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Stop Trying to Inject Your Work With Meaning (Hint: It’s Already There)

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In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig sets her sights on the latest trends in corporate “mission statements,” focusing on a variety of employer campaigns to “inject meaning into the daily grind, connecting profit-driven endeavors to grand consequences for mankind.”

Companies have long cited lofty mission statements as proof they have concerns beyond the bottom line, and in the past decade tech firms like Google Inc. attracted some of the economy’s brightest workers by inviting recruits to come and change the world by writing lines of code or managing projects.

Now, nearly every product or service from motorcycles to Big Macs seems capable of transforming humanity, at least according to some corporations. The words “mission,” “higher purpose,” “change the world” or “changing the world” were mentioned on earnings calls, in investor meetings and industry conferences 3,243 times in 2014, up from 2,318 five years ago, according to a Factiva search.

The piece points to some interesting data and anecdotes, but it’s also littered with false choices and unhelpful vocabulary, driven largely (in fairness) by the attitudes of its subjects. From reading it, one would think that “changing the world” occurs only in grand theatrical acts, or that having concerns or impacting culture “beyond the bottom line” requires a kind of forced extra-altruism. Simultaneously, anyone who is bold enough to be content as a janitor or banker is framed as being “fine with being a cog rather than a cathedral builder.” Did it ever occur that such satisfaction may indicate an attitude that’s precisely the opposite?

Many of these companies are just trying to attract new employees and look pretty, to be sure, but whether sincere or fake or semi-artificial, such attempts surely have potential to do some good. We do indeed need regular reminders on these things.

But through a holistic perspective of work as service to neighbor and thus to God, it’s actually rather difficult to believe that motorcycles and Big Macs aren’t “capable of transforming humanity,” regardless of what the marketing execs spin about “company culture” from week to week.  Every thing we put our hands to, every act of service we indulge, every mundane trade and exchange we make is transforming the economic and social order, whether or not we like it or not.

And it’s here where the piece and its various subjects press a bit too far in the wrong direction. It’s one thing to locate and identify the true meaning of work: to see it, understand it, grab hold of it, and orient one’s heart, mind, and hands accordingly. It’s quite another to try to inject this meaning from the outside in — an effort prone to the forces of materialism, and thus, ultimately futile.

As Lester DeKoster explains in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life:

All of our efforts to endow our lives with meaning are apt to come up short and disappointing. Why? Because all our passion to fill the meaning-vacuum through multiplied activity in the home, the church, the community, or whatever stumbles over that big block of every week’s time we have to spend on the seeming meaninglessness of the job. The spare-time charities cannot tip the scales. Redoubling our efforts only obscures the goal.

We are sometimes advised to try giving meaning to our work (instead of finding it there) by thinking of the job in religious terms such as calling or vocation. What seems at first like a helpful perspective, however, deals with work as if from the outside. We find ourselves still trying to endow our own work with meaning. We are trying to find the content in the label, without real success. The meaning we seek has to be in work itself.

And so it is!

The beautiful paradox of the Christian life is that even when we find ourselves in “cog-like” work environments, God has oriented our hands toward both material provision and blessing as well as transcendent purpose and beauty — the stuff of “cathedrals” what-have-you. “Happily, a genuine cog is a round peg in a round hole, fitted precisely to being what, at that point, the mosaic of culture requires,” DeKoster writes elsewhere. “There alone resides our freedom to enjoy civilized life.”

As we continue to be bombarded by various forms of “meaning marketing” and the sloganeering of forward-thinking executives, let’s indulge what turns out to be true, but be careful to not inject our own version of “meaning” where the authentic purpose already exists.

God put it there for a reason.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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