Meaningful Work • Prof. Andrea Veltman

Summary:

People spend most of their waking hours working. It’s no wonder that we want to enjoy our work, but that can be complicated. The world is full of dangerous or difficult jobs with low pay. How does meaningful work fit ethically in such a world?

In this episode, we’ll learn from Dr. Andrea Veltman, an expert in the philosophy of work. Together, we’ll confront questions that are guaranteed to make you think differently about your job (and everyone else’s too).

About Our Guest:

Dr. Andrea Veltman is a professor of philosophy at James Madison University, where she teaches courses in ethics and political philosophy. She specializes, among other things, in the philosophy of work and wrote the book Meaningful Work, one of my favorite reads of the past year.

Useful Links:

Meaningful Work- examines the importance of work in human well-being, addressing several related philosophical questions about work and arguing on the whole that meaningful work is central in human flourishing. Work impacts flourishing not only in developing and exercising human capabilities but also in instilling and reflecting virtues such as honor, pride, dignity,

“Universal Basic Income and the Good of Work” in The Future of Work, Technology and a Basic Income, edited by Michael Cholbi and Michael Weber (Routledge, 2020), pp. 131-150.

 “What Makes Work Meaningful?” in The Philosophers’ Magazine 81:2 (2018): 78 – 83.  

“Is Meaningful Work Available to All People?” in Philosophy and Social Criticism, Volume 41: Number 7 (2015).

Autonomy, Oppression and Gender (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

How to Help podcast episode Finding your calling Jeff Thompson Do you feel like you have a calling in life? Is there something when you wake up each day that you feel you are meant to do? If you don’t feel like you do, this episode will help you find what you’re missing. 

About Merit Leadership

If you want help developing the ethical skills of your organization and its people, learn how Merit Leadership can help at http://meritleadership.com.

Pleasant Pictures Music

Join the Pleasant Pictures Music Club to get unlimited access to high-quality, royalty-free music for all of your projects. Use the discount code HOWTOHELP15 for 15% off your first year.

Transcript
Andrea:

Yeah, many years ago, I taught business ethics.

Andrea:

They don't offer it here.

Andrea:

I think the business school doesn't really trust the philosophy department.

Aaron:

That's to bad.

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Hi, I'm Aaron Miller, and this is How to Help

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a podcast about having a life and career of meaning, virtue, and impact.

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This is season one, episode nine, Meaningful Work.

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How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership home of The

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Business Ethics Field Guide.

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I'm going to start this episode with a number 51.6%.

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This according to the U S bureau of labor statistics is the average

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share of waking hours that a person spends working, assuming that they're

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currently employed thats just over half of our time when we're awake.

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And that includes weekends.

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Up until retirement it's likely that nothing else will consume so much of

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our attention and time as work well.

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It's no wonder then that we want to enjoy work, but liking your work is complicated.

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It's not merely a function of pay.

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People don't last long at jobs that they do just for the money.

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In fact in the great majority of studies job satisfaction is better

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predicted by things like enjoying your coworkers or trusting your boss than

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it is by how much you're being paid.

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But there's perhaps one thing that predicts job satisfaction

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better than almost anything else it's finding your work meaningful.

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More than ever, people are seeking out work with meaning.

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One study found that 9 in 10 people would accept a lower salary if it meant

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that they had worked with more purpose.

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And this isn't just a generational thing, meaningful work is a high priority across

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all age brackets, but there's a problem.

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Many people don't know what work gives them, meaning.

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That's why we talked with Jeff Thompson back in episode one

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about finding your calling.

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This time though I want us to go even deeper into the

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question of meaningful work.

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My guest today is professor Andrea Veltman.

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She's a philosopher who teaches at James Madison university.

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And one of her areas of study is the philosophy of work.

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Her book, Meaningful Work was one of my favorite reads this year.

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It's full of fascinating insight and thorough research.

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My interview with her was of course, steeped in big philosophical questions,

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but I think you're going to enjoy just how down to earth it is, getting into

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the nitty gritty details of working life.

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I guarantee this episode is going to change the way you think about work,

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what you want from it and what works should do for everyone else too.

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So I started by asking professor Veltman about her own job

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as a philosophy professor.

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Does she find it meaningful?

Andrea:

Well, honestly I think that being a professor is meaningful in every

Andrea:

way in which work can be meaningful.

Andrea:

The developers' capabilities, reflects virtues, it serves a purpose for the

Andrea:

community, it builds relationships.

