Meaningful Work

Meaningful Work

Last week I published an essay called Achievement Porn in which I warned against the dangers of addictive treadmills sinking their hooks into your ape brain and its greedy dopamine receptors. My goal for that essay was to encourage people to reevaluate their activities, and enable them to make a deliberate decision about how they spend their lives and why.

A lot of people told me it was the wake up call they needed (and a bunch also let me know I was a douchebag), but a very large number of people wanted to know something that I only brushed upon with a few pet examples: if our modern lives are built around achievement porn, then…

What is Meaningful Work?

Where do I draw the line between bullshit with positive side effects and meaningful work?

Answer: there is no line. It’s a matter of degree, and ultimately it’s up to you.

From the Hacker News discussion of the essay:

…there is a continuum – some “achievements” are clearly fake and others clearly real, but there is a grey area in between where it depends on the specific situation and goals of the person involved.-billswift

A lot of people were upset with me and it went something like:

“Pete, I was right there with you until you mentioned [insert preferred achievement porn]. How could you say that’s not meaningful? Look at all the benefits!”

Those people didn’t really grok what I was saying in the original essay about secondary effects: porn has side effects that can be quite good.

That’s part of its power and danger.

Achievement porn, when designed well, can compel people to do beneficial things when they otherwise wouldn’t. On the other hand, it can trap people doing bullshit things for the ostensible, secondary benefit.

My challenge to readers was to discern the two: are you on a bullshit treadmill because you’re telling yourself it’s beneficial, or are you actually doing something beneficial? And further, which do you personally want to do?

Here’s another comment from Hacker News:

[Pete]‘s not trying to define what should be meaningful: he simply accepts what people actually claim they consider to be meaningful and shows how their behavior does not lead to the kinds of achievements that they themselves consider meaningful.
-Confusion

What do you want to accomplish? What do you consider meaningful? Are the activities you spend your life doing bringing you closer to accomplishing your goals?

Deeper Discussion

I am not a relativist, but the reality is that before I can even talk about “meaning” in any objective sense, I’d have to establish a metaphysical, metaethical, and normative framework. We’d probably have to talk about utility functions and individual versus social utility. All that together is just too heavy for a blog like this.

Meaningful activities include those that develop, expand, or connect minds

For what it’s worth, I measure meaning in terms of sentient creatures. Meaningful activities include those that develop, expand, or connect minds, or support the development, expansion, and connection of minds.

One reason I write is that I like to do it, and I have a reptilian need to interact and receive feedback. In addition to that, of all the many activities I’ve tried, writing more than any other activity has developed, expanded, and connected my mind, and has done the same for my readers as well. The degree to which it’s just porn is debatable, but I’m comfortable enough with the meaning it provides to continue writing.

Really though, one clear-eyed commenter in particular cut to the heart of the matter:

He may just be upset because he’s no good at video games.
-castis

My shame, naked now for the world to see.

Responses

  1. Samuel Williams ()

    I enjoyed your thoughts. I think you are generally going to offend people when you tell them that xx% of their life is meaningless – probably because deep down they actually regret it.

    In many ways, its also possible for something which seems inconsequential – and may be provably inconsequential – to develop into something meaningful in the future. From one point of view – the evolution of one kind of fish into another kind of fish might seem irrelevant – but it might have been the path that lead to amphibians – its hard to have the foresight of greatness. (Reply)

    • brandi belle ()

      Samuel, I have to disagree with you on something you said in your reply. How is he offending people by what he said? That’s totally the opposite from what I got out it. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      It is precisely my goal to offend people who are leading meaningless lives when they could be doing so much more. If I can plant the seed that helps them grab onto some meaning, then I’ve done my job here. (Reply)

  2. Matt Creelman ()

    If the profit motive drives much of this, then astute developer will be inventing a game in which we write on-line essays and the program evaluates the contents and posts responses. An engaging essay generates a greater number of responses and a greater variety. We win red points for generating disagreement and blue points for approval. We can win further points by responding to the responses, although there is an atrophy function that requires more effort when entering this stage. We never meet anyone who responds, because they are computer generated, but we get a sense of meaningful achievement. “minds” are being connected. (Reply)

Reply