P.2: PILOT Ep0.2 – Purpose in Life and Work

Philosophy Bakes Bread, podcast

This is the second “PILOT season” episode of Philosophy Bakes Bread from 2016, when it came out only as a podcast. This episode considers the challenge of envisioning and choosing the right purposes for oneself and for one’s organizations in life and at work.


(28 mins)

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A class meeting outside.Tim is a college student who comes to ask you for advice. You seem happy, let’s say, and he wants to learn from you about what he should do to be happy also. He says that he wants to make a difference, and he’d like to make money. I encounter this scenario often in my work in higher education. What do you say? One solution you might imagine is to talk about your own life and what you care about. Pursuing those interests made you happy, perhaps. That’s nice for you, Tim thinks to himself, but he turns out not to be interested in those same things. He feels envious of your happiness and clarity of vision, but also frustrated and dispirited about his own struggle. Examples of happy people can be helpful, but only so long as we can figure out what it is about those people that led to their happiness. What is it about how they’re living that makes them happy?

Gallup logo.Some people often thought to be very unlucky can actually be happy. On the flip side, the story of the bored and melancholy prince is familiar. In one of Plato’s dialogues, an old man named Cephalus says that money helps you to be happy, but only by making it easier to avoid those behaviors that often lead to an unhappy life. You don’t have to steal to survive when you have plenty. A 2011 Gallup poll confirms Cephalus’s advice. A survey of 1,000 U.S. residents found that happiness did not scale according to income, but instead according to the achievement of meaningful life goals and rewarding friendships. Money only seemed to make a difference when household income was less than $75,000. Above that, happiness showed no gains for more money earned.

Aristotle.The philosopher Aristotle recognized the value and virtue of philanthropy, of course, which wealth can enable. You can give away money in a meaningful way that makes people’s lives better – that is, when you have money enough to give. If you’re miserable making your living, however, always dreaming about retirement, remember that you can get hit by a bus tomorrow, or the day before you retire. There has to be a better way than the rat race. Fortunately, there have been quite a few philosophers who have weighed in and who can help us to give Tim some direction. Even grown-ups, we old people, in Tim’s eyes, can often benefit from thinking about our present goals, our need for new ones, and the ways in which we are spending our time, as individuals and in organizations.
John LachsWelcome to Philosophy Bakes Bread, food for thought about life and leadership. This is Eric Thomas Weber. Today’s podcast is focused on purpose in life and in careers or organizations. I’ll talk about how some great philosophers have offered insights about self-reflection, about recognizing one’s virtues and values, and about the wisest ways to pursue happiness. Aristotle offered many insights on these subjects, but also about one of the great problems that can get in the way of happiness, namely the confusion of means and ends. Other thinkers, like Karl Marx, noted ways in which people become unhappy. While many people disagree with Marx’s political positions, contemporary philosopher John Lachs has recognized where and how Marx was right about the problem he called alienation. It is the separation of the activities we perform from the meaningful ends that we want to pursue in life. Lachs offers us ways of thinking about the happy life which can connect with Aristotle’s ideas about happiness and combat the challenges that Marx saw arising in the modern world.

So, what do we tell Tim?

Iconic building at Duke University.If you value one aim or several, then all kinds of things can be implications for your future. For Tim, the question is what he should value most, what we should go after. Of course, he has met many people who think that they have a clear sense of the best ways to live, and they go after them. He feels dejected when he sees them, because he lacks that clarity. He shouldn’t feel that way, however. A default outlook in the United States is to want to make a lot of money and live in a big house. We want to keep up with the Joneses. Countless young people enter college wanting to be doctors or attorneys one day, mainly because they’ve heard of those jobs, realize that they pay pretty well, or so it seems, and they can conceive vaguely of what it might mean to pursue those careers. Duke University reported that nearly a third of its freshmen said that their probable career occupation would be “Physician,” yet only 13 percent of seniors apply to medical school before graduation. Some people are well suited and could end up happy in that line of work. Still others, however, may achieve goals that they assumed to be right for them, only to end up going through mid-life crises, unhappy at work, and divorced at home, struggling to figure out what went wrong in life. A professor of medicine writing for the U.S. News and World Report cautioned people against entering med school “to fulfill someone else’s dream,” as a recipe for failure. Accepting what others value and think to be good choices for one’s life, without careful reflection and exploration is rolling the dice to find happiness.

