The Meaning of Work

Do you seek a balance between work and life? Or is your meaning of work also the meaning of life?

Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs suggests that in life people ultimately seek self-actualization. But they do this only after their more basic needs, such as food, health, friends, and respect, are adequately covered. It must be said that the hierarchical nature of Maslow’s model has received a fair amount of criticism, but I’m sure no critic would claim that winning on The X-Factor is the main concern for anyone who is starving or perishing.

Hierarchy-of-needs

Another model, suggested by psychology professor Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, suggests that in work most people have either of three purposes: they see their work as a job, as a career, or as a calling. Again, there is an implied hierarchy here, which might be debatable. But again, no critic would believe that finding your calling comes easy when you’ve never had a job or two. Or three. Or thirteen.

Job-career-calling

The idea occurred to me that these two models seem to be nicely aligned. When people are trying to survive, paying for food and health, they just need a job. When people have time to pursue social concerns, seeking friends and respect, they probably see their work as a career. But when they’ve achieved all that, and they look for the meaning of life and the meaning of work, I believe they will be looking for self-actualization and a calling.

Work-life-balance

I could be wrong, but I believe that anyone who seeks a work-life balance is probably in one of the bottom four groups. Apparently, they cannot find self-actualization in their work, and thus the need for work must be “balanced” with the meaning of life.

Those who are in the top group don’t see work and life as being in conflict with each other. They prefer a work-life imbalance. For them, their work is part of their life. Because their work helps them self-actualize, their meaning of work is the meaning of life.


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  • http://profile.typepad.com/lucianadrian Lucianadrian

    Interesting topic and I agree that most probably you are not wrong, since you did a remapping and reduction of levels. On the other side, I do not agree with the idea that those on the “HuH” level do not confront any work-life balance issues. To support this, please think of the family of those people that are so dedicated to their work, that they forget about anything beside. From a simple first-person view of the topic, this is true, but if family and friends are added to the equation, there needs to be a work-life balance in there.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    You are right, of course. I did not mean to imply that work can be the *only* way to self-actualize.

  • Peter Boros

    Interesting idea, but I’m not convinced the two models can be mapped so cleanly.
    Consider the type of person who “knows” since age six what she wants to become, and grows up to actually fulfill this role (let’s say a doctor, teacher, or social worker helping old people). These people feel a calling before even getting to the stage of life where they need to think of the “hygene factors” like food and health. And interestingly, often these types of jobs don’t come with much pay, but a heavy work schedule.
    I think someone who feels a calling often overrides the basic life necessities within herself (often to the point of altruism), and it’s not the hierarchical process of getting past one to reach the other.
    Also, because of the complex nature of life, I think a work-life balance is always needed. I mean for one, there’ll always be people important to you who need your attention and are not closely related to your work. Also, in any activity, some form of breaks are always needed to keep a sustainable pace.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    You’re right, though I feel you’re describing exceptions, not common patterns. As I’ve said before, don’t take models too seriously. (Particularly the hierarchical ones.) All models are wrong, but some are useful.

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