Trekking up to the Lost City in Tayrona National Park in Colombia, I was chatting to fellow hikers from different corners of the world. "What do you do for living?" might not be the most inventive question, but it gets the conversation going and helps to 'place' a person, as it were.
A Pole living in London: "I work for an electronics company. I hate it."
A Colombian living in Sao Paolo: "I work in sales for a chemical engineering company. What I'd like to do is to take time off, travel and perhaps start my own business or go back into academia."
Finally, I get a different vibe from a stylish and fit New Yorker, who turns out to be a hair stylist. Meg is self-employed, works long hours in a hip salon in her beloved Brooklyn, but then takes breaks to go diving in Central America or explore European cities (Prague is her favourite). After university she decided she wanted to learn a craft, and now she's got a list of loyal clients, a lifestyle, which allows her to 'switch off' after work and a sense of pride in what she has achieved.
Hiking uphill on a humid afternoon, I find my mind wandering to a parallel world in which I learn a new craft and get a sense of tangible achievement after an honest day's work... I am sure it is the heat, but Meg is onto something. It is seeing fruits of her labour, which must be richly satisfying. It's the tangible nature of her job, which is so different with many office-based roles that come to mind: sales and marketing, finance and accounting. Certain status and financial rewards notwithstanding, desk jobs promise job satisfaction that is ever so intangible, by contrast. A plumber fixed a leaking pipe and saved someone's house from flooding disaster. An accountant helped a client file a tax return. Perhaps a different kind of disaster has been averted, but I don't picture the same torrent of endorphins.
It was none other than Karl Marx who had pinpointed the problem back in the XIX century. He wrote that in order for us to reach fulfilment at work, we need to see ourselves in the products and services we create. With modern work getting increasingly specialised, it is hardly ever possible, unless you work for yourself. If you cannot see how your day-to-day labour translates into genuine contribution to the society as a whole, you are bound to feel disconnected from your job. Marx called it Entfremdung (alienation, estrangement): workers become detached from their humanity, their interests and passions, focussing on completing the required tasks, which aren't addressing their true potential.
I remember interviewing a social entrepreneur and designer Tara Viggo, who left her job as a pattern cutter at River Island (a British clothes brand), because she was neither satisfied with her job being so specialised, nor was she happy with the overall high street brand ethos of having no social purpose beyond dressing women in fashionable, flimsy outfits.
As we are becoming increasingly concerned with intrinsic factors, motivating us at work (as opposed to external factors, such as pay, perks, status, etc.), it helps to check which values rank highest for you. Roman Krznaric in his book How To Find Fulfilling Work talks about such intrinsic values as making a difference, following your passions and 'having it all', otherwise known as a balance between financially rewarding work, family and personal interests. Personally, I have been inspired reading a short interview in the FT Weekend with an actor Hattie Morahan (36, who, notably played Nora in A Doll's House in a Young Vic production that transferred to the West End and Broadway). Asked about "the greatest achievement in her life so far", she replied: "Getting to do what I love as a job - acting is a fickle, arbitrary game so you find yourself pinching yourself that you're actually making a living." I've noticed Morahan also rates her life satisfaction as 8 out of 10: "Room for improvement but no complaints."
As a digestif on the subject of happiness at work, I'll leave you with a quote from Zadie Smith on being a writer: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
What motivates you? Which values are important to you now, especially in retrospect of your earlier career? Can you take on new responsibilities at work to expand life-enhancing aspects of what you do? A dash of Life Tonic for thought...