Five ways to think about meaningful work – in books
Over the last year and more I’ve been fascinated by the ways we seek and find a sense of purpose in work. I’ve had conversations with 100 people including a Buddhist monk, a modern philosopher and a blind adventurer, alongside many others seeking their own sense of direction in their work.
In the process I’ve read several books which have shaped my thinking – and in some cases, completely transformed it.
So, here are the five books that have most influenced me. This is not an exhaustive list but these five books each represent a different way of looking at meaningful work.
Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E Frankl
A classic. Perhaps the classic for anyone questioning their own sense of meaning and purpose in life. There is a lot to say about this book, but two things most stood out for me. Firstly, it’s impossible to read this book and not be humbled by the horrors that Frankl and others endured in concentration camps. For Frankl it is his enduring sense of purpose that sustains him.
Secondly, Frankl flips the question of purpose on its head – rather than expecting to find purpose in life, he challenges that we should ask what life expects of us:
‘It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life— daily and hourly.’
Viktor E Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl reminds us of our responsibility towards life, even in the face of death.
A Confession – Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy wrote A Confession in 1879 - a reminder that people have been searching for meaning in life and work across the centuries. He encounters many of the same challenges we do now, attempting to find his sense of purpose in career success, in academic study, in hedonism, in community with family and friends and finally in faith and religion. Despite the distance in time, it’s a remarkably relatable book and Tolstoy writes honestly – and at times despairingly – about his quest for meaning.
‘My question… was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder… It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? – What will come of my whole life?’’
Leo Tolstoy, A Confession
At The Existentialist Café; Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails – Sarah Bakewell
If you’re not into philosophy and academics, don’t stop reading. The existentialists were the rebels of the philosophical world, determined to take philosophy out of its ivory tower and into the bars and cafés of real life. It was as much a cultural and literary movement as a philosophical one and Sarah Bakewell’s tale of the existentialists takes an entire era of philosophical thought and makes it vivid and relevant.
‘Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.’
Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café
The existentialist’s starting point is the terrifying sense of confusion that comes from the notion that we live in a meaningless world. This experience gave rise to the term existential angst.
The existentialists – including Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard and many others – addressed the fundamental issues of authenticity and freedom and, ultimately, what it means to exist in the world as a human being.
What Should I Do With My Life – Po Bronson
‘Noah would happily work sixteen-hour days if only he knew what it was he should be doing.’
Po Bronson, What Should I Do With My Life
This is less a self-help book than a written documentary about the ways people have gone about finding meaning in their work. Po Bronson set out to interview others across the US and beyond to gather their stories on finding meaningful work. The accounts are honest and often funny.
Crucially, it is a book that doesn’t promise answers, but rather a sense of comfort and consolation that we are not alone in grappling with these questions. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to my own aims with Questions on Purpose – recognising that the reality of searching for meaning in work is much more difficult and much more interesting than many self-help books would have you believe.
Bullshit Jobs – David Graeber
‘What does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law?’
David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs
This is a controversial book – and many have argued against Graeber’s claims. But the notion that meaningless jobs are on the rise hit a collective nerve – Graeber’s original Strike! essay went viral back in 2013 and a following YouGov poll found 37% of British workers thought their jobs were meaningless.
While most books about purposeful work focus on the personal, Bullshit Jobs takes the problem of meaningless work as a societal and political one. Graeber’s revealing account of the history of work is here to shake us out of our collective malaise.
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