Grandfather and granddaughter fishing together.When young people see big houses, have the idea of making a lot of money, or just generally want to make a difference, whatever that means, it can seem as though people who have certain things are happy. There are many people out there who are not happy but have a lot of money, however. How can that be? Aristotle thought that happiness is not something you can really judge at a particular moment. It isn’t having x or y by a certain date. He thought that happiness should be considered in terms of a lifetime. You don’t achieve happiness by 26 and then consider your life to be happy from then on out. To think about a happy life, then, means thinking about the big picture. This is one of the reasons why it is a good idea to ask one’s grandparents or just older, more experienced people about life and happiness. They have experienced more of it. They are aware of the challenges and opportunities that arise in various seasons in life. Cephalus, whose name means “head,” was the leader of his household in Plato’s dialogue called The Republic. He thought that the important thing for happiness was not the wealth he had accumulated, but the experience of living a virtuous life. There is joy in virtuous activity in itself, he recognized, but there is also a life-long benefit to living rightly. When you live virtuously, you don’t have to worry so much about life’s end — you don’t have to fear Hades, eternal damnation. Those people who are skeptics about Hades or Hell can still gain from Cephalus’s point, however, given that they might well in old age wonder whether they are proud of the lives they have lived. Young people don’t often find this lesson easy to grasp, but Aristotle’s first insight for Tim suggests the following exercise: Imagine you are 90 years old. What do you want your life to look like? What would you be proud of? What would make you unafraid to die, and happy that you lived the life that you did? In a freshman writing course, I once had students write time-capsule essays about who they are, what they want their lives to look like, and how they plan to get there. It was a similar exercise, and come to think of it, they seemed to have taken the exercise seriously and to have reflected deeply about their futures in that way.

Boy playing checkers with grandpa.Maybe Tim will think of this or that person who made the kind of difference he wants to make too. When I was 22, I knew a man whose life I wanted to emulate. Following his example has been invaluable. Maybe Tim can imagine, even as a dream, the kind of world that would have resulted in part from his own efforts, the sorts of changes to people’s lives that he would feel proud to have helped bring about. Maybe he can simply imagine the family he would love and support, and the grand-kids he can envision encouraging and beating at checkers one day. Maybe he’s still not sure.

A somewhat rushed and therefore blurry photo of me doing something I shouldn't be doing - putting my arms around the statue heads of Socrates and Aristotle at the Louvre museum in Paris. They're my buds. Plato was Aristotle’s teacher. He famously emphasized the powerful and enlightening aphorism that you should “Know Thyself.” Aristotle drew a lot out of that important maxim. When kids are very young, some are drawn to music. Others love playing with toys or throwing a ball. Each of us is drawn more towards certain stimuli over others. If you put 5 people in a room and ask them what is of interest in it, they might well all answer differently. John Dewey referred to the earliest form of this characteristic as selectivity. Our attention selects stimuli to focus on, and it does so in different ways from other people’s attention. This inclination towards some stimuli over others is not what some people call “stimulus/response.” That idea suggests that you and I are nothing more than the results of countless stimuli from our environment, which have shaped everything about us. That view thinks that individuals play no role in their own individuality. Dewey saw things differently. He thought we enter the world with different inclinations, even if we share some commonalities, like hunger. Given how individuals differ, we thereby select stimuli. One of my professors like to explain that “In the beginning was the response, not the stimulus.” When we see that very young people have personalizing inclinations to attend to some things over other things, we can make use of those inclinations, many of which we eventually call interests. When we know a young person, therefore, we can better answer his or her request for advice, like Tim’s.

