Meaningless work is not inevitable, but we’re often prevented from taking remedial action because our thinking has become corrupted with feelings of powerlessness. As Studs Terkel said in his book Working:
“You know, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
It’s the same with powerlessness.
Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.”
If we believe there’s something patriotic, virtuous, even sacred about the way we have always viewed working for a living, then if we feel despair about our jobs it must be a personal problem, a character flaw. We ought to put up, shut up, and get cracking. The shame associated with that kind of judgment is absolutely disempowering. As long as we hold onto it, we’ll stay stuck in workplace despair and meaning malaise — a state of mind poet Richard Cecil captures in “Internal Exile,” collected in Twenty First Century Blues (2004):
Although most people I know were condemned
Years ago by Judge Necessity
To life in condos near a freeway exit
Convenient to their twice-a-day commutes
Through traffic jams to jobs that they dislike
They didn’t bury their heads in their hands
And cry “oh, no!” when sentence was pronounced:
Forty years accounting in Duluth!
Or Tenure at Southwest Missouri State!
Instead, they mumbled, not bad. It could be worse,
When the bailiff, Fate, led them away
To Personnel to fill out payroll forms
And have their smiling ID photos snapped.
And that’s what they still mumble every morning
Just before their snooze alarms go off
When Fluffy nuzzles them out of their dreams
Of making out with movie stars on beaches.
They rise at five a.m. and feed their cats
And drive to work and work and drive back home
And feed their cats and eat and fall asleep
While watching Evening News’s fresh disasters —
Blown-up bodies littering a desert
Fought over for the last three thousand years,
And smashed-to-pieces million-dollar houses
built on islands swept by hurricanes.
It’s soothing to watch news about the places
Where people literally will die to live
When you live someplace with no attractions —
Mountains, coastline, history–like here,
Where none aspire to live, though many do.
“A great place to work, with no distractions”
Is how my interviewer first described it
Nineteen years ago, when he hired me.
And, though he moved the day that he retired
To his dream house in the uplands with a vista,
He wasn’t lying–working’s better here
And easier than trying to have fun.
Is that the way it is where you’re stuck, too?
Good question. How would you answer it?
True, one of the factors behind job wretchedness is internal exile: we’re estranged from what we really want out of our work, or we’ve given up on ever having it, and so we settle for could be worse. But there’s more to it than that. There are external factors at work, too — global winds of change propelling people who want to work with passion in directions they never thought they’d be going.
There be krakens out there in the deep. One of them is something two business writers call the “Stupidity Paradox”: a prevalent workplace model that — like the bureaucracies we looked at last week — encourages obeisance to rules (we might say “best practices”) at the cost of independent thinking.
We’ll look at the Stupidity Paradox next time.