Reflections on a Surprisingly Difficult Question
(Fourth in a series of articles on the ideas of Frithjof Bergmann.)
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A Difficult Question to Answer
“What if the most strengthening and most invigorating food should turn out to be work that one seriously wants to do? What if the one best way to find one’s buried and concealed desires were surprisingly enough the question: what is the work I really want to do? What if the best way to assist a person who is in danger of not living life at all, were to build for him a bridge to something that he seriously wants to do?”
The demand to ceaselessly determine our preferences is a hallmark of our age. A bewildering array of products and services promise to gratify our every desire: if we momentarily find ourselves without wants, we are bombarded by messages that seek to stimulate them. Considering our exposure to the perpetual demand that we choose among a ceaselessly expanding array goods to gratify a constantly growing number of needs, one would expect that we would become quite expert at determining what we “really, really want to do”.
Yet Bergmann found that when one asks workers what they “really, really wanted to do”, the result was the opposite of what one might expect: posing the question revealed a reservoir of “self-ignorance”. Bergmann discussions with workers disclosed that “in the vast majority of cases, great labors (had to) be performed before we (were) even inside the ball-park” of finding an answer the question. It seems that while we may experience little difficulty selecting a potato chip to eat or Netflix series to watch, we are generally baffled when asked what we “really, really want to do.” Bergmann called this surprising phenomenon the “Poverty of Desire”. While we are inundated with images of goods and services to stimulate desire and generate preferences, we are at a loss when it comes to identifying – and mobilizing desire for – worthwhile activity.
Buying as Substitute for Freedom
Bergmann alludes to several conditions that conduce to the impoverishment he observed. Part of the problem resides in the existential facts that determine our situation: almost all of us work at our jobs because it is felt to be necessary to do so. Work is, by definition, a response to necessity.1 The reason we do not know what we “really, really want to do” is because the question seems irrelevant to the struggle to survive. When we were students, or first starting out in the work world, the question of what we really, really want to do may have captured our
imagination or felt pressing. But once one charts one’s path, chooses a career, and commits to a job, it seems impractical to reflect on possibilities that have little to do with providing for oneself and one’s family. Ensconced in a job to fulfill a myriad of economic obligations, one’s imagination contracts, such that the question of what one “really, really wants to do”, if it arises at all, is applied to oneself exclusively in one’s role as consumer. The question becomes not “what we want to do” but “what do we want to buy?” 2 We are held captive by compensation we receive for the time spent at our jobs, such that our freedom to buy what we want tends to obscure our awareness that we are not doing what we want.
“How Shall I Live So I Do Not Waste My Life?”
“It is not possible to understand New Work unless the perpetual possibility of the not-lived life has been grasped…”
“…the conviction that one is doing work that one deeply and seriously wants to do is the one and best way to end up living one’s life with fulfillment and intensity”.
Bergmann applies Hegel’s ideas regarding human “lostness” to the Job System. He seeks to awaken us, so we do not, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Illich, find ourselves looking back on our lives and realize that we have not really lived, that we have somehow “missed” our lives. The danger is a pervasive sense of boredom that Bergmann compares to what might be felt in a retirement community wherein there is “no meaningful, no purposeful, no thrilling and inspiring way to exert effort.” Bergmann’s thinking in this regard is strikingly similar to that of William James, insofar as both viewed struggle as central to a life that is intensely and authentically lived.
The realization that we feel unfulfilled in our work often leads to the impulse to find another job. Yet Bergmann saw this approach as fundamentally flawed, for
“One is still trapped inside the framework of jobs, and one’s hope is to identify a job that is slightly more attractive, a bit more fun. One is still merely looking for a job…”
In response to this predicament Bergmann attempted to create a system he called “New Work”, a way of working that transcended numerous limitations and “ailments” he attributed to the Job System.3 When he asked people what they “really, really wanted to do”, he implicitly urged them not to look for a new job but to embark upon a new path. The inquiry was not about jobs but about purpose. Bergmann was, in essence, asking us to ask ourselves: “How Shall I Live So I Do Not Waste My Life?”
Goals Worth Pursuing are Hard to Find
“There is nothing as urgent as to enliven, energize and arouse people, but the Job system does the exact opposite…”
How might one determine what one should work at? One might begin by considering work’s capacity to draw energy from us. If a vision of work induces feelings of inspiration, enthusiasm, and excitement, this serves as an indication that one might be on the right track.4 The work we are looking for is analogized to a strong magnet: we are looking for activity that will draw more energy out of us than any other alternatives.
“The ultimate purpose and question asked is whether (the work) increases my strength and vitality instead of exhausting and debilitating me as Job Work does.”
The Job System complicates the search by enshrining objectives that, when subjected to scrutiny, turn out not to be worth pursuing. Work should not be something we give in return for something else (i.e., compensation), something that is unpleasant and that must be endured, such that four to five decades of one’s life “are a mere test of one’s stoicism and patience”. While work has the potential to “cripple” us, it also has the potential to “give us energies we never dreamed we had.”
“The rock-foundation question is, how will this work affect the human beings who perform it?… Only one thing has that persistent, that enduring, that comprehensive, that never tiring power, and that is work; the right kind of work, work that (one) seriously and deeply want(s) to do.”
Because our economy “produce(s) an ever more oppressive excess”, we need to ask ourselves how we can re-structure the economy so that it assists us in our ascent towards work that enlivens us:
“How could work be the strongest rope that pulls us into life?”
Finding work that one “really, really wants” is the key to realizing a level of freedom and joy described by a long tradition of poets and philosophers. When we do this work, we become “who we are”. In the words of William Blake, work that we “really, really want” imparts us with energy that is an ‘eternal delight’.
All italicized quotations are from Frithjof Bergmann’s New Work New Culture. Work We Want and a Culture that Strengthens Us. Zero Books. 2018.