Little girl in a gait trainer, learning to walk.Imagine a young man named Arthur. His sister grew up dealing with challenges related to disability. He might find interest in a life that addresses those kinds of difficulties. If he is mathematically and technically inclined and loves engineering, let’s say, he might pursue that education and connect it with his interests. If he’s at Stanford, he might enroll in a course presently offered, called Engineering 110, “Perspectives in Assistive Technology.” He could design new forms of technologies that empower persons with disabilities. Consider what new animatronic hands can do for persons who grow up without forearms. All manner of new devices are being designed today to reinvent the wheelchair. We have these new devices, like Segways, which can balance on two wheels, not needing four. Some companies’s designs can sit people up higher, or at varying heights. Today, you no longer have to be locked into low-level sitting positions. You can rise up and share eye-levels with people, or to reach into a cabinet, if you have some of the new special kinds of mobility devices out there. Imagine Arthur the engineer who loves creating robotic solutions, but feels even prouder of the tool he created which enabled someone’s child or spouse to walk, or to hear. These are life-changing differences he could make in the world, inspired by his inclinations, talents, efforts, and personal experiences and passions.

A notebook with writing on it that reads, " So tell me about yourself."We don’t know anything about Tim because he is my fictional example of the many students with whom I’ve had these same conversations countless times. Not knowing him makes it is impossible to connect to his interests. That point is instructive, however. The first step I take with young people, but that you could take with yourself or with your organization, is to ask him about himself. “Tell me about you and what you care about.” Even the initial threads of ideas are often enough to start making connections that he has never thought about. If Tim loves to read, then exploring the subjects that capture his interest is an obvious next step. There are also many people who love to read in the publishing industry. From journalists to editors, from literary agents to electronic publication Web designers, there are countless opportunities related to the love of reading. The point, according to Aristotle, though, is that knowing yourself tells you about the things you care about. You should first of all know your own nature as a human being, but you can continue the inquiry into greater and deeper specifics about what drives you. Such explorations reveal activities to try and aims to dabble in pursuing.

Photo of young people holding signs that spell out "Internships"We send young people to internships to try out environments that they haven’t experienced. Companies unready to dive into new territory can form committees or create experimental, limited trials for new programs. For Tim, what is most important is the question of the kind of activity that he loves to engage in, in which he flourishes. Even if it is hard to see a career path connected with a certain activity, there are so often connections that can be made in time. So, for Aristotle happiness should be considered over a whole life, but is also a matter of the activities we engage in, not the stuff we accumulate or the temporary goals which we complete and then stop pursuing.

A judge looking over a robot at a robotics competition.A good indicator of what makes you happy, according to Aristotle, is whether or not you lose yourself in the relevant activity. When you lose track of time, you are often doing something thoroughly engrossing, focusing on the feeling that comes from virtuous efforts. You might enjoy activities because of the challenge that captures your focus, the feeling that comes from slowly getting better at the activity or from having gotten good at it. When Arthur cares about a disabled sister, but thinks he is terrible at math, one question is whether he has tried certain math-related activities that he might love. Has he ever built a robot? When young people try out those kinds of activities, they may not start out enjoying math. But, when they have a tremendous amount of fun working on how to win the robot-building challenge for their school robotics team, all of a sudden they really want to understand this or that mathematical principle. There is little more motivating to dive into a field of study that is intimidating than seeing how and why we will benefit from and be excited about the results of putting its insights to use. Once first lessons are learned and connected with interest, further study feels fun and less scary.

Baby who's fallen down.Aristotle understood happiness as a consequence of virtuous activity over a whole life, but he never imagined that people would start out being really good at things. None of us can walk when we’re born. We forget that learning to walk involves falling down over and over. Yet that is analogously how we get good at most anything we learn.