Andrea:

So I feel very privileged to be a philosophy professor.

Andrea:

I find it enjoyable and there are plenty of moments of contemplation.

Andrea:

I find that to be a high pleasure personally, I love libraries

Andrea:

and time in the library.

Andrea:

So the job is excellent and affording me opportunities to be reading,

Andrea:

writing, and researching in libraries.

Aaron:

Right off the bat.

Aaron:

We have an idea of what her research and thinking has to say about meaningful work.

Aaron:

I want to replay a snippet of what she just said.

Andrea:

Being a professor is meaningful in every way, in which work can be

Andrea:

meaningful, it developes capabilities, and reflects virtues, it serves a purpose for

Andrea:

the community, it builds relationships.

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She gave us four ingredients for meaningful

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work, developing capabilities, reflecting virtues, serving a

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purpose, and building relationships.

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This is professor Veltman's recipe for flourishing, the idea of finding

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satisfaction, joy, and personal development for ourselves and

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for others, work in its best form should enhance human flourishing.

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That idea is going to run throughout this entire episode, but first we

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should make sure we're operating under the same definition of work because

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it's not just a job and a paycheck.

Andrea:

There's a lot that intuitively counts as work that is not paid;

Andrea:

homework by students, subsistence farming, volunteer work, work

Andrea:

around the house, work on scholarly books and articles and so forth.

Andrea:

So I'm keen on arguing.

Andrea:

How work should not be defined?

Andrea:

I don't think it should be defined as, as paid activity.

Andrea:

I have to settle on a conception of work as, as productive activity.

Andrea:

I often think of it as concerted effort toward a particular goal or end.

Andrea:

I'm really much more interested in thinking about the impact of work on

Andrea:

people and the meaningfulness of work.

Andrea:

I saw the question of defining work as something that should be

Andrea:

addressed, but not something that I want them to get hung up on.

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So this broader definition of work is not the

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way most people well define it.

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I mean, think about it.

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If someone you're chatting with at a party asks you what you do, you're almost

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certainly going to reply with your job.

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Not some other kind of work like a hobby, housework, or caring for a loved one.

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All those other things are productive activities that work too.

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But for some reason, if we're not paid to do it, we don't think of it

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as being central to quote what we do.

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This is a problem.

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The idea that for work to count, it has to be tied to a paycheck.

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For one thing, it ignores so much of our work each day.

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Things like taking care of children, cleaning the house, or helping a neighbor.

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It also means we strip out the power of work to help us flourish as people.

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Flourishing really should be our primary goal and a paycheck is just part of that.

Andrea:

I mean, fundamentally, I I'm inclined say that the reason why there's

Andrea:

a disconnect between so many jobs and the ideal of flourishing is that human

Andrea:

values have become lost that eclipsed by concern with economic values, right.

Andrea:

A person is I suppose, sometimes inclined to think about.

Andrea:

The realm of production and work.

Andrea:

And in terms of means and ends, how do we meet our goals?

Andrea:

How do we do this efficiently?

Andrea:

How do we maximize profit and so forth?

Andrea:

And those are all, um, necessary questions about work, but

Andrea:

there's also the human element.

Andrea:

Are we diminishing people's capabilities?

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Are we doing something undignified, something harmful?

Andrea:

So I think there's a disconnect essentially because economic

Andrea:

values have eclipse human values.

Andrea:

Of course, I would argue that.

Andrea:

Um, if a person seeks to be ethical and running their business or their

Andrea:

organization, they have to think about the impact of work upon workers.

Andrea:

And think about those human values.

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When I was in high school I had a phone sales

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job I sold, and this is true by the way, magic show tickets, there was

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a magician who traveled the country, putting on performances and donating

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part of the ticket sales to charity.

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We would call the head to the cities and towns, where he was

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performing and try to get people to buy tickets as high school jobs go.

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I wasn't too bad.

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I got to do with my best friend and we would spend a big chunk of our

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income during breaks at the nearby convenience store buying junk food.

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But I wasn't very good at this job.

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It was hard to feel motivated.

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Like I was contributing to anything worthwhile.

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I was also bad at sales.

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I mean, the job did not fit my interests or abilities very well, but I was young

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and there wasn't a family needing my work to buy their food and their shelter.

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Many, many people are in bad jobs and not because they aren't suited for them.

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Their jobs are just bad and they need them to pay the bills.

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Think of Amazon warehouse workers, for example, news stories.

