An explosion in online freelance work is democratizing how and when and where we work. The “why” of work-what it means to people, beyond surviving-has changed very little. Freelance workers, at entrepreneurial sites like Fiverr.com, are innovating new ways to work. Many create models of service delivery that are designed to enrich both the “worker/entrepreneurs” and their customers.
In times of social transition-or whenever individuals navigate for themselves-it helps to recall what some of the wisest among us have said. Since a person’s attitude contributes so greatly to their ultimate success or failure, how should we think about work?
What do the doctors of depth psychology prescribe?
The most influential psychologist of the last century, Sigmund Freud, wrote: “Love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness. Love and work… work and love… what else is there really?” Far from seeing work as a grudging necessity of life, Freud thought it was essential to our humanness. He thought nothing else-nothing but love itself-could match work’s importance in our lives. Must those two fundamentals be forever at odds?
Modern cultures quarantine love in the workplace. Office romances disrupt. Emotions complicate commerce. Business prefers predictability. For too many, “work” is that imposed misery whose recurring intrusion forces us to abandon the people and things we do love… because we have to go to work.
What a triumph to harmonize these competing components. Imagine your own ideal marriage of work and love. What would you genuinely love to do as your work in the world? Freelancers are leading the efforts to merge Freud’s dual-if not dueling-essentials. It requires doing work you love.
The most influential psychologist of this century, Dr. Carl Jung, described an equation of the heart: “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” That’s why love, meaningful work, and even meaningful play, are so deeply nourishing. It’s also why some people can lead happy lives amid great simplicity, while others with great advantages may find life meaningless and live in misery.
Both triumph and terror can inspire individuals to new heights.
Pearl S. Buck earned the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.” The first American woman to ever win that prize, she shared her secret: “To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.” That’s one way to recognize “worthy work” that could enliven, challenge, and renew: look for joy in the work itself.
The absence of work resembles a “fountain of aging.” Many older men do not live terribly long or well after retiring. Even crummy-but-familiar jobs defer deterioration. Work is so important that one Federal Reserve study found that the suicide risk for unemployed people is 72% higher than for someone who is working. Even retirees and people who were simply on leave from work had elevated rates of suicide. Work structures our world. Work keeps us together. To be blunt, work makes us 72% less likely to give up on life and kill ourselves.
Doing work that you love not only maintains you, it energizes and revitalizes your life force. The fountain of youth is not in Florida. Renewal is found in giving and receiving love and in doing the life-work that you feel drawn, attracted, excited, called, destined, or just plain “lucky” to be doing.
Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has written: “Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.” Finding your purpose enriches the meaning of being alive. Engagement in meaningful work and having a sense of purpose in life are psychological pillars of mental health and life satisfaction.
Far from satisfaction or any shred of human dignity, concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl felt that finding meaning and purpose-even in the manmade hell of Hitler’s death camps-made all the difference for his survival of Nazi horrors. Frankl’s mother and brother and wife all died in the camps. He not only survived but went on to teach and inspire, including writing a best-selling book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that has benefited millions.
Inspiring guidance expands our definition of what it means to work.
Fortunately, wisdom about work has been around for as long as there has been miserable work. What endures is of great value. “Work” is what we call what we do in the world. Many centuries ago, the Sufi poet Rumi summed up his advice in one phrase: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” That is precisely the prescription for success that is being rediscovered today. “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”
The Buddhist concept of “right livelihood” encourages everyone to find work that does no harm and awaken to the effects, far and near, of how they earn a living. The Buddha offers the following cosmic job counseling: “Your work is to discover your work, and then, with all your heart, to give yourself to it.”
So, the very first step of doing your work in the world is to find your work. You are not told to find any work, but to find your work. By discovering your work, you unveil to yourself what you are “cut out for” and would love to do. There is an alternative, but if you choose your job just for the health benefits… you’ll probably need them.
There is some wise counsel, if not 2,000-year-old “career advice,” in the Taoist wisdom of the I Ching (Sarah Dening version):
“We become hypnotized and conditioned by other people’s opinions as to what is right. To continue making progress, you must discover your own deepest values and live by them. If your life-style is incompatible with your true nature, you cannot be happy. What matters most is to live in harmony with yourself. Your life will then unfold in exactly the right way.” There may be no better way to live in harmony with yourself than by finding-or creating, if you must-a way to do work that you love.
Once you find your work or feel a calling, it will be your attitude that counts the most. So, in closing, here is the attitude toward work recommended by Dr. Martin Luther King: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”