Glove with a ball in it and a rubber band around it.Aristotle explained that the virtuous activities that make us happy are ones that we learn to do by carefully and repeatedly shaping our habits. Just like a baseball glove that is incredibly comfortable and that hugs a ball perfectly when catching it, people also have to be shaped and conditioned, as do organizations. A new baseball glove is always uncomfortable, awkward, and not well shaped for catching a ball. When I was growing up, I remember having to oil my glove, put a ball in it, and surround it with rubber bands. I was taught to put it under the couch, to sit on it, or under my mattress when I slept. After a while, when you take the ball out, the glove had taken the ball’s shape just in the right spot – in the pocket. It was conditioned to hold a ball well. When you care for it, you keep oiling it, throwing a ball into it regularly with your other hand, in time the thing will fit like a glove, as they say. Things come to be habituated to the way that they are treated very much like animals, human beings, and public and private organizations. The difference, for Aristotle, is the fact that unlike things, you and I can choose the sort of habits we want to have. Habits may be hard to shape just right, but they are significantly harder to change once they have been established. Their formation also takes a long period of awkwardness and effort, like the oiling, rubber bands, and pressure over time for a baseball glove. As we start to see the fruits of our good habits, however, we experience joy as a result of virtue. Aristotle and Plato were right about that.

Once we form our good habits and get clearer on aims to pursue, sometimes our goals change, or worse, we think only about making use of our good habits as ends in themselves, rather than thinking through a problem or an organization’s needs. To illustrate the point, imagine that Tim was chosen for a great internship opportunity last summer. He believed and still thinks that he would enjoy working as a business consultant, but he thinks that the organization he worked for was terrible. He had a boss preoccupied all the time with goals that Tim couldn’t identify with. The boss had gotten very good at some of his past job responsibilities, especially at fine tuning certain kinds of processes for getting higher efficiency out of a kind of machine manufacturing. Tim had a hard time understanding how what he was doing was of value to anyone. He went to work every day, enjoying well enough the activities he was asked to complete, but he didn’t understand how the activities he engaging in made any difference.

Canned photo of a group of employees consulting with each other.Tim’s boss has him working on a consulting project visiting a factory. The factory was having trouble getting its products out the door. They require the creation and then assembly of part A, part B, and part C. Tim’s boss knows a lot about the machines that make part A. He spent his time advising the manufacturing plant’s manager about how to optimize efficiency in producing more of part A. He was increasing efficiency. Tim felt frustrated. He didn’t see why increased production of part A would help anything. The plant was making plenty of A’s and B’s, so much so that they had a glut of those parts, filling nearly all of the inventory space. The problem was that they didn’t have enough of part C. Part C was made with an old machine that people no longer were well versed on how to run. The plant had too much inventory, but not of the right kinds to fill its orders, which required putting the three parts together. Tim’s boss didn’t know a lot about the machine that makes part C. It was the bane of the plant’s existence, and they couldn’t stand to talk about it. Tim tried and tried to get his boss to attend to the machine that makes part C, but he wouldn’t listen. Tim was tasked with busywork for which his boss could bill the plant, but which only had to do increasing efficiency of the machine that made part A. It felt stupid. He was good at his work, but his input wasn’t welcomed. Eventually he completed his 12-week internship and felt as though the work he did may have gotten him some experience, but it was demoralizing. He wasn’t making the difference that he thought he could have made.

Aristotle tells us that it is common for people to mistake means and ends. A famous line often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche suggests that “To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.” When Tim’s boss was focusing on maximizing efficiency in running the machine that makes part A, he was valuing efficiency, but the efficiency of a means to an end, all while forgetting the goal for which efficiency was needed. What means do you need to fulfill the end you’re supposed to be achieving? The answer is that if you need to put A, B, and C together, and if you have plenty of A’s and B’s, you should look to see what else you need. So often we get caught up in processes, thinking about some things as values or limiting principles that can often be beside the point or even inapplicable to new circumstances. If the goal was to get more assemble products out the door, more C’s needed to be made. Attending to how many A’s can be made each hour was to be inefficient towards the goal that matters. Aristotle would say that Tim’s boss was mistaking a means for an end.

Hundred dollar bills.One might think that Tim’s boss was smart. He had a client who was paying the consulting firm. He had income for his firm for the work that Tim did. Why not think that the firm’s goal is to make money. Isn’t that the purpose of business? Here again, and perhaps most importantly, Aristotle would say that Tim’s boss was making a profound mistake. Businesses generally need to make money over time. Many start-ups lose money for several years at first, but at some point they need to become solvent or close. Aristotle would add to that qualification the fact that a necessity for business is not the same thing as its purpose. I need to eat lunch today, but to say that my purpose is to do so would be off target. Businesses are supposed to fill needs, to make people’s lives better through transactions. They are supposed to add value to the world, and in exchange they get paid for it. It is perverse to think that because one is making money, one’s goal has been fulfilled. Instead, Tim’s boss should listen to the young man and consider what is best for the client. When conditions improve for the factory, payment will come for the benefit that the firm conferred upon the manufacturing company.

