I recently wrote a post called The Challenge of Not Having a Challenge.1 Here’s an excerpt:
I believe we’re embedded with the desire to accomplish things—to make something with our skills, abilities and resources. On the other hand, I think that unbridled desire can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement and lack of commitment (according to Forbes, “ninety-one percent of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years.”).
I was delighted to be asked a really good question in the comments and I thought the exchange would be interesting to publish as a post.
Riley Adam Voth asked:
I notice you were careful to use the word “unbridled desire”, but I’d still ask (since I know what you mean by “embedded”, being of the same spiritual beliefs as you) do you think this is wrong or selfish of people to crave “fulfillment” in their work? Has this been brought on by greater “awareness” these days where as otherwise we would’a been more content with what we have? Even the word “fulfillment” is a very recent word in human history. Were we more content before we knew we could say we weren’t?
Here’s my response:
Thanks so much for joining in. It’s always a great experience to hear from someone on the other end and this is a topic I really enjoy discussing. I’ll answer your questions in order:
Do you think this is wrong or selfish of people to crave “fulfillment” in their work?
Absolutely not. Going back the concept of desires being ’embedded’ in us, I believe that pursuing fulfillment in work is a natural proclivity in humans. I think the heart of the question is what we mean by the word “fulfillment.” Putting a definition on fulfillment is tough without addressing the concept of what our purpose is—seeking fulfillment begs the question, “what are we trying to fulfill?”
This post isn’t the place to dive into all of the philosophical implications, so let’s look at two different examples of what fulfillment could look like for people. One person might say, “I want to do excellent work and provide for my family.” Another person might say, “I was born to be a writer, so I’m going to do everything possible to be a professional writer.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either perspective. (In fact, it’s likely that the same person could honestly claim both things.) The second desire, specifically, though, creates much more room for selfishness, to get back to your question. There is a point at which pursuing what you define as fulfillment will cost you. Each of us needs to weigh those costs carefully and closely examine what our ideas of fulfillment are. That’s why I wrote in my post that “unbridled desire can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement and lack of commitment.”
I force myself to face this question constantly out of fear of losing a grip on what I believe true fulfillment is. I’ve said before that my family is more important than my work, so it follows that if I didn’t feel particularly inspired by my work that I could still achieve fulfillment on some level because work isn’t the most important thing in my life.
More specifically, both my wife and I are currently successful entrepreneurs who own (or partially own) our businesses. We are both doing almost exactly the type of work that both interests us and that we’re really good at. As often as possible, we remind ourselves that this experience is extremely rare and in no way do we somehow deserve to be doing the things that we’re doing. You’d better believe that we’re thankful.
A healthy practice for me is to constantly ask, “if I didn’t have the privilege of doing work that I absolutely love—like I do right now—would I still feel like I’m living a fulfilling life?” I know from experience that circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, so I’m working hard to ensure the answer to that question is “yes.”
Has this been brought on by greater “awareness” these days where as otherwise we would’a been more content with what we have? Were we more content before we knew we could say we weren’t?
These are fascinating questions. A full treatment is probably best for another longer-form post, but here are a few thoughts:
I do believe desires have changed throughout history, to some extent, as civilizations have moved from focusing on survival out of necessity to more modern forms of society in culture where formal governmental structure, art, etc. are core components of many people’s lives. For us specifically, I think the nature of our current society and its constant quest for immediacy and instant gratification certainly have negative affects on people’s definition of fulfillment (this points again to my comment about “unbridled desires and entitlement”).
That being said, even though the word “fulfillment” is a recent addition to our vernacular, the innate desire isn’t. The earliest philosophers (and, I would argue, humans) asked the same questions we’re asking today, namely, “what does it mean to live a fulfilled life?”
Thanks again for your comments—I’d love to hear your thoughts more often.
1. You can read the full post, The Challenge of Not Having a Challenge, here.