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Talk about how crappy those jobs are.

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There's a reason some work is called inhumane.

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It doesn't treat people as people.

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To Amazon's credit they've raised the minimum wage for all of their employees,

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but the jobs are still pretty hard.

Andrea:

In the case of Amazon warehouse workers being exhausted by their work.

Andrea:

The problem is not just that workers themselves are having desires that

Andrea:

are mismatched with their work, but that the work itself ought to be

Andrea:

improved, to be less, less exhausting and, and more, uh, in keeping with

Andrea:

the needs of human beings, right.

Andrea:

People need breaks.

Andrea:

They often need to be left to their own judgment and ingenuity as to

Andrea:

how to do their work in terms of the details and the execution.

Andrea:

At least some of the time, the problem goes deeper than

Andrea:

a mismatch between workers and their desires and the work itself.

Aaron:

Another part of the problem, why we're not flourishing, isn't just, the

Aaron:

jobs can be bad, but also that our work may dominate too much of our lives.

Aaron:

If the goal is flourishing, we can't find it from work alone.

Aaron:

This is why professor Veltman comes out against a 40 hour workweek.

Aaron:

And I can hear you saying ya right, like that could ever change, but

Aaron:

should we be thinking more about what all of this time means?

Andrea:

First of all.

Andrea:

Yeah.

Andrea:

The very concept of flourishing draws to mind that a person would have a plurality

Andrea:

of goods and sort of well lived balanced life at work, but not overtake life, but

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that you would have time for work and enjoyment of leisure activities for loving

Andrea:

relationships, communing with nature, going to sports activities and so on.

Andrea:

And so on.

Andrea:

I've really come to argue that the problem of.

Andrea:

Imbalance that that many people are feeling nowadays with respect

Andrea:

to their work and their life is that we do work too much.

Andrea:

The 40 hour work week is in fact the way off in terms of the ideal

Andrea:

of human flourishing and a 40 hour work week work dominates life.

Andrea:

And we ought to bear in mind that 40 hours is a historically contingent norm.

Andrea:

It's not a rational, Archimedean starting point for evaluating work.

Andrea:

And I'm really in favor of reducing the Workday and reducing the work week.

Andrea:

You know, there are some studies that have shown that you're actually

Andrea:

productive for only three hours a day.

Andrea:

And otherwise you're just screwing off.

Andrea:

And I'm completely in favor of a four hour Workday.

Aaron:

This might feel unrealistic, but there is a degree to which

Aaron:

this is within our control.

Aaron:

Some people get sucked into their work so much that they don't

Aaron:

leave time for other things.

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And if more people resisted at the encroachments of modern worklife

Aaron:

employers would have to accommodate them.

Aaron:

We shouldn't be answering emails on the weekend unless it's

Aaron:

helping us actually flourish.

Aaron:

And in truth, these limits on modern work are already happening in many

Aaron:

industries, maximizers, the kind who want to squeeze every penny from every

Aaron:

opportunity, probably get their hackles raised at this idea, but they think of

Aaron:

work very differently than most people do.

Aaron:

You see, economists tend to describe work as what they call a disutility,

Aaron:

utility quickly defined as satisfaction and disutility is the opposite.

Aaron:

Work as conceived by economists is a disutility the idea is that the reason

Aaron:

you do it is simply because you're getting paid, otherwise you'd spend all of your

Aaron:

time and leisure doing something else.

Aaron:

And there's obviously truth to that.

Aaron:

But if that's the only way we think of work, we miss out on how many different

Aaron:

ways that work can help us flourish.

Andrea:

I just want to say one more thing about work.

Andrea:

Is it just utility?

Andrea:

Oh, sure.

Andrea:

I mean, I think that you're correct in the idea that work, is it just utility?

Andrea:

There is the rationale for paying people for their work, right?

Andrea:

You're doing something that other people need doing.

Andrea:

It's a sacrifice on your part.

Andrea:

You need to be paid for it.

Andrea:

And the whole idea of, of my book of meaningful work was really to bring out

Andrea:

the intrinsic values of work itself.

Andrea:

Right.

Andrea:

And to reject the idea that work is simply just utility, but by all

Andrea:

means, I still think that workers should be paid well for their work.

Andrea:

So there are some things that work.

Andrea:

Is it just utility?

Andrea:

It is often a sacrifice, but at the same time, you know, there

Andrea:

are many psychological and human values that we get from our work.

