Work – A personal history

A friend once gave me a definition of “vocation” as “where your abilities meet the world’s needs”. I think she said it was from one of those new agey pop psychology writers, though google attributes it to Aristotle. But whoever said it, that definition has never left me and I have yet to ever hear a better definition of what it means to do meaningful work.

Some people will always argue they are the exception, but I still think it’s safe to say that the employment of most of us does not meet this definition. Most work neither uses our abilities nor meets the world’s needs very well; some of it is actively destructive towards society and the planet. In the end the reason for this is that the logic that governs our world is not abilities, not needs, but purely profit.

And so work – that human impulse to contribute something towards making a better world – is deformed into the slow dripping water torture of pointless jobs, endless bureaucracy, demeaning bosses, fear of losing your job, and plain old exploitation that is given the cruelly ironic name of “making a living”.

I am of the belief that work can be rescued and reformed into something fulfilling, rewarding and useful – something that inspires us rather than drains us, a place where our abilities meet the world’s needs. And in this article I’m going to share a few shifts in how we perceive work that might help us get there. I’m also going to share examples of how I’ve tried to put them into practice.

I do this not to boast about my own achievements or because I believe everyone should do the same (after all, that definition would suggest that what a fulfilling vocation looks like should be different for every person); I do it because most of what I write here is already written in other places. And yet jobs are getting more oppressive and monotonous. Theory is good, but we also need practical ways to try to change how we work.

When I was younger I enjoyed work – I liked my first job (at a fast food chain) much more than I did the school work which was supposedly going to guarantee me a better future. The tangible results of working together as a team to serve customers were more rewarding than the abstract idea of studying things I wasn’t really interested in with a view to some future employment (things I was interested in I studied obsessively – didn’t help my marks!). I worked hard at it too. It seems hard to believe given how my life has turned out, but at the end of my first year of paid employment I had a fancy certificate saying I was “employee of the year”.

Other jobs I had as a young adult included working at a supermarket and working as a labourer for tradesmen. Especially labour work gave me another reason to enjoy work – under the traditional gender roles I had grown up around, there is something very manly about getting up early, doing hard physical work, getting dirty and going home tired.

But still these jobs didn’t fulfil me in the way a true vocation should. I didn’t at that stage have an inkling of what my vocation might be, but I intuitively recognised this when I turned down a couple of opportunities for apprenticeships in different trades. The only reason I needed was imagining myself in ten years time completely bored and wondering why I was still doing this job. These jobs didn’t especially use my natural abilities very well (even that idea of masculinity, as powerful as it was, belonged to someone else not me); and I didn’t really feel like I was contributing much to any great need in the world.

A couple of years out of high school I ended up studying again. Theology was the degree, job prospects extremely limited. Not only that, but within touching distance of getting my degree I stopped studying, impatient to do something else. I was a self-defeating careerist. Yet I was getting closer to discerning a true vocation – theology was what I was interested in and could prepare me for what I wanted to do in the future. Plus having youth allowance cover most of my expenses meant that the building site I worked on for most of my time studying – the new building of the Sydney church I was part of – I could do mostly for free, only invoicing them for my hours worked when I had run out of money.

Now unpaid work is not something I always recommend – especially if someone somewhere is making a profit off your labour. The current prevalence of unpaid internships is just another addition to the list of terrible things about work. But the problem with paid work is that just because somebody is paying you money (and let’s be absolutely clear here – as a worker, you make money for your employers, not the other way around), it is assumed that this work is automatically your top priority and every other part of your life should revolve around the hours they want you to work. Plus regardless of your abilities, you do things the way your boss tells you too, again because they are paying you. There are all kinds of ways we try to match our abilities with the world’s needs, all kinds of things that could be considered work. But there is usually only one standard by which we measure their importance – money.

In the end the reason we do this is because we need money to survive. This is what I discovered once I stopped studying and went back to work. I wanted to change the world, to change my life and to try different ways of doing both. But I had to pay for rent (not cheap in Sydney) and food, and so ended up juggling a variety of jobs in an attempt to have enough money to get by without having my life taken over by a full-time job.

