Dictators rise to power. Countries wage war. Economies crash. Streets erupt in civil unrest. Much of the world is mayhem and madness.
In his infinitely illuminating guide to finding value and purpose, The Meaning of Life, British philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that— though life is often an unmanageable mess— work can give us a consoling sense of tidiness. At home, many of our problems are complicated: we might find it impossible to summon the stamina and enthusiasm to sleep with our partner after a long day at work and two decades of marriage; we might harbor homicidal fantasies of killing our teenage son for— yet again— not washing his dirty dishes; we might struggle to find time for ourselves amidst the endless demands of raising children.
But at work, we can “get on top of a problem and finally resolve it.” The doctor can diagnose an illness and prescribe medicine. The entrepreneur can pitch an idea to investors, design innovative new products and fill holes in the market. The plumber can fix leaky pipes and broken toilets.
Most of life is dictated by things beyond our command: natural disasters, politics, stock markets. But at work, we’re no longer powerless. We might not be able to control whether a deadly hurricane devastates the Gulf Coast or who wins the next presidential election, but we can teach our students how to solve a system of equations using the substitution method and lead a meeting of directors with poise and self-assurance.
In this life, there’s many things we cannot know: why we were born, when we’ll die, the purpose of it all. We can’t know why humans have 23 chromosomes or why— of Earth’s 8.7 million species— the ability to formulate thoughts into words belongs to us alone. We can never fully understand ourselves or unravel the mysteries of other people.
But through our work, we can know at least one subject in great detail. A biochemist can understand how CRISPR can genetically engineer cells. An art professor can give riveting lectures on the bold, expressive colors of Van Gogh and explain the cultural significance of Picasso. A sommelier can decipher the exact year the grapes of a vintage Merlot were harvested and detect that they originated in Bordeaux. By becoming an expert in a particular field, we can— to paraphrase Susan Orlean — whittle the world down to a more manageable scope.
Though many of us resent having to go to an office, work is crucial to our contentment. Without work, we’d be lost in the wilderness with no sense of direction, no meaning, no purpose. Weeds would overgrow; bushy brambles would choke our path; there would be no water or food for nourishment. But in the lovely words of Botton, work can help us create a harmonious, comprehensible garden from a tiny portion of the wild surrounding forest. When we devote ourselves to something larger, we bring a pleasing order and symmetry to our existence. Work transforms weed-engulfed fields into beautiful botanical arrangements.
Want more advice on how to make meaning in a meaningless world? Read Botton on how to be a better storyteller, how to define meaningful work, how to find authentic work, and how work is an expression of our better selves. Want to learn more about work? Revisit groundbreaking psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on why work is essential to happiness and poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran on labor as a form of love.