Andrea:

A sense of identity, a sense of self-respect, a structure to our

Andrea:

day, a place in the community.

Aaron:

I love the way professor Veltman so quickly identifies all the

Aaron:

different ways that we're can make us happier and more flourishing people.

Aaron:

So we need to dig in more to those ways that work helps us to flourish.

Aaron:

One of these is recognizing how we tend to value work that has lasting impact.

Aaron:

There's an opposite to this kind of work.

Aaron:

What professor Veltman calls, ephemeral work cleaning your kitchen

Aaron:

is a femoral work because it's just going to get dirty again.

Aaron:

Generally speaking, we don't value this kind of ephemeral work very much at all.

Andrea:

Well, yeah, it really takes off from a distinction between labor and

Andrea:

work that we find in the human condition.

Andrea:

I had an RN, uh, where she thought that labor is really tied to the body.

Andrea:

It's tied to the fact that we're embodied beings.

Andrea:

And before we do anything else, we have to meet the needs of life itself.

Andrea:

We have to eat and we want cleanliness.

Andrea:

And so forth and all of that needs doing so labor is cyclical.

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It's something that you don't do once and you're done, but it's part of the

Andrea:

perpetual never-ending cycles of life.

Andrea:

And she thought work was fundamentally different in that work, uh, creates an

Andrea:

enduring artifice, like a work of art architecture, writing a book, all of that

Andrea:

escapes the cycles of life and puts a mark on the world of greater permanence.

Aaron:

So, this is how we think of work that has an impact.

Aaron:

It lasts, it survives its creator, Steve jobs, and apple, Henry Ford,

Aaron:

and the automobile, Betsy Ross and the American flag Michelangelo and the David.

Aaron:

But this idea that our work only has value if it leaves behind some

Aaron:

physical artifice, ignores some of the ways that even a ephemeral

Aaron:

work can have lasting impact.

Andrea:

There's certain insight and in the idea that, meaningfulness is often

Andrea:

connected with enduring work, right?

Andrea:

People have the notion that if you can have an impact on the world,

Andrea:

then your life is more meaningful.

Andrea:

There's a truth in that.

Andrea:

But I also wanted to argue in the book that there's a limitation to

Andrea:

aligning meaningfulness with endurance.

Andrea:

Right because we can cook together and celebrate life.

Andrea:

And that's a ephemeral, unless I guess you're taking a picture of it, but in the

Andrea:

very labor of cooking, to celebrate and maintain life, you can also have activity

Andrea:

that is meaningful and sometimes caring for infants, is more meaningful than

Andrea:

installing pipe drains, which are durable.

Andrea:

So there are examples that cut across that labor work division.

Andrea:

And the conclusion that I came to was that at most creating an enduring artifact is

Andrea:

part of what can make work meaningful, but you certainly would not want to equate

Andrea:

meaningful work with an enduring product.

Aaron:

And it feels like we, as society tend to attach more dignity to the

Aaron:

durable kind than to the ephemeral kind.

Aaron:

I mean, maybe I'm wrong in my observation.

Aaron:

And maybe you have some thoughts on that, but it seems like the pattern is

Aaron:

the more repetitive and ephemeral it is the less dignity tends to be attached

Aaron:

to it like a housekeeper versus say uh, an artist painting a painting.

Aaron:

Tell me your thoughts on that.

Andrea:

Well, to some extent, the cyclical labor of maintaining life

Andrea:

can be more oppressive and itself.

Andrea:

And then the labor of creating an enduring artifact.

Andrea:

And perhaps there is, there is reason why social esteem tends to attach to

Andrea:

the creation of, of the enduring work.

Andrea:

Right?

Andrea:

Orange had this line in her book about human beings, having an

Andrea:

innate repugnance to futility.

Andrea:

There's something to that, you know, we see the idea that you would just

Andrea:

labor at housework day in and day out as a more oppressive life for a human

Andrea:

being than, than someone who has the freedom to create something durable.

Andrea:

Some of the greater dignity and esteem that you're talking

Andrea:

about is undoubtedly social.

Andrea:

But some of it might have to do with the nature of the labor itself.

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Aaron:

I agree with professor Veltman that not all meaningful

Aaron:

work is meaningful, just because of the value we attached to it.

Aaron:

Some work just stinks.

Aaron:

It's hard, uncomfortable, and unfulfilling.

Aaron:

We tell ourselves work like that has dignity, but we don't do it ourselves.

Aaron:

We pay other people to do it.

