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Thoughts on Meaning & Work

Some thoughts on Meaning & Modern Job Satisfaction

Jason recently shared a thread on the tension between the objective criteria that make work meaningful increasing while the subjective experience of perceived meaning of work seems to be decreasing. As with most things related to progress, much of this likely stems from a combination of rising expectations and the current emotional climate of pessimism. However, with the help of several conversations, I believe that I've identified two elements that may help further explain the gap between objective and subjective experiences. 

I was talking about this with a friend — Ashley — who is an upper middle manager at Nike. She's worked at Nike for 10+ years, with numerous promotions and "career success" by most standards, she enjoys her work, loves the people she works with and has a fairly high degree of autonomy. She's also an athlete, mostly a runner, who engages in the running community and does Nike sponsored events every year. 

Based on all of this — the mastery, autonomy, recognition, human connection and the intersection of her work with her personal life — Ashley should experience a high degree of meaning in her work, but she shared that she experiences almost no meaning. That said, she has no plans to leave and her job has lots of emotional upside including being supportive of her family life. 

In digging into why, it largely came down to two things (that she did not enunciate exactly, but I summarize as):

  • Feeling 100% replaceable — Ashley explained how many people she's seen come & go over the years and how professionally, its meant very little to Nike. They may be missed personally and there may be some short term pain from a transition, but that, in her words, 'the whole point of the corporation is so that no individual matters. We are all replaceable — and that's a feature.' 

    I can imagine a past where, even a low meaning job by today's standard, would not have felt so replaceable. Growing up in a (very) small town, I can tell you with confidence that when the pizza place closed, no one starved, but it was MISSED in a way that even the most popular pizza place in a city never could be.

  • Genuine uncertainty of causing harm vs benefit — While Ashley can repeat the marketing premises (and, yes, Nike has an entire team whose sole purpose is to market internally, to employees), she is genuinely uncertain of whether Nike produces a net benefit on the world. She conceptually embraces the ideals of Nike, but does not trust that Nike acts in a manner that expresses those ideals consistently nor that it is even possible for Nike, within a capitalistic system, to act as a net-positive for society.

    Anecdotally, I had a very different conversation with a friend who works at OpenAI that lead to a similar conclusion (s/he wishes to remain anonymous) . While he does not feel replaceable, he is very concerned about how his job has shifted to become significantly less meaningful and more challenging to be fully engaged with as his ethical concerns about the company and general concern about the future have increased in the last 8 months. 

    To beat a horse dead with anecdotes, my father, who mines garnet, finds enduring and genuine meaning from unlocking resources from their raw state into one that is usable. He feels little uncertainty about the net benefit of his work. Meanwhile many people that I meet in my day-to-day (highly educated / not ever going to be miners) are honestly appalled by the idea of mining, let alone that the mine is within the boundaries of a protected wilderness and generally view his work as detrimental, rather than beneficial (and thus not meaningful).

While both of these are highly subjective criteria, so is an individual's assessment of meaning. Framing matters. I think that people, and especially younger generations, are weighed down by their genuinely uncertain about how to positively impact the world — and a huge chunk of that is what progress studies is looking to address! It's also why, in my opinion, the clarity and confidence of the EA worldview was able to spread so rapidly.


Here's some research that dances around supporting the ideas, although I wasn't able to find anything that nailed it in a cursory search:


As one further, bonus anecdote, Ryan Holiday just wrote a piece about completely changing his marketing strategy to align with building a more meaningful life

The lure of technocracy

epistemic confidence: low -- just an idea

As I've thought about these shifts, one idea that keeps coming up for me is the idea of "the enemy / crisis" -- there was a very clear enemy during technocrats birth (World Wars, Economic Crisis). The death happened essentially as the first generation without an "enemy / crisis" as their foundational story -- and, as they weren't driven by fear or the purpose of defeating the enemy, they are less likely to be willing to give power or listen to authority.  Even Vietnam was a war that lacked a threat or enemy that resonated with the generation. If it was a real war with the Soviet Union (versus a proxy war), I imagine it would have looked quite different.

We can see this dynamic play out at a smaller scale after 9/11 -- support for the president surged and the government was given significantly more leeway than before. 

In short, an idea is that technocracy was possible because multiple generations were raised with constant threats and enemies and thus had a larger willingness to cede power and stand behind a leader or elite. And, in the face of great victory, the leaders looked to build on the successes that brought victory -- technological superiority -- but were unable to keep focus & power without an enemy or crisis to crystalize a largely singular vision and purpose.

Pre-publication draft of "Death is the Default: Why building is our safest way forward"

Hey Gena! Thanks for sharing. 

Here's a thought for ya -- it seems to me like you're trying to make an inspirational kick in the pants for people to take action -- fight entropy -- and go through a handful of challenges that prevent people from acting (I picked out "hoplessness" and "safer to do nothing"). I think another challenge that might be good to address from a psych perspective is "Why me? Or "I don't know the answer" -- which is partially addressed in your piece with the idea that building is iterative and process driven (and you certainly don't have all the answers on day one). 

I'd also try to identify a single story for each of those, rather than having lots of examples that are touched on, but not really built out (Agriculture! Education! Ukraine! Healthcare! -- take the same space and build out one of those per idea).

Where is “Progress Studies” Going?

I agree with distinctions between applied policy advocacy - with significant intellectual diversity of opinion - and conceptual advocacy, which is axiomatic to the field - the idea that progress is "real, desirable and possible".

I wan to posit an addition flavor of study and applied advocacy, one that is human, rather than progress focused. It asks how we can help people (especially the early/late majority) adapt to increasing rates of progress and change and avoid the worst fates of progress losers. This rather sits squarely between applied and conceptual, likely employing conceptual tools like 'widespread cultural agreement' as well as specific policy analysis and advocacy.

A single example where this kind of understanding could have played a large role can be seen with the CDC's COVID vaccination timelines that were frequently influenced by their opinions on public perception of their decisions, which seemed to lack scientific basis.

Beyond that, this advocacy has the potential to moderate many of the "anti-humanist" arguments put forth by both Adam & Jason.