The Case For Work Being the Meaning of Life by@raudaschl

The Case For Work Being the Meaning of Life

May 7th 2022 737 reads
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“We are still waiting on a cure for death, but until then building products may be the next best thing.” The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has many famous quotes, but one from a Playboy interview in 1985 hits me harder than the rest: “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why even be here?” Some have interpreted it as inspiration to live a life filled with purpose, and for 23-year-old me, that was certainly the case. These words were a trigger that steered me away from a medical career into one of building products.
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@raudaschl
Adrian H. Raudaschl

Physician turned product manager writing about all things medicine, business and technology.

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Photo by Kostya Kartavenka.

“We are still waiting on a cure for death, but until then building products may be the next best thing.”

The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has many famous quotes, but one from a Playboy interview in 1985 hits me harder than the rest: “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why even be here?”

Some have interpreted it as inspiration to live a life filled with purpose, and for 23-year-old me, that was certainly the case. These words were a trigger that steered me away from a medical career into one of building products.


I’m sure many who work in product design, engineering, or management have at some point experienced something similar. It’s a feeling that makes us question if we are spending our time wisely and if anyone would thank us for how we spent it.


As Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford address: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”


Humans seem to love a sense of looming fate; how else could five-star chrome extensions exist that remind us how long have left to live?


Mortality is a great motivator but also emotionally crippling — a constant gnawing of never “doing enough” or being “satisfied” enough with any outcome.


This is what I suspected Jobs was referring to when asked about the motivation behind creating his biography: “I wanted my kids to know me … I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”


Why is our internal experience not like other animals? A pigeon doesn’t sit around and agonise over what kind of pigeon they want to be this week. A Panda isn’t trying to be the Einstein of Pandas. What is it about being Homosapien that makes us care that our actions in life count for something?


If we hope to leverage this powerful motivation without devouring ourselves like an [Ouroboros] we need to examine what triggers this emotion in the first place.

How Mortality Motivates

20th-century philosopher, and star of this article Ernest Becker, is going to explain this phenomenon by pointing out that we have a fundamental tension at the core of our existence.


See, we humans are capable of doing some pretty impressive things. We can imagine and build things that don’t exist, create societies, write symphonies, engineer gods and tons of other cool things (what Becker calls “symbolic entities”). Yet simultaneously are always one unlucky road crossing, illness or geopolitical conflict away from death; our “biological entities”.


Taken literally, even Steve Jobs’s efforts to “put a dent in the universe” ultimately failed; 10,000 years from now, no one’s going to know what an iPhone was.


The tension comes from the reconciliation that our symbolic abilities — the ability to contemplate the infinite and create meaningful things — are fundamentally restricted by a biological existence that is so fragile and meaningless.


We are forced into a state of terror induced by a realisation that we are limited animals with unlimited horizons. We don’t just fear death; Becker would say what we fear is that our end of life is insignificant.


“This is the terror of death: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression– and with all this yet to die.” Ernest Becker


Tranquillizing Ourselves in the Trivial

So what to do?


We aren’t going to just sit around in a state of neurotic terror for the rest of our lives. We are going to find something that helps distract ourselves from existential dread.


Becker describes these distractions as an object that provides direction for how we should be living — something to transfer away our fear of insignificance.


Such transference objects could be a product metric, a career, a leader of a movement, your boss, your parents, your kids, the number of likes on a post, a number in your bank account or a prized shoe collection.


What we are effectively doing, Becker argues, is leveraging these symbolic entities to become the entire way we view our identity.


For most people reading, I suspect the most common transfer object is an immersion in work — a means to keep ourselves continually busy.


This comes back to the idea that building things like products that outlive us is a way of getting past our biological limits. That we become immortalised through the work, we produce.


It’s probably the reason researchers try to find cures for disease, why a parent wants their kids to have a better life, why people create works of art or run marathons. It’s probably why we do anything other than spend our days eating crisps and fusing into the sofa.


Even if we succeed in building something that establishes a legacy, there are no guarantees that would be a net positive for humanity.