It was hard, and often if a short-term job dried up I didn’t make enough to pay the rent. Which was a bit demoralising. But meeting people who shared my desire to live beyond just making a living, I discovered that you could eat for free from the bins of supermarkets. And that you could avoid rent by shacking up in abandoned houses. I already knew that most things we are told we need we don’t really – an idea was germinating in my head.

I remember the day I decided I was going to quit money. There was a protest by the asylum seekers locked up at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. A detainee had committed suicide, and it sparked the rest to burn furniture and climb on the roof in protest. A group of us went out to Villawood to show our solidarity and to talk about their situation with locals and interested observers. When the protesters said they were going for another day, we decided we would too. Except that night my job called, asking me to work the next day. I couldn’t say no either – because I needed to pay rent and because saying no might mean I got less shifts in the future (unbelievably, there was no roster – we were expected to wait by the phone for a call to work and to be available when it came).

shelf-stackThat next day, as I stacked supermarket shelves, I resolved that no longer would economics dictate work for me. Within a few months, I had given away most of my possessions, moved out of my rented house and quit my jobs. I was free to do the work that mattered to me.

That change, at 24 years old, is one of the defining moments of my life and certainly a key point in my exploration of what it means to do meaningful work. Freed of economic needs and cultural norms; I could begin the process of figuring out how to meet my abilities with the world’s needs.

An early discovery was that despite all those years of cursing the alarm clock and longing for days off, I actually really liked and needed work. As I hit the road and explored new cities, I found myself searching for the connection with others that comes from achieving something together, for the feeling of fulfilment that comes from contributing something to the world. I could live very comfortably off the waste of our society and do very little; yet I would quickly, in whatever city I ended up in, amass a steady schedule of volunteering at different things. I jumped at the chance to participate in working bees. Often without much of a home of my own to maintain, I would clean the houses of my friends, usually much to their bemusement.

With that discovery made, I also began to look at work in a different way; and to believe that maybe the distinction between work and leisure need not be as defined as we make it. As the rhetoric of “self-care” becomes more and more widespread, the work/leisure distinction is becoming stronger than ever. We are told we need to set aside “me-time” – to do activities we find fun and relaxing away from other responsibilities. I certainly don’t dispute this, especially as new technology enables employment to colonise more and more of our lives. But the problem is that most self-care literature doesn’t question the single most destructive thing for all of our selves – that economics is continually given priority over human needs. I believe in self-care, but think it should include critiquing the kind of work we do, and asking why we find it so draining.

Long before I gave up money I developed a habit of staying behind after events I attended to help pack up. It was helpful to to others, but it was also an excellent way to meet others and it transformed my own role from passive consumer to active participant. Now I could make a lifestyle of it – I did hard physical work, sat through marathon political meetings, played music for people, or hung out cooking with my friends. Which were work? Did it matter? I was under no compulsion to do any of them, I maybe saw some value in them; but still I did these things because for whatever reason, I enjoyed them.

Thinking about this, an interesting example that especially comes to mind is Food Not Bombs. A world wide movement of communal cookups that serve food for free in public places, I have regularly done Food Not Bombs in various cities for many years now. Like a lot of things that rely on volunteer labour, Food Not Bombs is famous for burning out its participants. Certainly in Brisbane it was for a long time a real struggle to get a functional collective going that could do all the work required to make it happen. In fact, for several years, I pretty much single-handedly kept Brisbane Food Not Bombs going – every week I would dumpster-dive food on a Thursday night, bring it to the kitchen on a Friday afternoon, cook meals (usually with a few helpers, though not always), serve it up on the street and then clean up afterwards. When I left town for a while, it would stop happening. I don’t say this to boast – I’m much more proud of my achievement now that we have an actual sustainable collective. The point of this example is that I managed to feed countless people, use food that would otherwise have been wasted, and offer an example of a non-money based way of relating to others. And I managed to do this not because it was successful (it was the source of much despair), or because I was under any compulsion to do it. The reason I kept coming back every Friday (and still do) was in the end because I enjoyed doing it.