Aaron:

Even a noble purpose, wouldn't be enough for many of us to not

Aaron:

shy away from all kinds of jobs.

Aaron:

And maybe this idea that all work is meaningful is just a lie that we tell

Aaron:

ourselves to justify a world where other people are stuck with bad work.

Aaron:

Is there a possible world where everyone can have a job that's meaningful that fits

Aaron:

both their abilities and their values?

Aaron:

So we talked a little bit earlier in the conversation about fit and the idea

Aaron:

that not every job can fit every person.

Aaron:

It feels like we could do better than we're doing now, though.

Aaron:

Right?

Aaron:

Maybe you could describe what you imagine a world being like where

Aaron:

more people fit in their day-to-day roles when it comes to work.

Andrea:

Well, that's very challenging.

Andrea:

And I would say, first of all, that there's another scholar with

Andrea:

a book on Burke Russell mirror.

Andrea:

Yet his book is just work.

Andrea:

He really takes up the concept of fit.

Andrea:

And talks about fit with respect to having good work.

Andrea:

But one thing that that does really come to mind is that there's a certain sort of

Andrea:

easy optimism and the notion that somehow society can, can create jobs of different

Andrea:

types that will fit different peoples.

Andrea:

Energies talents, abilities, interests, desires, and so forth.

Andrea:

Everything wraps up quite nicely and neatly if that were true,

Andrea:

but when you really dig into it, that's quite problematic.

Andrea:

Actually, there are some work that needs doing that is simple

Andrea:

and routine and monotonous.

Andrea:

And do you really want to say that cleaning fits the abilities

Andrea:

of the people who do it?

Andrea:

I would not ever say that.

Andrea:

When you dig into the notion that everything is happy because

Andrea:

there's work to fit everybody, you confront the problem of bad work.

Andrea:

Personally, I, I really believe in the capabilities of working people and that,

Andrea:

and that they are, they are capable of more than simple routine work.

Andrea:

So I would be really skeptical of the idea that somehow society

Andrea:

can have work that fits everyone.

Andrea:

And that's a solution to a bunch of complicated, messy problems about work.

Aaron:

Exactly.

Aaron:

And I think I agree with you in the idea that that it's as simple task of sort

Aaron:

of aligning society to match whatever a person's interests are in a way that makes

Aaron:

meaningful contributions feels naive.

Aaron:

And so I think, you know, like I was saying, I have to grade as part of my job

Aaron:

and I do it, but I do it in appreciation of all the other great things that

Aaron:

come with what I get to do day to day.

Aaron:

And it's okay.

Aaron:

It doesn't have to fit me perfectly in every regard that way.

Andrea:

Well, I shouldn't say there's some truth in the idea that you'll flourish.

Andrea:

If you find work that fits you, there are times when you're

Andrea:

well-suited to your work.

Andrea:

There's a good match of your virtues and personality and your knowledge

Andrea:

and your values with your work.

Andrea:

And that's, that's part of excellence through work.

Andrea:

But again, there are limitations to the optimistic idea that

Andrea:

there's work, that fits everyone.

Andrea:

Um, because there's the problem of simple routine work that

Andrea:

doesn't seem to be matched to the potential capabilities of persons.

Aaron:

My good friend, Jeff Thompson, whom I interviewed for the first

Aaron:

episode of this season, we'll be pulling out his hair at this point.

Aaron:

If he didn't shave his head.

Aaron:

Anyway, his work calling says that for some even simple

Aaron:

routine work can feel fulfilling.

Aaron:

So for his perspective on this, I encourage you to revisit that episode,

Aaron:

but perhaps part of the problem is that routine work often comes with

Aaron:

very little autonomy and autonomy.

Aaron:

It turns out is a critical element of finding work, meaningful.

Aaron:

The more we can feel like we contribute with our mind and heart and not just our

Aaron:

body, the more satisfying work becomes.

Andrea:

Good work really intersects with autonomy and a number of ways.

Andrea:

First of all, there's the, um, the insight that we have in a liberal

Andrea:

democracy that people ought to be able to choose their work.

Andrea:

Right.

Andrea:

We shutter the thought that you should simply be assigned to a task

Andrea:

despite your choices or that you should have no choice in entering a

Andrea:

particular job or a particular field.

Andrea:

We celebrate autonomous choice in relation to entering a job or leaving a job.

Andrea:

I tried to bring to light in the book that there's a deeper way in

Andrea:

which autonomy is important for work.

