Work life has an ebb and flow to it. There are weeks when you feel like everything is running smoothly, and others when no project seems to make any progress. Similarly, there are weeks when you love your job, your colleagues, and the mission behind your work. And other weeks when you just don’t see why you’re doing what you do.
When you feel like your job is pointless is a great time to look to the arts and humanities to get some inspiration. As important as science and technology may be in supporting new business, new processes, and new markets, the broad field of arts and humanities embodies a lot of wisdom about the human experience that can help you reconnect with the reasons you do the work you do.
Here are a few examples that have worked for me lately:
There are many reasons to read history. One, though, is because it provides tangible examples of how people have made the most of their circumstances, thereby influencing the world around them in important ways. While few of us may be the leaders of nations (or even companies), there’s a lot to learn from understanding the struggles and successes of key historical figures.
Recently, I have been reading The Impossible Presidency by my colleague Jeremi Suri. A central aspect of this book is a review of how several notable U.S. presidents— Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts, to name-drop a few—each shaped the power of the office. We tend to think of the jobs we have as being strictly defined, and the scope of what we can accomplish as being determined by other people or the situation.
But that is not necessarily the case.
The Constitution provides a partial description of the office of the president, but each inhabitant of the office can shape and influence the impact their office will have on the country. I found these past presidents’ examples and accomplishments to be inspiring, especially in realizing that similarly, each of us has an opportunity to transcend the constraints of our particular jobs, to take on new projects, and to try to have a broader influence on our department or company.
Great literature takes us out of the here-and-now and allows us to inhabit a different world for at least a short period of time. As much as literature allows us to empathize with others by walking the pages in their shoes, it also offers a chance to step away from our own world for a bit. That trip can help us reset our mood, and sometimes even get perspective on the problems we’re facing.
This summer, many people at the University of Texas (where I work) read a quirky novel called Bowlaway by our colleague Elizabeth McCracken. The book is a sprawling account of a strange family who owns and operates a candlepin bowling alley. The book reads like you are looking at the world through a lens that distorts reality just enough to make it feel a little odd. I read it at a time when I was spending a lot of time thinking about complicated organizational issues related to my job. It was valuable to have the oasis the novel provided. Each time I returned to work after reading, I felt like I had been on a mini vacation.
Great poetry uses all of the senses associated with language to create images and feelings that are a good reminder of what it means to be human. The concepts in the words matter—but so do the sounds and rhythms of the words themselves.
Most of the words in our work life are purely functional. We say, “How are you doing?” in order to start a conversation without really inviting a deep one. We strive to make requests clearly, and we communicate in order to have an impact (whether it’s to persuade, sell, motivate, or request).
Poetry is a reminder of the power language has to express complicated thoughts and feelings and to evoke powerful images and emotions. It can be a magnificent antidote to the pale prose of work. This week, I have been reading a new collection of poems by Tomás Morín called Machete. The emotions aren’t always easy, but the journey is worthwhile.
Philosophy uses the power of thought to help us better understand concepts that we thought we knew fully already. Philosophers hold up a lens to all the elements of the human experience to provide a vocabulary for making new distinctions that you can then communicate to other people and help them think in a new way as well. I find that philosophy can often get me un-stuck from a particular way of thinking by making me realize a deeper complexity to a problem with which I was struggling.
A couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading my colleague Paul Woodruff’s wonderful book, The Ajax Dilemma. He takes the story of the warrior Ajax from the Iliad and uses it as the basis for a deep discussion of leadership in complex settings: for understanding the difference between wise decisions (that carefully disentangle relationships between people and situations in a complex environment) and fair decisions (that apply a common set of rules across situations, regardless of whether they apply completely). This distinction has helped me understand a lot of what goes right and wrong in the workplace.