Erasing the distinction between work and leisure opens up all kinds of possibilities – what is work anyway? Because our usual definition – the thing you get paid to do – obviously no longer applied. That definition fails for multiple reasons anyway – as the feminist movement has long pointed out, not all work which enables economic growth is paid anyway, and for a long time women have been expected to do the home labour that allows men to go to work without being paid for it. But another interesting point is that some people do for free what others get paid for. So why is one “work” and the other not? To use myself again as an example, I play music for fun and because I love music. Occasionally I get paid for it, but mostly not. I think of music as a fairly self-indulgent activity, but the reality is that many people get paid for making music. Same goes for writing, playing sport, even reading to try to understand the world. I will argue that all these things are worth doing, although not because the fact that someone somewhere gets paid for it gives them some kind of legitimacy. No, something is worth doing if you feel it contributes something to the world, in whatever way. Isn’t that the purpose of work?

So the horizons of work are thrown wide open. You can see why I struggled when I’d meet people and they’d invariably ask “what do you do?” This question always frustrated me anyway, because when we ask each other “what we do”, it always implies their paid employment, whether or not that is where their true passions or skills lie. For many people it’s their most hated part of life! Coming back again to that definition of where our abilities meet the world’s needs, to achieve that requires investigation of what our abilities actually are – something which the economic impetus of employment rarely allows us to do. Not only are our work options limited to those things which can make money for someone, we are expected to specialise in one task – the basis of capitalist exchange.

For some people, specialising in one task is perfect. But for many of us, we have diverse skills and diverse interests. Finding fulfilling work is easier if it involves a variety of tasks. Not only that, but to discover our skills often requires the time, freedom and support to try new things. One of the earliest things I started doing after quitting money was to get a pen and write. I had never really written creatively before as an adult, but I enjoyed it and other people seemed to enjoy reading what I wrote. They would even thank me for new insights I had given them – in a tiny way, my abilities were filling a need. Yet what I wrote offered no commercial potential, and I didn’t feel that writing was especially my calling any more than other things were. In other words, without the freedom to experiment, I never could have discovered this part of my vocation. Similarly, I simply fell into doing radio journalism because there was a need for people at 4ZZZ in Brisbane. I had never really seen myself as a journalist, but it has subsequently become a huge part of my life, and something I think I am reasonably good at – as well as being something there is an undeniable need for.

“What I do” has always been very varied, and I doubt I’m alone in preferring it that way. In fact, truly trying to match our abilities with the world’s needs probably means changing tasks as we discover new sides of ourselves and the needs of the world around us shift. A rigid, specialised workforce causes issues when technological or societal changes make some jobs obsolete. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Over two years after I had left the paid workforce, I got a call from a friend. He is the boss of a disability support organisation, and he told me they had a new paid role open up, and I was the person they thought should fill it. For all the reasons I have already mentioned, I was very hesitant to take it up. I hadn’t missed paid employment, nor had I missed the complications that having money to your name brings. Plus I liked being a crazy example of someone trying to live a very different way. But the work was something I thought worthwhile (I had been doing a pretty similar job as a volunteer for quite a while anyway) and they seemed to think I had something particular to offer the task. Half a day a week was hardly the most strenuous workload either, and I figured the money could come in handy. So with much consternation (I did the job for two months before I even filled out the paperwork for pay, and even then it took my boss telling me his supervisors were on his back about it), I re-entered the world of paid employment.

For three and a half years now I have worked in that job. I believe I’ve contributed something to the world, and to be honest that money has come in handy. But I have continued to treat that job as only part of a broader oeuvre of work that I do, and my employers have supported me in that way too – giving me time off when I have asked for it, and not been fussed when they get a letter from the government saying my criminal record has changed and they need to re-evaluate whether I am morally fit for the job.

I mention this especially because obviously not everyone wants to live the kind of lifestyle that allowed me to experiment with work. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for those that don’t. There are unlimited ways we can change our lives and our society to pursue a more meaningful way of doing work. As many ways as there are imaginations in the world. I have lived communally in a way that can support each other to follow their vocation whether it makes money or not; on a broader scale ideas like the Universal Basic Income could enable us to rethink what it means to work. Technological changes are meant to enable us to work less; the stress, debt levels and number of completely useless jobs that fill our society are a good reminder that they mostly haven’t done that. In the end, technology is as enslaved to economics as humans are, and when we rectify that it could radically change our society.

