Saturday, February 21, 2004

Useful work

Paul Goodman (bibliography, bio) has been quoted as saying
I have learned to have very modest goals for society and myself, things like clean air, green grass, children with bright eyes, not being pushed around, useful work that suits one's abilities, plain tasty food.
I particularly like the simple goal of doing useful work that suits my abilities. I think my current work fits my abilities; my boss rewards me very well for what I’m doing. The harder question is whether my work is useful.

It is useful to my boss and hence my employer, because I get a pay check every two weeks. I don’t know if it’s useful to society at large, though. To the extent that my company pays taxes, and my work helps the bottom line, I contribute to the general good. My company also has a good reputation for contributing to social welfare through various programs, which is a more specific “good”. However, I don’t feel that my own work is improving the life of anyone who truly needs help.

An American for-profit company exists for the benefit of its shareholders; it isn’t a charity. And yet… the shareholders benefit when a company, especially one with a mixed reputation, is seen to be doing good: "Do well by doing good." Perhaps I would see my work as more useful if it were more closely aligned with improving the lot of the poor and the weak.

Of course, that’s a very selfish view: I want to feel good by doing good.

It is probably no accident that Goodman didn’t talk about “enjoyable work” or “satisfying work”. No experience is consistently enjoyable; without discomfort, we wouldn’t recognize joy. There are two ways to deal with this: find a middle way that is neither pleasurable nor painful, or seek elation while accepting that despair is the price that will have to be paid. Which path one follows is a matter of culture and personality; I prefer the former. Finding constant satisfaction in work is also be a will o’ the wisp. I would hope not, but my experience has been that I swing between satisfaction and frustration.

The qualifier “useful” exists outside the worker; it is a consequence of the work they do. “Enjoyable” or “satisfying” refers to the mental state of the worker; it is subjective and selfish. Goodman seems to be suggesting that we look to the social consequences of work, rather than its subjective effects. A noble exhortation; but oh so hard for a frail ego!

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