Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

Sick of Your Job? Follow Your Effect

The value of your work extends well beyond your hands

Our concept of "work" is central to who we are, tied as it is to our sense of contribution, productivity and livelihood. Most of us spend 30-50 percent of our waking hours on the job, making it the single largest time and energy demand in our lives. It's difficult to feel good about ourselves if we can't find value in what we do--and very often that's not easy.

For example, I've known a few people who work in a field called "waste characterization." Their job is to sift through hundreds of pounds of garbage to determine how much plastic, glass, paper, metal and other materials it contains. For hours at a time, they're up to their elbows in other peoples' waste, carefully categorizing it with well-trained precision.

On the face of it, this is arguably a worse job than picking up garbage. Imagining the sights and smells these folks tolerate, it's hard to envision a more unpleasant way to spend a workday. What results from their efforts, however, is of major benefit to everyone.

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The information they collect is fed into a series of analyses that help governments and corporations determine how to reduce the amount of waste they dump into overflowing landfills. It's at the core of recycling programs and innovative strategies to turn waste into fuel. It's what Wal-Mart, for instance, uses to reduce the massive amount of garbage it produces every year, and in turn influence its multitude of suppliers around the world to do the same.

A lot of us grew up with mythologist Joseph Campbell's' admonition to "Follow your bliss" ringing in our ears. While certainly not bad advice, it's crippled by an absolutism that makes all platitudes incomplete. Instead, I think we're smarter to "Follow our effect." Every job has an effect that reaches well beyond our immediate experience. As we see in the waste characterization example, the effect can be profound even for a job that many would consider unbearable.

Pragmatically speaking, it's healthy to consider your job's role in the value chain and not dwell on its glut of up-front drawbacks. Doing so may not lead you to "bliss," but it will provide useful perspective. The reality is that most of us are not living the dream in our workday. With a "Follow your effect" perspective, however, we're more likely to discover how our work impacts our communities and beyond.

If your job is not a source of bliss, then look for it in your family, your relationships, your hobbies and pastimes. Search out other outlets for your passion. There's no shortage of opportunities to find fulfillment.

If your job provides that for you, that's great. If not, don't ignore your effect. You're contributing value in ways you probably haven't even thought of.

Copyright 2010 David DiSalvo

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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