I work for a bulge bracket bank in Manhattan. My team consists of seven people at the moment. My rifling through of purses and HR records has failed to turn up any definite ages of my team members, but I can garner some age guesses: 27, 28, 28, 29 (me), 36, 52, and 57. Within those seven, there are three of us that are married (including me), and the total number of children birthed by those seven is one (our little Baby 29).
Among the seven, six work well in excess of 60 hours per week. I am usually the last one in and the first to leave, and I work about 48 hours a week. If I kick rocks at 6:15pm I get dirty looks. I just don’t understand it. Do these people live to work? Is this their purpose in life? Is their purpose to edit powerpoint decks that few will see and even fewer will understand? To create plans and budgets that will be abandoned within weeks? Even big things, like implementing a new system that takes tens of thousands of development and collaboration hours seem so infinitesimally meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
A Quick Test of Your Work’s Lasting Value
Imagine for a second describing what you did today to a four-year-old. The longer the description, the less important it was.
Dentist: I performed a root canal on an infected molar that helped a lady who was in a lot of pain to feel better and eat more easily.
Four-Year-Old: Oh wow, I hope they are feeling better. Let’s go play!
Business Analyst: I held a series of lengthy meetings, most of which were unproductive. These meetings are a gathering of minds as we explore opportunities to reduce the redundancies in our process of creating client accounts and the storage of their sensitive information on myriad data servers and platforms.
Four-Year-Old: What’s a meeting?
Politician: I met with a lot of very wealthy people, peddling influence and pleading for campaign contributions. I did this all while compromising any remaining morals I once had and continuing to blur the lines between right and wrong. Can I count on your vote in November?
Four-Year-Old: Please don’t talk to me.
We all encounter some of this wasted effort in our work lives. I’m not special. And many of us do some very important and meaningful things at our jobs—doctors, social workers, financial bloggers, etc. I sincerely hope that what you do has a meaningful (and positive) impact on others. What I’m saying is, my job doesn’t, and that’s depressing. Ask yourself this: what did I do today that will still have meaning in one day? In one month? One year? Ten years? The further out you can go with the timeframe, the more meaningful your actions are. For a doctor or firefighter, saving a child’s life will have meaning generations from now—very important, kudos to you and the work you do. For me, spending the hours of 6-7pm moving a small box several pixels over so that it’s aligned with several other small boxes on a random slide in a deck that may or may not even be read probably had no meaning the moment I did it—and it will certainly have no meaning in a week. However, if I’m instead at home between 6-7pm, teaching my young baby to drink from a cup or developing her spatial thinking—that will have meaning for many years. Dancing with my wife or watching a sunset will have meaning for months or years. Calling my parents and checking in will have meaning for days. Writing a blog post that helps somebody in their drive toward early retirement could have meaning for decades.
Many of us do things at our jobs that have real, tangible, and positive impact on others. But, I fear that many more of us are so far removed at our jobs from the “front lines” of human impact that our true purpose in life is more likely in something outside of our 8am to 5pm (or 6 pm, or 7, or 11…).
What’s the takeaway here? A reason why some people decide to keep working is because they enjoy their jobs. That’s an enviable position—getting paid to do something you enjoy. However, I believe that just enjoying your job might not be enough to stick with it long term. To prevent regret later on, your work should have meaning. Earlier this year, a palliative nurse for the terminally ill discussed the most common regrets her patients had. Among them was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” I imagine that regret would be that much stronger if that work was in something that didn’t have any lasting meaning.
I’ve had jobs I enjoyed immensely. Good coworkers, easy atmosphere, low stress. But, looking back, my contributions won’t be remembered. What I did on a daily basis didn’t really help people or make them happier. It would take me hours to describe my routine to a four-year-old. When St. Peter meets me at the pearly gates and he asks what I did with my life, I might have a truckload of powerpoints to show him, but I’m not sure that works so well for admittance.
But, doing this, writing to you—I hope this means something. I hope I can get you to have some meaning in your actions today. Blogging, making a record that will live on for decades for others to read and maybe be inspired, I hope that has meaning.
Thank you for reading!