Andrea:

It's important that you have autonomy in your work.

Andrea:

And that's an element of flourishing through work.

Andrea:

Most of us recognize the badness of trying to micromanage employees.

Andrea:

It's important to respect the, the knowledge and skill and

Andrea:

know-how of employees and to give them some space and autonomy.

Andrea:

To do their work.

Andrea:

As, as they know how.

Aaron:

Consider, how far some employers go to limit the decision-making power of

Aaron:

their employees, the employers might call it risk mitigation or some other nonsense

Aaron:

explanation, but the truth is probably more structural, when it's a job simply

Aaron:

to be a manager and nothing else you're likely to manage as closely as you can.

Andrea:

Well, they're skeptical of managers in general.

Andrea:

The managerial class, the idea of studying to be a manager, as a job

Andrea:

know, undoubtedly people have to do the scheduling, and write the reports

Andrea:

and so forth, and be a point of contact when employees have problems, but

Andrea:

managers ought to be working alongside employees so that they understand the

Andrea:

job and that they're contributing in the same way that the employees do.

Andrea:

I would blame a lot of micromanagement on misdirected efforts on the part

Andrea:

of people who are disconnected.

Andrea:

From the fundamental, useful work that, that real workers do.

Aaron:

The show undercover boss, where the owner of a business takes an

Aaron:

entry-level position in their company.

Aaron:

Professor Veltman actually used it for some of the insights in her book.

Aaron:

There's something so watchable about a boss, accurately seeing

Aaron:

the lives of his or her employees.

Aaron:

Sadly, the show works because of how easy it is for bosses to be out of touch.

Aaron:

But even a great boss, isn't enough for everyone to have a chance at a good job.

Aaron:

There are bigger things that need changing entire categories

Aaron:

of jobs might need replacing.

Andrea:

Well, the idea that then I tend to land on comes from John Rawls.

Andrea:

He articulated the idea that, oh, well, ordered society provides ample

Andrea:

opportunity for people to achieve self-respect for meaningful work.

Andrea:

And I think that hits on the right idea of a network of businesses and organizations

Andrea:

and society ranging from profit minded businesses to nonprofits, right?

Andrea:

Hospitals, schools, small and large organizations of all types, together,

Andrea:

providing opportunities for work.

Andrea:

You know, I think that the changes are really as profound

Andrea:

as a person can imagine.

Andrea:

Because factory work, for instance, it's not particularly conducive to human

Andrea:

flourishing when a person has an appendage of a machine and is just pulling, pulling

Andrea:

knobs and cranks, and moving their body.

Andrea:

In a monotonous way all day long, this is not conducive to human flourishing.

Andrea:

So I.

Andrea:

I think that a lot of the monotonous work in factories would have to be done

Andrea:

by machines and robots in order for people to be able to flourish their work.

Andrea:

I know that sounds utopian, but that's, that's where my thoughts often leave

Andrea:

that factory work is a good example of work that doesn't allow flourishing.

Aaron:

The idea of robots.

Aaron:

Replacing humans, offends a lot of people.

Aaron:But the truth is that a:Aaron:

research center found that monotonous work ranks far lower than other kinds of work.

Aaron:

The unhappiest jobs in America include all kinds of monotonous labor, like

Aaron:

roofers, packagers, and freight workers, but it's troubling that a bunch of

Aaron:

these unhappy jobs also involve working directly with people in menial ways.

Aaron:

Waiters in this study had the second unhappiest job in the country.

Aaron:

The bottom 10 list includes cashiers and retail sales.

Aaron:

These are jobs where customers have unique power to be really

Aaron:

terrible to fellow human beings.

Aaron:

So it's not just factory work that needs improving.

Aaron:

It's also the jobs that subject people to regular mistreatment.

Aaron:

How does a fair society, a moral society manage the problem of bad work?

Aaron:

It's hard to find simple, effective ideas.

Aaron:

The reality of work is terribly messy.

Andrea:

I don't want to be entirely utopian and thinking about all of

Andrea:

this, but, um, I guess at the end of the day, I'm willing to sit with a

Andrea:

lot of difficulties and complexities.

Andrea:

And contradictions, uh, I mean, work is really a morass of a topic

Andrea:

it's messy, and this is why a lot of philosophers have not written on work.

Andrea:

They love conceptual analysis where things turn out cleanly.

Andrea:

They don't like a morass of a problem that can't be solved and, and work as a bunch

Andrea:

of an unsolvable philosophical issues.