Political ideologies can subjugate societies, AI models can reinforce discrimination and scientific discoveries have the potential to kill millions.


“The ideas that liberated one generation become the shackles of the next.” Isaiah Berlin


Now don’t get me wrong.


It’s easy to read the above and conclude, “Well, what’s the point of trying? Why do anything if we know it ultimately accounts for nothing?”


French philosopher Albert Camus would hear this and retort, “Congratulations, here’s your certificate for graduating the first grade of human existence.”


For Camus, looking for the meaning of life only to find nothing is basic. You’ve only just found your way to the race, and you’ve only just made it to the starting line.


Camus’s big question for us now is, knowing all we know, “what are we going to do next?”


See, I’m not suggesting that working on immortality projects is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably the only thing we should be doing.


Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience. It should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful. Albert Camus


Ernest Becker suggests that our illusions of having impact and meaning through things like immortality projects are absolutely needed. Becker calls these illusions “necessary lies” or a “necessary and basic dishonesty about oneself and one’s whole situation.”


That six-page proposal your boss asked for by Monday is saving our lives, and we didn’t even get them a thank you card.


We need these lies. If we didn’t have them, most of us probably wouldn’t be able to function.

The solution probably lies somewhere in the middle — somewhere between the absurdity of existence and an ultimate system of meaning.


Coming round to using our illusions as tools requires us to undertake a sort of three-step aphorism of the self, which I have adapted here from the fantastic Philosophise This podcast by Steven West (send some love his way):


  1. We DO currently interface with the world around us based on a set of constructed delusions
  2. We DO currently have meaningful activities we engage with every day
  3. We are NOT accessing the complexity of the universe


Rather than wallowing in despair, we should take all that overflowing neurotic energy and intelligence and apply it to something actually productive for us.


Even if that means resolving to do the same thing each day at the same time, that’s ok. If it means intentionally doing nothing, that’s ok. If we know what gives our lives centre and insulates us from unhappiness, that’s ok.


What we don’t want is to become slaves to our passions. Or to use our illusions to escape moral dilemmas by denying their reality or using them to harm others.


We should live by productive illusions, but never so much that we deny they are just that — illusions.

How Best to Live With Our Mortality

It’s somewhat calming to know that as long as humans have lived, we have also died.


Anyone can want more and more, but it takes an above-average person to master contentment.


Going back to Becker, he would say the universe does have some sort of ultimate significance; we will just never know what it is. “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced,” says 19th-century philosopher Jacobus Johannes Leeuw.


The great thing about building legacy and immortality projects is their ability to help us build a life full of fulfilment while hopefully making other people’s lives better along the way. As the Dalai Lama says: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”


The trick philosophers like Becker would recommend we use is to be aware that our illusions can help us learn to contend with them.


When we accept that death is a tool that gives our lives and work meaning, the things we choose to do with our time here begin to become more meaningful. The fact that someone took the day off and decided to spend it with you doing something fun suddenly makes it all the more special.


Activities like work can bring us meaning, sure, but I believe the causal relationship more often goes the other way: we find activities meaningful through our investment in them.


My best attempt to summarise all these ideas would be that when we let the implications of finitude permeate us a bit, it’s a relief because it enables us to align our expectations with the reality of the situation better.


Not so that we give up hope of doing incredible things, but so we can carry out a few significant, brilliant accomplishments instead of fruitlessly chasing an unlimited level of productivity.


Planning for the end of life can be a way to make our peace with it — and it can also feel very liberating.


“As we are born into time, so will time destroy us. Mortality is the price we pay for participating in Creation, the progression of our lives measured by the circling of the heavenly bodies.” (Miles J. Unger, Michelangelo)

Addendum

Personally, I side with Roman stoic Seneca’s perspective on the topic. Seneca once said, “Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive.”


I don’t think I could easily give up my legacy ambitions, but I think the next best thing is to seek out the writings of humanity’s greatest thinkers. “None of these will force you to die,” Seneca notes, “but all will teach you how to die.”

References


Previously published here.

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