Are You Losing Your Soul?

I recently bumped into an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. “Are you still managing money?” he asked.

“No, I write investment advice now,” I said.

“Well, it must not be panning out too well,” he said with a wink, “or you wouldn’t still be working!”

I’ve heard variations of this line over the years. And while it’s always offered in jest, it hints at a particular mindset: Why would anyone continue to work if he didn’t have to?

Yet I’d be bored to death without a job — and even more of a pain in the neck to everyone around me, I’m sure. (Warren Buffett and Bill Gates — two gentlemen who have a few dollars — apparently feel the same way.)

According to more than 40 Gallup studies, three-quarters of us are disengaged from our jobs. The most recent U.S. Job Retention Survey found that more than 60 percent of employees are currently searching for new employment opportunities.

It’s odd that we spend most of our waking hours at work — in occupations often chosen by our younger selves — and seldom ask ourselves how we got there or what our occupations really mean.

When we meet someone new, the question we most frequently ask — after discerning where they’re from and whether we have any common acquaintances — is “What do you do?”

Our work, to a great extent, defines us.

It wasn’t always this way.

Three hundred years ago, Voltaire argued that work exists to save us from three great evils: boredom, poverty, and vice. But, as a society, we have since put our belief in two great ideas: romantic love and meaningful work.

Historically, our faith in these two ideas grew up together. We started to think that we should marry for love at roughly the same time as we started to think that we should work not only for money but for self-fulfillment.

These are beautiful ideals, but rarely can they be pursued without hitting a rough patch. And the pain can be immense. When we are without work — as 29 million Americans are today — we lose more than income; we are cut off from an identity. We can no longer explain what we do — and, hence, who we are.

It’s always a shame to see a person’s talents wasted. And that’s just as true for those who are employed but disengaged.

Ideally, your work should allow you to take the best of what’s in you and express it to the world. It should give your life dignity and meaning, whether you’re writing software, fixing teeth, or just raising happy, productive kids.

No matter how you spend your days, you have a clear choice. You can think of your work entirely in terms of responsibilities and obligations. Or you can view it as a contest, a challenge, an opportunity. Because if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, there’s little chance your work will please or impress anyone else.

I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of folks who are unhappy at work tend to equate a “good job” entirely with money, benefits, and security, rather than whether it allows them to express their talents.

Big mistake. Yet even those who recognize the dead-end nature of their current position are often reluctant to change. Why? Reasons vary, but some are so caught up in the pursuit of status, display, and material possessions that they’ve put themselves in a bind.

Choosing meaningful employment often means accepting at least a temporary pay cut. But that isn’t always possible if you have a big mortgage, hefty car payments, or a lifestyle that keeps you two payments from the edge. Ironically, giving up the dream of “having it all” is often the first step in the right direction.

The other reason so many remain stuck in unsuitable work — whether they admit it to themselves or not — is fear.

Fear whispers that, even if you reduce your overhead, you won’t be able to make it work financially. Fear betrays you, insisting that you’re being unrealistic, that you don’t have the heart, the talent, or the discipline to see it through, that doing work you love is reserved for someone else.

It’s not true. One of the best prizes that life offers is the chance to work hard at something worth doing. Think enthusiastically about how you spend your days and you’ll put a touch of glory in your life.

This is true for retirees, too. A life of meaning generally comes from finding a way to either increase the pleasure or decrease the suffering of your fellow humans, whether you’re compensated for it or not.

Even if you’re still in the workforce and — due to circumstances — tied to a job that is less than fulfilling, there are ways to use your talents in meaningful ways.

A few years ago, for instance, the AARP asked some attorneys if they would offer basic services to needy retirees at $30 an hour. They said no. But then AARP’s program manager had a brilliant idea: He asked the lawyers if they would offer their services to needy retirees for free. Overwhelmingly, they said yes.

How could zero money be more attractive than $30 an hour? The original offer seemed insulting to some, a request for legal services at below-market wages. But when the request was reframed as volunteer work — and therefore meaningful — most were happy to oblige.

In Zen and the Art of Making a Living, Laurence G. Boldt writes, “Without self-expression, life lacks spontaneity and joy. Without service to others, it lacks meaning and purpose…. Conceiving of ourselves as artists in whatever work we do gives us a metaphor for a life of integrity, service, enjoyment, and excellence…. I know of no better nutshell statement of the path to finding one’s true calling in life than the simple formula given by Aristotle: ‘Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.’ These two, your talents and the needs of the world, are the great wake-up calls to your true vocation in life. To ignore either is, in some sense, to lose your soul.”

You’ll find that the happiest, most engaged individuals are those who are deeply involved in their workplace or community (or both), even if their time is unpaid.

Work is the natural outlet for our energy and enthusiasm. What could be more copacetic than to love what you do and feel that it matters?

After all, the highest reward for your work is not what you get, but what you become.

[Ed. Note: Alexander Green, Investment Director of The Oxford Club, has more than 20 years of experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer, and portfolio manager. He is the author of The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, as well as the editor of “Spiritual Wealth,” a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life.

Alex is an expert panelist with the Liberty Street League, ETR’s exclusive club based on the principles of self-determination and self-responsibility. The League is dedicated to helping members take advantage of under-the-radar, off Wall Street, wealth-building opportunities, including precious metals, Internet businesses, fine art, commodities, real estate, and much more. As a member, the League will also help you keep your money safe from the prying eyes of the government and financial organizations that don’t have your interests at heart. Find out more about the Liberty Street League — and how you can get a free copy of Michael Masterson’s book, Ready, Fire, Aim, by signing up for a trial subscription — here.]