Work and Purpose
There is no question that life is about more than happiness and easy fun. Eating, drinking, and being merry can get stale really fast. The go-to antidote to this mediocrity is applying ourselves to work. We put our effort into things we might not want to do, and when we are done, we sit back and enjoy the benefits of a job well done, and sometimes a paycheck to boot. But work is not the only way to add purpose to one’s life, and it is often not the most effective way either.
Preparing for a marathon is no walk in the park. Athletes build up discipline, sticking to special diets and pushing themselves to run farther and farther. Then, they join thousands of others in a 26-mile run through the city. Why do millions of people do this every year? It’s not because of the prize money. Rather, it’s because of the challenge, of forming discipline and building oneself up, and the satisfaction of knowing for the rest of your life that you did it. Marathon running and all that goes into preparing for it is an example of what I call hard fun. Other examples of hard fun include things like exercising, learning a language, building relationships, playing games, solving puzzles, contemplating mysteries, creating art, tending a garden, and practicing skills.
Like work, hard fun is hard. But unlike work, which comes from places of necessity and circumstance, hard fun is motivated from within. It is rewarding enough that we make ourselves do it just because of the enrichment it brings to our lives. The key difference here is between external motivations and internal motivations. Work is something we have to do because forces outside ourselves make it necessary. Hard fun is something we push ourselves to do from within, because its intrinsic value to us is just that powerful.
Hard fun can bring as much meaning and purpose into a person’s life as hard work, and often more so. To understand why, we have to look at the reasons why work can be meaningful. It is not because we are forced to do it, nor because it isn’t fun, nor because of the pay. The meaning in work comes from overcoming various types of challenges, rewarding outcomes that are directly related to the activities of the work, and the bonds formed with others through shared efforts. These same things are just as meaningful when we don’t have outside forces nudging us to do them with carrots and sticks. We seek meaning in our lives, crave it with every fiber of our being, and thus push ourselves, challenging ourselves to learn, accomplish, and become better at things. This is the great power and beauty of hard fun, providing meaning and purpose to our lives without being pressured or forced into it.
Sometimes a person’s work is hard fun to them. Whether they came to realize it because outside pressures pushed them into it, or they knew it was what they wanted to do all along, they do their job from the heart, and the paycheck is just a bonus. When this happens, it is a very beautiful thing.