Recognizing the crucial difference between means and ends is yet another important part of Aristotle’s understanding of happiness. A beloved family friend made a great deal of money as a Wall Street attorney. Before he died, he told me that if he had had to do it all over again, he would have been a high school teacher. He was thinking about his life and what would have been most meaningful in retrospect, reminiscent of the lesson from Plato’s Cephalus.

Cover of Lachs's book, Intermediate Man.The case of Tim’s boss, the consultant, brings us to the last point I’ll address, namely alienation. In confusing means for ends, Tim’s boss was not only being foolish with respect to doing his job. He was also developing unhappy habits both in himself and in Tim. He was fostering what Karl Marx once called alienation. Wherever you stand politically, it’s important to recognize what Marx was right about. Explaining the problem of alienation and solutions to it, John Lachs’s book, Intermediate Man, argues that in the modern world, so much of our work is done for purposes that we cannot see or that we don’t know about. We come to the factory. We’re asked to make part A. We go to it. We get profoundly good at making part A and we make tons of them. When friends asked what we do, the job is easy to name. When we’re asked what part A is for, we might in fact have no idea. When the activities we perform out of need for a job have nothing to do in particular with the ultimate ends of our labor, we work only for the money we make. That is not a recipe for happy or intelligent work. The worker who is not instructed about the aims of his or her job can’t offer insight about different ways of solving relevant problems. He or she might have ideas about how to run the machine better, sure. But we have probably all heard the line, “I’m sorry – look, I just work here.” That sums up the idea that Lachs is worried about. Intelligence is not something isolated to the few spectacular people imagined in fanciful political novels. There are lots of smart people in this world, and they will be markedly happier, Aristotle and Lachs have explained, if they can connect the work that they do to the embodiment of some virtue, to the fulfillment of certain human, animal, environmental, or spiritual ends. In addition, we will all benefit when intelligence is maximally put to use, not squandered.

PHoto of a little league baseball team.When Tim was told to shut up and get his boss the reports about Part A that were recently released, he feels that his insights are not valued, that he is not really part of a team intended to achieve a shared goal together. He might leave the consulting industry because of the shallowness and stupidity of one boss. If going to work every day will mean punching a clock so that Tim’s boss can bill his clients, not so that they can make a valuable difference in the world, he would be wise to want nothing to do with it. Then again, he might either pursue a better firm or eventually start his own. In the end, the important point is that we consider the difference we want to make and think about how the activities in which we lose ourselves can embody the virtues that will make us proud of the difference we made in life. Of course, that doesn’t have to be in careers involving employment. These differences can be made in volunteer work, in raising families, in the work we do outside of our jobs, in civic engagement, or in coaching little league.

With the help of thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Lachs, we can identify a number of ideas for steering young people in the right direction. These insights might also be of use to the mid-career professional who is struggling to envision fulfilling next steps now that all of his or her goals have been checked off a first list of big ambitions. No matter our life-stage or organizational needs, we should prepare ourselves for the copious amounts of hard work it will take to form the right habits that we want, to pursue those meaningful ends that we can find if we reflect. We can remind ourselves that money is a means, not an end. We can try to shape our workplaces and public organizations into environments in which people are invited into shared leadership together. We can strive for awareness of how our efforts make a difference in the grander scheme of the public good. We won’t know precisely where to steer Tim until we meet him, but we do have some useful ideas for him to chew on as he ponders what to do with his life, or as you and I do as we think about the next stages of ours.

A slice of French bread.Thanks for joining me in this second episode of Philosophy Bakes Bread, food for thought about life and leadership. You can subscribe to this podcast at PhilosophyBakesBread.com or at iTunes, and you can also connect on Facebook and on Twitter.

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