Andrea:

So in terms of what the ideal society would look like,

Andrea:

it's, it's really hard to say.

Aaron:

One of the things that I loved about this interview with professor

Aaron:

Veltman is that she repeatedly took the opportunity to ask me what I

Aaron:

thought about the issues we discussed.

Aaron:

I was struck by her genuine interest in learning about my thinking on all of this.

Aaron:

Even if the point of the interview is to learn from her.

Andrea:

I'm curious to hear a little bit more about some of your thoughts on work.

Andrea:

I mean, as you know, I really wrestled with a lot of these problems and I

Andrea:

don't think there are tiny solutions.

Andrea:

What do you think about the problem of bad work?

Andrea:

For instance?

Andrea:

you know that's some work is very draining and dispiriting and sometimes

Andrea:

dangerous for the person who performs it.

Andrea:

I mean, what do you think are the solutions to the problems with bad work?

Aaron:

Yeah, so, so bad work is hard to remove socially speaking.

Aaron:

This work is providing value to others.

Aaron:

There are people who are better off from dangerous work, even if they're not

Aaron:

the ones performing the dangerous work.

Aaron:

There's some ways that other people's lives are improved.

Aaron:

I think the problem is, is then it creates a risk of.

Aaron:

Turning society into utility monster, they can just suck the

Aaron:

value out of the poor people who are stuck in this dangerous work.

Aaron:

I think what comes from that is that if this work really does create this

Aaron:

substantial benefit that we need to use the fruits of that benefit to support

Aaron:

and keep those people safe and make their conditions better as much as possible.

Aaron:

I think the, I think the problem historically is that the

Aaron:

dangerous work has always been almost purely extractive, right?

Aaron:

Could these people in this dangerous role have created all this value, but

Aaron:

don't enjoy the fruits of any of it.

Aaron:

And more importantly, the fruits of it haven't been tied back in a

Aaron:

way to make their jobs safer, or healthier, or better in some way.

Aaron:

Um, one of my coauthors that used to be the vice president of

Aaron:

environment, health and safety at Alcoa, a global aluminum manufacturer.

Aaron:

He worked under Paul O'Neill who was famous for prioritizing safety over

Aaron:

everything over profit, everything safety was the biggest priority in the company.

Aaron:

My friend Bill took that initiative to mean that his workers, the

Aaron:

workers at Alcoa should not only be safe at work, but they should leave

Aaron:

Alcoa healthier than they came.

Aaron:

It was an interesting goal.

Aaron:

He set.

Aaron:

And so there were wellness programs that were instituted, you know, obviously

Aaron:

safety was something that they had already invested a lot of time and

Aaron:

effort into, but now it was a matter of, okay, our workers are, are safe.

Aaron:

But now, how do we make them healthier?

Aaron:

How do we improve their lives?

Aaron:

Even further?

Aaron:

That way?

Aaron:

What was interesting is that under Paul O'Neill's rain, Alcoa, financially

Aaron:

encountered incredible success.

Aaron:

Because where the focus was on worker safety, it meant it invited more

Aaron:

creativity for solving problems.

Aaron:

It invited people to be more empathetic toward each other and recognize

Aaron:

the risks that each other are facing, how to improve those things.

Aaron:

It actually financially made the company incredibly successful during that time.

Aaron:

I think that's the answer is we have an ethical obligation for the

Aaron:

people that are facing dehumanizing work, that work presumably exists

Aaron:

because it generates value.

Aaron:

We have a moral responsibility to redirect more of it to them.

Aaron:

Then I think what we're doing on average today,

Andrea:

I agree.

Andrea:

I often think that when we're faced with work, that damages, the people who perform

Andrea:

it, we ought to do everything in our power to alter the conditions of work so that

Andrea:

the wellbeing of workers can be improved.

Andrea:

Anything that can be done to improve worker safety and wellbeing seems

Andrea:

a step in the right direction.

Aaron:

So there is hope and we really can make work better.

Aaron:

Perhaps part of the answer is that meaningful work always,

Aaron:

always means other people.

Andrea:

I mean on the whole, I think that one of the most important conclusions

Andrea:

that I, I arrived at in thinking about all of this was that meaningful work

Andrea:

doesn't have just a single dimension.

Andrea:

It has many dimensions.

Andrea:

And one of those dimensions is, is cultivating and reflecting

Andrea:

relationships that are meaningful.

