The Big ‘Why’: Unraveling the Purpose of Work in a Changing World

UPDATED: May 31, 2024
PUBLISHED: June 3, 2024
employees putting post it notes on glass in living out the purpose of work

The definition of work is murky at best. The pandemic shifted our entire framework around the purpose of work, remote work and finding meaning in our nine-to-five, ushering in a global existential crisis. The fallout has resulted in increasing reports of people feeling disengaged, unhappy and burned out in their work. Seeing how vitally indispensable some human work is for a functioning society—with entire departments being replaced by apps and artificial intelligence—has created a crisis of meaning. 

In a culture dominated by sales funnels and promising silver-bullet solutions to all our earthly woes, philosopher Christopher Wong Michaelson and professor of management and organizational behavior Jennifer Tosti-Kharas offer a refreshing alternative in their new book, Is Work Worth It? How to Think About Meaningful Work. Through personal stories, academic research, historical wisdom and pop culture, their book offers new perspectives on finding satisfaction and purpose in our work, regardless of our career stage or life phase. 

“The book is written to help people think about their own work in a more deliberate way. We don’t provide neat and easy answers––and beware of anyone who does pretend to provide unique, easy answers,” Tosti-Kharas cautions. Instead, the book embraces the complexity of these questions and invites readers into a deeper conversation around what they truly want in life. 

Delving into the universal experience surrounding the pursuit of meaningful work, let’s explore a few of these themes presented in Is Work Worth It? through the voices of various experts and their relationship to their work.

The big why: Finding meaning and purpose at work

“The thing that happened for me after the heart attack, given the glimpse at how quickly literally everything could have been taken from me, were two insights: One was [that] most of what I have is amazing, and I didn’t appreciate that significantly before. The other thing, and lots of people say this, is that I’ve come to frame everything in terms of the Big Why––like why am I doing what I’m doing?” says James Coan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. 

Coan’s experience echoes what Michaelson and Tosti-Kharas found through their interviews and research into the impact of 9/11 and COVID-19 on our work and meaning. These events wake us up from our everyday lives and crystalize big questions: How am I using my time and is it valuable? 

“It’s no surprise that 9/11 and COVID precipitate wide-scale job changes and things like the Great Resignation and these reconsiderations of, ‘Is what I’m doing really what I want to be doing?’” Tosti-Kharas reflects. “It’s almost surprising that we’re not asking ourselves these questions in the absence of major crises.”

After his heart attack, Coan rediscovered one of his first passions––drawing comics. 

“My biggest hope was to grow up drawing comic books, and post-heart attack, I was like, well, I have this knowledge base that’s hard to replicate, and I have access to people through my podcast. So I started making some comics about psychology, and science and I got a contract for two years with a magazine,” Coan shares. “They paid me for each one––and Jesus, how’d that happen? I never got paid for a scientific article ever in my life.” 

While Is Work Worth It? illustrates how to harness the power of these life-changing events, it also cautions that regardless of what job we have, there will always be levels of sacrifice, drudgery and dissatisfaction. 

Work and identity

Whether or not work is central to your identity, there are sacrifices to be made in order to succeed. While work can provide status, financial security and a sense of developed professional skill, it often requires that we limit how we express and share the multitudes we contain. 

Jeffrey Omari teaches law at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. His work often intersects with issues of race, gender, social justice and inequality within the legal system. When students are engaged and curious about the material, the work of teaching feels satisfying. However, he’s experienced the increasingly polarized political landscape affecting the classroom. 

“In the past, I would have been more open about my thoughts. But now, in certain classes, I’m less inclined to share my perspective,” he says. “I like being a professor––I’ve studied and worked hard to get to where I am––but it’s what I do; it’s not who I am. It’s how I make a living, but it doesn’t define me.”

Both Michaelson and Tosti-Kharas are professors and live the duality of passion and drudgery in their day jobs. 

“There are moments where I see a student beautifully capture something that was a learning objective of mine—and I also spend a lot of time in boring committee meetings which feels like actual drudgery,” Tosti-Kharas explains. “But I never want someone to feel that because they’re experiencing work occasionally—or even a decent amount of the time—as drudgery, that doesn’t mean it isn’t work that can be subjectively important or objectively filling an important role in society.”

Having a multifaceted sense of self and areas of life where we draw satisfaction and meaning will buoy you through hard times, from difficult bosses to career transitions. The less attached we are to any one identity, the more resilient we become. While having a distinct work-life separation supports some individuals in their work, for others, their work is their identity.

Finding meaning requires knowing yourself

Tosti-Kharas and Michaelson say the research shows that some people come to find their calling in one of two ways: they stumble into it and discover they love it, or they knew from a young age that’s what they wanted to do. However, the majority of people fall into the third category: still figuring it out. 

Nasimeh B.E. is a Brooklyn-based artist and coach who gained recognition through sharing her heartfelt illustrations and inspirational videos on social media during the pandemic. While she has used art to process her emotions since childhood, her path to being a full-time artist and coach first took her through many, many jobs.

“I’m always making meaning through creativity,” Nasimah reflects, “but I think something that’s really supportive and beneficial is to try a bunch of stuff—throw so many noodles at the wall. I did, and I still do. … I tried one time to count how many different jobs I’ve had, and that was like, ‘Well I don’t even know’ because I tried it all just to see what would make sense,” Nasimeh says.

Tosti-Kharas and Michaelson encourage readers who are venturing toward some ideal version of their calling to try a wide range of experiences because you can’t stumble into your calling if you haven’t tried things.