Despite all this, people continue to do work because they believe in it, regardless of profits. People volunteer for causes they believe in. Open source programmers develop computer software for the world to use freely with no financial reward or other recognition. While politicians entrench the status quo that pays their (hefty) bills, grassroots volunteer movements are usually the force for change that betters our society. Even our most basic needs point the way to new possibilities – people come home from their paid jobs and grow food or build shelter and transport for fun. It’s my belief that these cracks in the economic system is where a lot of the most important work is done.

As for me, I still do support work, and radio, and Food Not Bombs. Still play music and write. I paint banners, organise public events and plan political campaigns. I still help out at church, try to be a good friend and a friendly person to people I meet. Me and my housemates open up our house to people who need somewhere to stay or someone to talk to, and occasionally deal with the complications that come from that. I do all these things plus whatever other opportunities come up; and I do them all as well as I can because I believe my ability to do those tasks meets a need in the world.

As I was writing this, I talked to my friend about the ideas. She wasn’t so enthusiastic. She protested that this definition of vocation is entirely self-enforced, and in her experience (and mine too, let’s be honest), people are often happy to sponge off others without doing an equal share of the work.

This is a valid point. Human selfishness is an inescapable fact whose power should never be underestimated. But whether that justifies our current system is another question. The idea of capitalism as a meritocracy is a blatant lie. We in the west constantly sponge off the cheap labour and resource exploitation of the majority of the world’s population. That we have more money than people of the developing world is due entirely to accident of birth, not because we work harder (we don’t, in case you were wondering). No one sponges more than the CEO who earns 50 times the amount of the employees in his company who do the actual productive work.

The idea of work as abilities meeting needs should be read as a multi-faceted critique of overwork, pointless jobs, exploitation of others and the expectation that you can do nothing and someone else will do the work. It is a motto for taking personal responsibility of our own lives and the world around us. It is an invitation to become workers, not just products.


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2 responses to “Work – A personal history

  1. Still loving your work, Andy. Keep it up!

  2. An interesting quotation. What would generate better discussions however would be to get to the grassroots of what people actually mean, and why, when using terms such as ‘hard work’, ‘earning a living’, and ‘needs’. I often pose the question, ‘is digging 100 holes in the ground hard work?’ If the definition of hard work is physical exertion, then the answer is yes; however if the definition is only once you convince someone they need to buy those 100 holes from you, then until you can convince another to buy those 100 holes, you have not done any work at all and therefore have not earned a living.

    I came to the conclusion a few years ago that what the world needs is not to ‘reshape’ or even ‘replace’ capitalism, nor turn to any other form of ‘ism’, nor to convince everyone of any ideal or belief system (such as trying to convince everyone to temper their greed, coz it aint gonna happen) but rather to first recognize that capitalism itself is over-crowded; it is shooting itself in the foot because every tom, dick, and harry is out there trying to get a piece of the pie and our society has become one in which if you are not out there participating in it you are deemed not to be doing your bit. What is really ironic about all this is that it was not that long ago many people were more self-sufficient working the land and yet left all this in a huge hurry to try their luck at city life with its lure of riches and wealth – now we have made it almost mandatory to think this way.

    To relieve that pressure which has been created by this overcrowding there needs to be an alternative, backed by law, which enables individuals and families to renounce capitalism altogether but to co-exist alongside everyone else who may or may not be pursuing capitalist goals. This alternative is what I call ‘the way of the custodian’ (which has become my life project if you will), and it simply means that an individual by declaring their intentions to no longer treat those resources, which make up their human needs, as commodities, instead holds them and manages them in trust as a custodian – the result being there is simply no need to have to engage in any form of trade, or exchange economics, and therefore no need to use money. They are no longer competing for money, and thus they relieve the pressure on the rest who are competing for money. We work with capitalism not against it.

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