Andrea:

And part of the meaning of life comes from our being networked

Andrea:

in a larger totality of a society that makes sense of our lives.

Andrea:

And.

Andrea:

Work is a way of positioning a worker within the world, right?

Andrea:

I mean, it's, it's a way of finding a purpose in the world.

Andrea:

It's also a way of.

Andrea:

Of building and reflecting relationships.

Andrea:

I like the idea that work in itself build and reflect love.

Andrea:

I guess our identities are often wrapped up in our relationships

Andrea:

and work can be meaningful when it reflects our life narratives.

Andrea:

So working for a family business for instance, can be very meaningful,

Andrea:

um, because it reflects that, that larger background of a life narrative.

Aaron:

If we want to make room for helping people flourish in their work.

Aaron:

We need more ways to connect work to the lives of others.

Aaron:And that same:Aaron:

The top jobs were dominated by work that helped people in meaningful ways.

Aaron:

The happiest jobs included clergy, physical therapists and

Aaron:

educators, meaningful work depends on the needs of those around you.

Aaron:

We can create more meaningful work by making work, meet those needs.

Andrea:

Well, one place to start, as I'm thinking about the needs of

Andrea:

a community in which you live, what are the genuine needs that will

Andrea:

help the community to be prosperous?

Andrea:

If a community needs teachers and those teachers are necessary to foster an

Andrea:

intellectual life in the community, then you can find meaningful work and teaching.

Andrea:

If, if you really value health in the community and you see issues, helping

Andrea:

people with their health and being in the healthcare field would be quite

Andrea:

meaningful and finding meaningful work is often a way of reflecting on your

Andrea:

values on the ways in which you can make yourself useful in your community.

Andrea:

It is in part about finding an individualized fit between yourself

Andrea:

and the needs of other people.

Aaron:

I've spent a lot of time digging into questions about what makes work have

Aaron:

meaning, and the best thinking always comes back to this idea, when you can

Aaron:

fit your values and abilities into work that meets the needs of other people.

Aaron:

You're essentially guaranteed to find work that has meaning.

Aaron:

And what I loved about this interview is that it taught me

Aaron:

that we don't go far enough.

Aaron:

If we only think of our own work, we truly have an obligation as

Aaron:

people and as a society to make work better for others too.

Aaron:

We can do that in big structural ways.

Aaron:

And it's worth demanding that from those in power, but we

Aaron:

can do it in small ways too.

Aaron:

In fact, this would simply be an application of what research

Aaron:

tells us about meaningful work.

Aaron:

We can treat people better at the register or in the restaurant.

Aaron:

We can show them that their work meant something.

Aaron:

And to us, that it helped.

Aaron:

I'm so grateful professor Veltman for taking the time for this interview.

Aaron:

She really has such an engaging way of thinking and writing in the show notes.

Aaron:

We've linked to her book and to some of her articles about the meaning of work.

Aaron:

Her book really was one of my favorite reads of the last year.

Aaron:

If you enjoy how to help, please take a moment to give us a positive

Aaron:

review in your podcast app.

Aaron:

It really helps us to reach more listeners and also be sure to subscribe so you

Aaron:

can get future episodes automatically.

Aaron:

Next time, we're going to learn all about the world of impact investing.

Aaron:

Most people think of business and nonprofits as separate

Aaron:

each doing their own thing.

Aaron:

But the truth is that the gap between these two has been

Aaron:

bridged in the last two decades.

Aaron:

More and more businesses are making it a goal to have a positive social impact.

Aaron:

And these businesses need investors.

Aaron:

One of the pioneers of impact investing is my guest.

Aaron:

Geoff Woolley, he's going to reveal how major financial resources are being

Aaron:

used right now to improve our world, to stay up to date with How to Help

Aaron:

subscribe to our weekly email newsletter.

Aaron:

Each edition recommends high impact organizations and shares ideas for

Aaron:

how to have more meaning in your work.

Aaron:

You can find it@how-to-help.com.

Aaron:

We're grateful as always to Merit Leadership.

Aaron:

You sponsors our podcast and our production team, which includes

Aaron:

Cyndi Hall, Travis Stevenson, yours truly, and Eric Robertson,

Aaron:

who did the editing and the music.

Aaron:

All of our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures, Music Club.

Aaron:

And if you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link

Aaron:

and a discount code in our show notes.

Aaron:

Finally, as always.

Aaron:

Thank you so much for listening.

Aaron:

I'm Aaron Miller and this has been How to Help.

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