Why do we work? The first thought that seems to inevitably come to mind is that most people can’t avoid it. Not out of any noble sense, but simply because they can’t afford to not work. Personally, I feel that this view of work is unfortunately perverse. If I was well-off enough to be able to sit around and do whatever I please, surely in time I would start to perform regular activities, make some progress on personal projects, perhaps work on a garden, learn pottery, etc. What would I call my activities, once they start to take shape of something regular and give me a sense of purpose? I might start calling them “my work”, but in a loftier sense, with more air to it - and perhaps foolishly, with more weight and meaning?

When I’m thinking of the word “work” in its day-to-day sense, and how people often perceive it, another word comes to mind - “burden”. Having to work is often viewed as a personal burden. Nothing is absolute, of course - and what one finds to be a burden could still very well provide pleasure. Personally, I’ve observed that pleasure to be two-fold. One side of it is a sense and realization that I’m helping to create a comfortable material existence for whoever is in any way dependent on me. It is very satisfying to see that I’m able to provide for my family, and help out my friends when and if they need help. That’s one aspect, and surely this in itself should be enough to sustain a career. Another side of this is that any type of work could be in many ways interesting - and not just in a sense of solving puzzles or “hard problems”, as computer programming jobs are often pitched to potential employees and students, but in a much broader sense of personal interest.

I used to walk paper routes; the position itself was called “adult paper carrier”, and I imagine it wasn’t that dissimilar from a job of a postal worker. I carried a rather heavy bag or cart of papers - especially heavy on Fridays, with all of the extra advertisements - for around five hours. It was great to be by myself, to think, to listen to music, to walk, and just observe the world around me. I got to do all of these things, and I was getting paid for it! I find that I rarely get to do these things now, or have as much time for them.

Another job I remember fondly was as a house painter. It was physically demanding work, but very satisfying to see old, fainting houses get a new life, a better look. Sometimes the whole neighbourhood would start to look a bit more pleasant. When I pass by one particular house which I painted, I’d often proudly point it out. The work days were long, and I would be very tired in the evenings - but my mind would be fresh. After all, I’ve spent the whole day outdoors, working with my hands, climbing ladders, sitting on roofs! And in the evenings I had all the energy I needed to read, think and pursue more intellectually demanding activities. For example, I would often come home and do programming for fun - I very rarely do that now. In that job, I never had a sense that I needed to compete with someone, or to prove my abilities - I felt free to be myself, and thinking about it now I realize that it was very liberating.

“Flipping burgers” in a fast-food chain was another job I remember in a positive light. It was my very first job in Canada, and the first paying job in my life. I barely spoke English, and at the time I very much wanted to pursue mountain biking. To that end, I borrowed money from my parents to buy a mountain bike, and in the meantime found a job to pay them back. I would go in a few days after school, and work until 11pm or so, when the restaurant would close. I was involved in food preparation, cleaning the kitchen, taking out garbage, etc. It was interesting in a few ways: it forced me improve my English; it gave me a hint of what it’s like to feel financially independent; but I think the most important bit of learning was that once I finished paying back my parents, I largely lost any interest in going to work - it was time to move on.

In my middle school, children would take turns to perform various tasks around the school. If I remember correctly, once a month we would take a few days from our classes and take up positions in the kitchen (cleaning tables, serving food to our classmates), with the janitorial staff (cleaning the school grounds, wiping hallways, etc), doing secretary work, running errands, and so on. I enjoyed it at the time because it gave you a break from sitting in the classes, and now it seems like an immensely valuable educational experience. We all rotated in our duties, so everyone got involved in every type of work. There was a similar setup in the kindergarden, as well - it was possible to bail out of the immensely boring “nap time”, and instead clean the floors. As a result, I loved cleaning floors as a kid. I remember doing that at home, but unfortunately without the impeding doom of boredom of having to nap it wasn’t as thrilling.

Thinking back to these experiences, I see that there was often a sense of personal purpose - I needed to pay back my parents, I needed cash to buy an airplane ticket to see my girlfriend, I needed to pay for college, etc. Another common thread is a joy of working because it saves me from doing other activities, and helps break up the routine.

My first job after university made me absolutely miserable. It paid well, it gave me a chance to be near my girlfriend - in fact, we were in the same city for the first time in years! The job itself was technically interesting, I got to do some decent programming, and contributed to buildind a product - but one I couldn’t care for at all. Having worked throughout university (I lived at home, started programming for money at some point, and then took internships), I didn’t have any real debt at the time, so money wasn’t a great motivator. I also wasn’t supporting anyone other than myself. This job taught me importance of spending my days with at least some sense of purpose. I wasn’t mature enough to realize it at the time, but the alternative was that in time I stopped caring - and that is a dangerous road to take. In that particular case I also started to fall apart emotionally since I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. In the end I was fired, and that was both a great slap in the face, and a push in the right direction. I now realize it was the best possible outcome; otherwise, learning potential wouldn’t have been the same. Overall this was an interesting experience, and I’m glad I had it early enough.

Two different quotes come to mind [0] when thinking about work in a sense of “burden”. First is Spinoza’s: Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it. Another is Nietzsche’s: He who has a ‘why’ can bear any ‘how’. If our work has meaning, as small and personal or as grandiose as it might be, it has full potential to not only be bearable, but also very enjoyable. My own society seems to strive to provide its members with a sense of “default meaning” - I work, I pay taxes, and as a result I contribute to a common goal of building a more comfortable, stable and predictable existence. That’s the promise at least, and it’s easy to see how dissatisfied people get when that promise appears to be broken.

Coming back to the distinction between “work as a burden”, and “work as a lofty pursuit”, perhaps it really isn’t as black and white. After all, most things aren’t. We get to choose our own attitudes, and our own outlook on life and its activities. This is one ultimate freedom we all have, and mindfully applying it in our daily lives is bound to help. Perhaps “burden with a purpose” has a good ring to it?

[0] I’m guilty of lifting these from Viktor Frankl’s most striking book Man’s Search for Meaning. Do yourself a favour and read it!