“You learn as much through what you don’t like doing as what really resonates,” Toshi-Kharas says. “I just tell students, if you even think you might like it or have a shot at it or want to get closer to this kind of work––just do it. Just try to jump in and have that experience, especially in today’s world. No one expects a job to last forever. No one expects a career to last forever. This process of continually reinventing yourself is as true for us as it is for the world around us.”

How technology is changing purpose at work

The quickly changing landscape of the fourth industrial revolution, where technology is both supporting and disrupting how we work and live, has placed us in a unique position. For the first time, we are seeing not just manual labor or clerical work being replaced by technology, but full divisions of knowledge work being potentially supplanted by artificial intelligence. 

In Is Work Worth It?, the authors explore the existential threat of non-humans replacing our work and, therefore, the value we have to offer the world. And while advancing technology will inevitably change the working world, we can channel the direction of that change.

“I like to think of humans as shortcut machines,” says Arin Bennett, a 3D visualization specialist focused on the utilization of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies. “Humans are going to create their own shortcut toward what is best for them and will downplay that which they deem unnecessary. If we refine our institutions with intention while supporting both the worker and the environment, then it could be a positive shortcut.”

Michaelson is optimistic about the future of work. “I personally don’t believe there will ever be a world without human work. I think that prognosticators who predict a world without work are doing a great job at getting headlines, but there will always be not only a need for human work in the form of care that only humans can provide to other human beings, but also a desire for human work, the desire to create,” he says.

Balancing art and work

Alexis Mixter is a full-time artist who co-leads workshops with fellow artist Danielle Krysa on how to connect deeper with the work of making art. The mission of their workshop, Making It Work, states, “There’s no connection quite like the one you have with your artwork. You’re always together—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until you are parted by death.”

Mixter’s work is intentionally time consuming and highly detailed, a direct portal into her self-evolution. Art is not a traditional nine-to-five; Mixter doesn’t have “days off” because she is always working on her next piece. The conventional measures of productivity are difficult to apply to studio work because, as Mixter explains, “it doesn’t look like work; sometimes I am staring at a wall.” 

Even when one’s work intertwines deeply with their identity, the definition of work itself remains elusive. Michaelson explains that throughout decades of research on the definition of work, three words consistently show up: purposeful, effortful and recognized. 

“I think that question of recognition is the big one. That’s the one where, depending upon the society you live in, depending upon gender roles and norms, etc., where a lot of things that maybe our philosophical selves think ought to be considered work are not recognized as work,” Michaelson says.

Essential work

One of the biggest shifts in work recognition we’ve witnessed is the essential work of medical professionals. Is Work Worth It? delves into the repercussions of 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, examining how they prompt contemplation on the lives lost, shape our aspirations for the future and underscore the crucial role of health care professionals who tirelessly serve our communities.

“From Park Avenue to park bench, you have to provide the same level of service for everybody,” says Matthew Moodie, a paramedic registered with NREMT. “It’s a privilege and a tremendous responsibility to be the guy who gets the phone call on somebody’s worst day. To be blindly trusted to come into somebody’s home or walk up on the scene of a car accident or whatever the situation is and be looked at like, ‘Hey, you’re here to fix stuff.’ I enjoy that responsibility and do well maintaining good cognitive thought processes under that kind of pressure.” 

Moodie says he feels particularly suited for emergency medical work. The detail-oriented and hyperfocused aspect of the job isn’t for everyone, but the pace and fulfillment satisfy his drive for service-oriented work.

“One message of the book is that we really do get to live once, and we probably will have to work in order to live, so we might as well spend it doing work worth doing, as much as we can, and continuing to search for that,” Michaelson shares.

How leadership can help people find purpose at work

“In our book, we provide a lot of different reasons to love your work, not just intrinsic passion, although that is one reason to love your work,” Michaelson says. 

“But I think it’s equally important for those who are in charge of providing work for others,” Toshi-Kharas adds, “so leaders, managers, business owners––how is the work that we’re asking people to do worthy of their precious time, energy and all the other sacrifices that they make to do it?”

Beau Bernier Frank is an oil painter whose work blends realism with surrealism. As a self-taught artist, he spent many years working in high-end businesses along the famed Big Sur coast of California, saving money as he developed his craft and business niche. Reflecting on the business insights he gleaned during that time, he notes the pivotal disparity between companies that actively value their staff versus those that prioritize their bottom line.

“They forget to invest in the people who allow their business to continue to thrive. If employers choose to invest in infrastructure, writing, design, creative practices, product improvement and relationship improvements, instead of reinvesting their money into their own pockets, that’s when great innovation happens. That’s when you get these really cool, fun experiences that people want to talk about; you get beautiful spaces that people want to be in. And then when the employees actually enjoy being there and also enjoy the company of each other, that’s when you also foster a sense of community,” Frank explains.

Michaelson and Tosti-Kharas offer questions for leaders to reflect on as they strive for more meaning and success in their work:

  • Are we giving people decent work? 
  • Are we treating people with fundamental dignity and humanity? 
  • Are we honoring everyone regardless of their role or task?
  • Are we recognizing tasks such as delivering food, washing clothes and taking out the compost as meaningful work? 
  • Are we creating the conditions and interactions for everyone to thrive? 
  • Are we recognizing that each person is working to some greater end, that they have hopes and dreams and things they want to achieve beyond their current position?

Spanning all career and life stages, Is Work Worth It? sparks reflection on individual occupational paths while empowering readers and leaders at every level with actionable strategies for enriching the value of work for others.

Photo by PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock.com