We end up asking ourselves, often in some distress, what we should do with our working lives because of a painful quirk of our minds: they tell us with particular clarity what they don’t enjoy doing (even if the work is well-paid and socially prestigious) but they are prone to be stubbornly confused about what would satisfy them. We have inside us an innate working identity which strongly demands recognition and yet is extremely vague, shy and hard to get to know. Most of us are forced to feel our way towards it through long trial and error accompanied by self-observation and reflection rather than encountering it ready-made at the moment we leave higher education.
We may have to endure years of confusion and a troubling awareness that we are not playing to our strengths and interests, even if what we are actually good at and passionate about is not yet clear to our piloting consciousness. The goal, however, is evident from the start: that we should be doing work which is deeply in line with our real selves, which isn’t merely about earning our way; which – though it may sometimes be very hard and filled with frustrations – answers to the distinctive movements and character of our own souls, work that, as we put it, feels properly authentic.
There can be no generalisations about what authentic work will actually require us to do. A job may, for instance, require us to stick with a set of almost intractable mathematical problems for a long time. This would sound awful to some people; but we may powerfully enjoy the long, slow sense of nibbling away at a major task, trying out several options before landing on an especially good solution. But perhaps authentic work will involve making many urgent and decisive financial interventions in a fast-moving, somewhat chaotic environment. While this might induce panic in some, for others, calmer circumstances would be hellish. Or it could be that to feel authentic, we need our work to involve a subordinate, supportive role where we can be admiring of, and loyal to, someone else who is in command – a pleasure stemming back, possibly, to the satisfaction we had as a child around an older, quite bossy but very impressive sibling.
What makes work authentic isn’t a particular kind of task; it has nothing to do with making pots or being a carpenter (jobs often superficially associated with the idea of authenticity). What makes work authentic is the deeply individual fit between the nature of our role and our own aptitudes and sources of pleasure.
One of the benefits of having identified authentic work is that we will substantially – at last – be freed from envy. There will always be someone doing a job that pays better, that has higher public status or more glamorous fringe benefits. But, we stand to realise, there is no point yearning for such a role, because it would not fit what we know of the distinctive timbre of our own character.
The other benefit to having found work that feels authentic is that it changes our relationship to the modern ideal of achieving ‘work-life’ balance. There is a degree of pessimism about work within this fashionable concept, for it implies a need to shield life, the precious bit, from the demands of work, the onerous force. But work connected in quite profound ways to who we really are, is not the enemy of life: it’s the place where we naturally find ourselves wanting to go in order to derive some of our highest satisfactions.