If, as the last post asked, we are not sure what work is, is the nature of “work” an existential question?
The favoured analogy of the existentialist in understanding the burden of our freedom, and the angst it creates, is being perched on a precipice. Not only are we fearful of falling per se, but we are acutely aware of our freedom to fall of our own accord, if we wish.
Existentialists hold that life can only be known and understood by our own experience, rather than anything theoretical or empirical. As “existence precedes essence” (essence meaning character) it follows that only the individual gives meaning to their life. The absurdity of our predicament is therefore that the only meaning to be found in anything is that which we ourselves attribute.
Decisions – including whether to jump off the cliff – are therefore made on the basis of the meaning of the situation to us, rather than by applying reason or imposing any other artificial structure. “Bad faith” arises from any attempt to impose such a construct or framework on a world of unpredictability. These suppressant structures prevent us from finding meaning in our freedom.
It’s quite a scary prospect. If we cannot impose meaning on a word that offers us none, and we are burdened with a terrible freedom, what can we do?
One can view work in the same way. We know work only by our own experience, and we impose our own meaning upon it. We are forever hearing about the drive to make work “meaningful” and “purposeful” to combat the perceived anomie of our complex adaptive world.
Yet we may be looking at this in the wrong way entirely. What we perhaps need to equip ourselves and others with is the understanding that only we can create meaning in what we do, recognising that it is not the job of others to do so through constructs that will drive an inauthentic engagement. In the same way that only we create a meaning in our lives, only we create meaning in our work.
The solution that the existentialists offered to the conundrum, of life may equally apply to work. At the point of becoming aware of our freedom, we are free to create. Albert Camus understood how this related:
“All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door.”
Freedom. What will you do with yours?