Meaning in Work

by Jeff Haanen

There once was a violinist who could move audiences to tears with his music. Having played since he was a child, he ascended the heights of the classical music world and joined a prestigious orchestra. Yet as he looked at the culture around him, he realized that an appreciation for classical music was rapidly fading. He feared a crisis: if things continued this way, there would be no audiences, no careers in music, and the beauties of Mozart, Bach, Handel, and Beethoven would be lost.

So, he decided to step away from a career in performance and launch a nationwide campaign to promote classical music. He visited and spoke at local schools. He hosted fundraisers with wealthy donors to sponsor music ensembles. He launched a nonprofit to advocate for the arts. He traveled to conferences, spoke on podcasts, and had dinners with elected officials to raise awareness about the decline of classical music and their importance for our communities.

After years of effort, one day he sat down with his violin. He realized the crisis would not soon be solved, and to comfort himself, he opened his case and got out his bow to play a sonata. As he grabbed the neck, fingered the strings, and lifted the instrument to his chin, he found himself distracted. Notes felt elusive and the rhythm disjointed. His mind raced, not with Chopin, but with tasks, goals, targets, and the mountain of emails he had yet to answer.

After months of effort, he found himself, paradoxically, less interested in the violin and classical music. He had become a shadow of his former self.

Adrift

This story, inspired by Baylor professor and political philosopher Dr. David Corey, illustrates a truth about our careers: gradually and subtly, we give up “ends for means.”

Titles, position, money, power, success — these are rarely what motivate us when we start our careers. But these “means” become “ends,” and we forget why we got into our fields in the first place. Take, for example, the lawyer who goes to law school out of a burning for justice, yet ends up with law school debt, a corporate job to pay the bills, and a daily grind of the billable hour which makes her original ideals feel almost naïve. Slowly we get comfortable with the life we’ve built for ourselves. But our work makes us feel diminished, like a spent, wilting flower in a vase once so filled with promise.

Over the years, I’ve seen a pattern in the lives of successful professionals. Take, for instance, a small business owner. He builds a company, sells it for a big pay day, and takes time off, but struggles to find a sense of meaning in life after “the exit” (the sale of his company). Like a ship adrift in a windless sea, he struggles to regain a sense of direction. He simultaneously rues the thought of going back into the pressures of business, yet also longs for it, hoping to recover a sense of meaning and purpose that felt closer in the struggle of finding customers, solving problems, and building teams. Instead, he dabbles in charitable causes, buys a bigger house, or spends extra time with kids or grandkids, in a subconscious search for meaning he knows can’t be found in something so ephemeral as “success.” Yet those activities, too, feel fleeting, never quite delivering on the promise of a full, human life.

What is it, then, that happens to us? Is it the drone of “success stories” on social media — the bigger job, the fancy degree, the big social impact — that draw our hearts away from the simple pleasures of, say, playing the violin, and set us on a heroic crusade to save one piece of the world? Is it that we find that our original ideals were just that — ideals? A realization that the quicksand of the marketplace swallows our original intentions, and all we have left is the comfort of our paychecks? Or is it that somewhere, somehow, we became confused about what we actually should be pursuing with our lives?

Ends, Not Means

It was a weekday afternoon in November, and I sat in a room of two dozen people, listening to Dr. Corey lecture on “Politics and Friendship” at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. I had been invited to participate in a roundtable discussion on faith and public life. Dark glasses, flowing white hair, blue blazer, and an intense gaze — fitting of a man with truth burning in his bones — Dr. Corey addressed our small group. He leaned onto the table. My body quieted, my eyes widened. He said:

When people focus on means, they find their lives meaningless. But to the degree that they focus on ends, they find their lives meaningful.

When people focus their life’s goals not just on money, titles, and power, but even on noble goals like activism for a social cause, they mistake means for ends and find happiness fleeting. It becomes a life of constant “more” – more impact, more influence, more wealth. Yet they fail to realize that those should have been mere “means” toward a greater “end.”

But when people focus on ends they find meaning. What, then, are these “ends?” He continued, pausing after each phrase.

Love. Friendship. Goodness. The appreciation of beauty. The worship of God. The delight in truth. Work for the sake of work well done.

Here are the intrinsic ends where meaning could be found. For example, the violinist’s enjoyment of a sonata because it was beautiful was indeed a higher good than advocating for classical music. Indeed, believing that 1,000 people playing classical music was the end was a confusion: the end was the beauty of music.

Or take, for example, the businessperson who believed that the “exit” and sale of his company was the “end” for which he was working, only to realize — as soon as the bank sent him the money — that wasn’t it. What, then, was the end he was longing for when he was in the trenches of building a company? It was something like friendship,or working alongside others from a common love. This togetherness gave meaning even in the trials and suffering.

This idea of pursuing ends rather than means has planted itself in my heart and gave me a new vision for my work.

As I was on the plane home to Denver from my conference in Washington D.C., I looked out the window and saw a beautiful, cloudy sunset, with whisps of pink and orange painting the horizon. My first thought was, “Oh, I need to write an article about this!” But instead, I decided to pause and simply drink in the beauty of the sunset, not wanting to sacrifice an “end” (the appreciation of beauty) for a means (writing an article about it). The moment felt like the quieting of my soul; I felt like a weaned child with its mother, simply content and whole (Ps. 131:2).

Meaning in work is elusive. But what if meaning is found not in the gods of “success,” but in the moments where our work is a medium to experience the core purposes of human life? Not just hitting a sales goal, but the laughter between coworkers in the meeting. Not just in perfectly engineered products, but in creating a product so well it feels as if you’re doing art. Not in a promotion or pay raise, but in a simple moment of learning that becomes a genuine delight in truth itself.

There is another layer of this story for the Christian. These moments can become ways we experience God himself.

“Finally, brothers and sisters,” says the Apostle Paul, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Phil. 4:9). Paul counsels us to not turn away from the created world, but to embrace it, to appreciate it, and to fully experience what is good in God’s world. Why? “And the peace of God will be with you.”  God is here, with us, in our hearts, our homes, our work, our world. This is why there is meaning in life and in work.

God is present with us and he gives us a thousand signs each day if we will only quiet our ambition and listen for the sonatas all around us.

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder & CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Jeff lives with his wife and four daughters in Littleton, Colorado, and attends Wellspring Church.