Why Your Work Matters, Regardless Of What You Do

How numbers can help us find meaning in our jobs

Potential. It’s a word that has troubled many a soul. Some are told they’re not living up to theirs, while many of us spend our time struggling to reach ours.

When I was growing up, I thought that if you had the aptitude and means to become a doctor, it would prove to be the most satisfying occupation. I chose a different path myself, but continued to admire those who went into the profession for their tenacity and dedication. Occasionally, I reproached myself for having taken a supposedly easy route, instead of doing something truly fulfilling and meaningful, like medicine.

If you take the time to think about it, though, the idea of some jobs being special or somehow more worthy is completely arbitrary. Search for images related to work on Google and an inordinate amount of laptops will pop up on your screen. Clearly, gainful employment involves a lot more than short bursts of typing between watching This Is Us and slurping coffee. We need people to build us streets and cut our hair and fix our kitchen sinks.

I’ve met personal trainers and plumbers who deeply enjoy what they do and care about their clients. I know of people who do work that might be regarded as menial and yet are quite content with it — they wouldn’t have it any other way. It may be time for us who constantly worry about doing the ‘right’ opportunity to take notice and mend our relationship to our jobs, instead of always looking to change them.

Curiously, integers (otherwise known as whole numbers) may have a thing or two to teach us about the value of all work.

No integer can exist in the absence of others. There would be no eight without seven, no product of ten without five and two. Even six, a technically ‘perfect’ integer, is so called because it happens to be equal to the sum of its factors, one, two and three — without these three building blocks, it would have nothing much to boast of.

Anything we manage to accomplish is only possible because of those that came before us, created tools we take for granted, educated us and helped develop our strengths. It follows then, that any task, be it driving someone to school, cooking for your family or sending a reference letter out for a former employee, sets the stage for other endeavours. How differently would we feel about our work if we kept in mind that it will ripple out and enable others to make their own mark on the world?

Integers can also teach us that the bulk of our achievement comes not from what we do but from whom we are (and for that matter, whom we become through our work). Each integer has special qualities simply by virtue of being. Similarly, our personalities, stories and aspirations arguably have a more significant impact on others than the concrete actions we perform. It’s valuable to keep this in mind and realise that we make a difference every single day, and not just when we manage to pull off momentous projects. The kind words you said to a disheartened colleague, the joke you shared with the nervous new employee and even the effort you put into your outfit may inspire someone in a way you may never come to know.

Numbers are interesting in other ways, too. They were invented by humans but we forget that they are also visible in nature. This parallels the way we’ve made the world of work into a complex, stressful, place, while losing sight of the fact that when we, as humans, are healthy and happy, we naturally seek some form of useful labour — it brings us meaning and even joy. Spending time with someone who needs a listening ear, going out in the cold to buy a friend a present, washing the dishes — all of this can be gainful effort if we simply decide that it is.

What if we finally let go of our lofty ideas about potential and success? What if we stopped questioning whether our jobs are worthwhile and instead, decide to make them so? If we chose to give ourselves as fully as we can to whatever we do, we might even discover, to our surprise, that work is as easy as one-two-three.

Thanks to Lynne Favreau and Milena Rangelov.

To read more of my articles please visit my articles page

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