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Work • Capitalism

What Should Truly Motivate Us at Work

In a perfect world, when it came to choosing an occupation, we would have only two priorities in mind:

– to find a job that we enjoyed

– to find a job that paid us enough to cover reasonable material needs

But in order to think so freely, we would have to be emotionally balanced in a way that few of us are. In reality, when it comes to choosing an occupation, we tend to be haunted by three additional priorities. We need:

– to find a job that will pay not just enough to cover reasonable material expenses but a lot more besides, enough to impress other people – even other people we don’t like very much.

– we crave to find a job that will allow us not to be at the mercy of other people, whom we may deep down fear and distrust.

– and we hope for a job that will make us well known, esteemed, honoured and perhaps famous, so that we will never again have to feel small or neglected.

Needless to say, these three additional requirements make working life hugely more complicated and unhappy than it would otherwise have needed to be. No wonder we may get stuck choosing what to do. Rather than being able to focus on the jobs that we are passionate about and that we would intrinsically enjoy, we have to twist our natures to appease extrinsic imperatives. There is no way that we could, for example, work as a kindergarten teacher, a psychotherapist, a carpenter or a cook. Our psychological drive to impress, to have power over others and to be known to strangers preclude such relatively modest choices from the start.

The state of our psyches means that we have to aim for far more stellar careers, even in fields we really don’t much like and may have to work much harder than is good for our health or our families. We are prone to be constantly panicked – because the bar for ‘failing’ is so much higher. A slight wind of disapproval from the public might be experienced as appalling, a bit less money than the astronomical sum we made last year will register as fateful. Under pressure, we may make unwise and hasty moves, we might cut corners, involve ourselves in risky schemes and not give our work the time and calm it needs. We’ll be less creative and original because the dangers of failure seem so great.

What would enable us to make the right career choices is something that seems, on the face of it, to have nothing to do with work at all: love, a profound experience of love in both childhood and adulthood.

A child who is properly loved is a creature who doesn’t need to prove itself in any significant way. It doesn’t have to excel at school, dazzle acquaintances or shore up a parent’s fragile sense of esteem (it may do well at school any way but because it enjoys the work, not because it has to boost a parent). It can find its way to its own pleasures, it doesn’t need to amaze; because it’s special enough just by existing. It may end up working extremely hard, but it will do so because it is passionate, not because it craves applause. It can concentrate on doing a job very well, while unimpeded by any worries as to whether it will be known in 100 years or to people in another city. It can potter away in obscurity, deriving gratification from the business at hand.

An experience of adult love further enhances a requisite sense of security. When someone properly loves us, their patience, concern and tenderness make us feel rooted and welcome on the earth. It doesn’t really matter if no one knows who we are and if there is very little left over at the end of the month. ‘Two people who are in love will be happy to sleep on a park bench,’ wrote D. H. Lawrence, an idea which may not be literally true, but which conveys well enough what room for manoeuvre love gives us in relation to our material priorities.

When we are loved, we don’t feel compelled to work harder than the task at hand requires. We don’t need to accumulate beyond measure; we are already titans in another person’s eyes. 

It follows that when people crave power, fortune and fame, it isn’t greed that is driving them, but an anguished feeling of being unloved – for which we can feel enormous compassion. They look like winners, they are in reality unhappy victims. All the frantic activity of modern high powered people stems from a feeling of invisibility and unimportance. It’s the labour of those driven on by wounds of lovelessness. Excessive achievements are the legacy of an emotionally damaged sense that it isn’t enough just to be. How much money is needed without love – how little one can get by on with it!

It may have become second nature to us to try to fix emotional wounds through our career choices and exploits. We may not even realise what we are up to. We should dare to ask: what might I have done with my life if I had felt properly loved from the start? And we may have to acknowledge, with tears in our eyes, how different our path would have been, how many genuine ambitions we sacrificed in the name of shoring up a sense of acceptability we should have had from infancy; how much of what we’ve done every day has been motivated by an emotional absence we’re only now slowly beginning to take on board.

The most astonishing career achievements will never compensate anyone for the lack of love they have suffered: work cannot fix a deficit of love. We should enjoy work on its own terms and, in another part of our lives, mourn and seek redemptive substitutes for the love we originally lacked.

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