The meaning of work

Photo by Moritz Kindler on Unsplash
Photo by Moritz Kindler on Unsplash

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Thomas Merton , No Man Is an Island

It's no accident I've quoted Merton — my spiritual teacher extraordinaire.

Is art the same as work?

This is what Seth Godin said on the subject:

“Art isn't only a painting. Art is anything that's creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.

What makes someone an artist? I don't think it has anything to do with a paintbrush. There are painters who follow the numbers, or paint billboards, or work in a small village in China, painting reproductions. These folks, while swell people, aren't artists. On the other hand, Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances. An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.

That's why Bob Dylan is an artist, but an anonymous corporate hack who dreams up Pop 40 hits on the other side of the glass is merely a marketer. That's why Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, is an artist, while a boiler room of telemarketers is simply a scam.

Tom Peters, corporate gadfly and writer, is an artist, even though his readers are businesspeople. He's an artist because he takes a stand, he takes the work personally, and he doesn't care if someone disagrees. His art is part of him, and he feels compelled to share it with you because it's important, not because he expects you to pay him for it.

Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn't matter. The intent does.

Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.” ― Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

The bit I've highlighted resonates with me? 

But how brave are we or can we be shackled to a set of largely anodyne rules invented for another industrial era? Of course, you might have gone solo but, even there, it's not a free-for-all.

I know in my case, I've railed against the system and I've stood up to be counted, but it didn't change much. Now? I've grown timid and resigned myself to toughing it out for as long as I need to in order to get my house in order. (That could be an act of bravery I suppose — that's for others to judge.)

Save for the meaning though, what about the future of work — the whole bloody thing? More particularly, what will be left of the marketplace? It's too early to tell, but the signs don't look good.

And then?

It's likely, but I can't possibly know, that any job will be better than no job. As to meaning, I'm not sure that will be the highest priority.

Where will that leave our art — in the Godin sense?

I don't know. 

What do you think?

Having worked through several recessions, there will be a few shining-star companies to emerge from the wreckage but I'd wager that the majority won't want to employ too many people looking to upset the apple cart. It will be, and I'm sorry to say this, business very much as usual.

My concern — and I feel it, deeply — is whether now there will ever be enough work to supply the demand of those people, across all ages, who need a job simply to live. Even for the few who choose to go solo, they too might struggle to find enough consistent work to meet their expectations. I accept there's a lot of guesswork and crystal-ball gazing in what I'm positing but I have this unerring sense that things will never be the same again.

Absent work, what then?

A Universal Basic Income?

Cancellation of household debt? 

Living in the gift economy?

Or, increased poverty and social deprivation?

Right now, I understand that many, many people will be deeply worried about their future, given the likelihood that certain sectors of the economy will never recover and what happens then absent any other jobs, green or otherwise, to replace the old ones?

Perhaps only then will we invite a new question or at least a better one than has been postulated up until now:

What is the meaning of work?

Personally, I think it's key. But then again, given how many institutions, political or otherwise, are invested in maintaining the current narrative, it hardly seems the most pressing issue. 

However, if I think about my children, they certainly have a very different view to my generation about the meaning of work. It's there, yes, but it's not the same as living. 

I'd love to know what you think?

What will emerge as the new story if, sadly, there are fewer jobs to go around and we're looking at a significant number of people either without a job or having to survive as best they can on zero-hours contracts or something similar?

I know this post doesn't do justice to the topics at hand — sorry. It's my intention over the course of the next few weeks to bring a bit more precision and research to this heady and important area of our lives. 

Thank you for reading.

Take care,


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