not thinking here about the ‘work’ that a horse or a police dog does, as noble as it is, or even the ‘work’ of hunting that any predator must do. Those are indeed forms of work in the sense that the animal is trying to accomplish some concrete objective (it’s not play). In the case of a well-trained animal, like a bomb-sniffing dog, the creature is simply fulfilling the role they have been trained to do. Something seems to be missing.
I’m also not talking about ‘work’ in the scientific, Physics Class sense, with the definition most of us learned about in school: work is the product of force and displacement, usually measured in joules. That’s not what I mean.
The kind of work I’m referring to is the work of the unrepeatable human subject who puts his “I” into a project—intelligence, will, personality, emotion—and marks it with his unique stamp of creation. It’s work done with freedom and responsibility. It is the work that people can look back on years later and say, “[NAME] did that.”
A human person engages in work with some degree of freedom. (I know that is not true in the case of slavery—and this is partly why we find slavery so morally abhorrent: it is work that is not freely chosen.)
Do we enter into work arrangements perfectly free? No. Freedom is always conditioned. We have varying degrees of freedom, though, and that freedom falls on a spectrum. It’s dependent on many things—from the conditions of our environment and financial situation to the degree of psychological freedom we have to live with a given level of income. But it is freedom no less.
Freedom is one of the main ingredients in human labor—one of the things that makes it different. We don’t work by instinct alone, the way that an animal hunts; we have the power to choose our work, or at least the way that we do it.
Even someone desperate for money who takes “the only job they could find” knows that, in the worst case scenario, they can always call their boss a horse’s ass and walk off the job, consequences be damned. (Most of us, I think, know someone who has done this. I always find that exercise of freedom quite impressive, especially when someone doesn’t have a fall-back plan.)
There is also freedom in the sense that there is always the option of doing the work in one’s unique way, expressing one’s personality in and through the work, no matter how tight the corporate controls may be. (Even if that self-expression is simply the way that a person interacts with the other people next to him on an assembly line, making them laugh or offering perspective on the work they’re doing.)
It’s interesting: if you ask most people who have had a shit job (and that includes me), they’ll look back fondly on it as they remember how it shaped them, built character, gave them great stories to tell, or led them to realize, at the very least, who they are not.
Every moment of work is a learning experience. For people who bring their whole Selves to work, almost any job can turn into something intensely personal.
I think an absence of the “Self” at work is usually what we mean when we say someone feels like a “cog in a machine”, or when someone is engaging in what the late David Graeber called bullshit jobs. They’re bullshit in part because they’re not necessary. They’re beneath the dignity of a person. That’s truly a terrible feeling. But we can always find a way to elevate even the most bullshit of jobs into something more fully engaging—because we have the freedom to.
I know what it’s like to feel relatively hopeless. During my first college internship, I made cold calls all day for a stock broker in New York. Not only was the internship unpaid, but I started buying him coffee (with the little money I had) on my way into the office every now and then to earn his good graces, in the hope that he would overlook all of the time I wasn’t actually working.
At first I was miserable. But at a certain point, I realized that as long as I was going to be stuck doing the work of cold-calling that I might as well learn to do it well. I mean why not? The cold-calling had to be developing some aspect of my personality, even though I had no idea what it was at the time.
Maybe it was just the hyper competitor in me who wanted to book more appointments with more clients than any of the other interns (there were three of us), or my desire to ‘close’ the clients on the other end of those calls as a form of conquest. Or perhaps I had just watched Glengarry Glen Ross too many times.
This is around the time that I realized that the majority of the work people do is mind-based work—the work of thinking, or applying the mind, to the world around us. Many call this a noosphere, a term popular among adherents to information theory. “An economy is a noosphere (a mind-based system),” futurist George Gilder writes, “and it can revive as quickly as minds and policies can change.”
But in my opinion, the economy is not so much a noosphere as a pneumasphere—a spirit-based system (pneuma is the Greek work for spirit), driven by human desires and an innate need to find meaning and seek transcendence. All work is about this.
The economy runs partly on information, sure. But it is more fundamentally driven by something that feels more spiritual than computational, and that is true no matter how many metrics the economists try to throw at us. And in this pneumasphere, there is a subjective and transcendent dimension to our work that is not easily grasped in the materialist or even in the informational view of work.
Work as an Offering of Self
Each of us is seeking wholeness in and through our work, and we have a desire for our work to be accepted and valued.
The story of this foundational human desire is found in some of the earliest pages in the Bible, when the brothers Cain and Abel both desire to offer their work to God.
You may know the story. Cain was a farmer. Abel was a shepherd. They both made sacrifices from their work to God (Cain some of his crops; Abel the best portions of the firstborn of his lambs), but God favored Abel’s offering more than Cain’s.
Who isn’t devastated when they have worked hard and their work isn’t found acceptable, even by human standards? There is something deeply wounding about this. And to see someone else’s work valued more than ours cuts to the core, especially after we’ve given everything we had. It goes straight to the heart—it’s like an assault on our very dignity, on our identity.
Now there are many fairly complex theological reasons why God may have looked with favor on one of the brother’s offerings and not the other (Abel’s was a blood sacrifice, Cain’s was not; or Abel’s motivation was pure and Cain’s was not)—but all of the deeper theological questions are beside the point in this particular discussion. The “why” doesn’t matter for our purposes: I simply want to draw attention to the fact that there exists an early biblical story of human beings deeply concerned with offering their work and having it deemed acceptable. This is the anthropological insight I’ve been trying to get at from the beginning.
You know how that story ends: Cain grows jealous that his brother Abel’s work was found acceptable while his was not, and he kills him.
I’ll forego a more in-depth Girardian interpretation of the dynamics at work here, at least for now (I’ll come back to that in a future newsletter. I recommend reading this in the meantime, if you’re interested). This particular piece is about the three dimensions of work, and one of these three dimensions—as we’ll see below—involves sacrifice.
One of the most formative moments in my understanding of work came when I walked into the office of my corporate attorney in Las Vegas. I immediately noticed pictures of his children taped to the sides of his massive computer screen—the screen on which he spent all day red-lining briefs and combing through complex legal documents.
“That’s a nice way to display your family pictures!” I said.
“Thank you. It makes my work better.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He told me that at the start of each hour, an alarm went off on his phone that reminded him to stop everything he was doing and think of one of his children. At that point, he made an intentional act to offer the next hour of his work as a sacrifice and gift for that child. Thinking of his work in this way, he told me, helped him do the work with more excellence and with more love.
He thought of each hour of his work as a literal gift that he was giving his child—and he certainly wouldn’t want to give them a shoddy product. Hopefully, he said, the love that he put into it would be apparent to everyone he sent an email to or interacted with in the course of the hour. It was a kind of ‘active’ prayer.
When he finished the hour of work dedicated to one of his children, he’d do the same thing during the next hour for another child. And once he finished three hours of work (he had three kids at the time), he’d dedicate each hour in the rest of his day to something or someone, following the same method.
“Last week, you were actually one of them,” he told me. “Remember when I sent you that text letting you know I was thinking of you and to ask if you needed anything?”
“That’s when your hour started.”
My attorney’s revelation completely exploded my tiny world of self-contained work, which I had measured through completely objective metrics: the number of products I produced, the money I made, the jobs I created.
It turns out that I was completely trapped within the objective dimension of work alone—I simply couldn’t see beyond it.
But there were two additional dimensions that I had overlooked—or didn’t yet have the eyes to see—that would completely transform my understanding not only of work but also of myself: the subjective and the transcendent.
Here’s what they are, and how to incorporate more of them into your own work life.