Redefining ‘Work’: Thoughts from Glendon’s Leadership & Career Summit 2017

Last week was the 2017 Glendon Leadership and Career Summit.

Every year around January/February, the Glendon staff and students work together to plan and organize a massive conference centered around leadership in life and in career. There are sessions about everything from resume-building to effective body language to building your personal brand to the philosophy of leadership, led by all manner of people, many of them Glendon alumni themselves. And there’s also a career fair with employers in fields ranging from travel and tourism to education to civil service to finance and accounting to language tutoring. I’ve attended the Summit every year since I first came to Glendon, making the 2017 Summit my fifth. Every year, I come away with fresh insight about work and career and how to conceptualize being a leader in my community; every year, I come away with topped-up reserves of motivation and encouragement and resources to actually put that insight into practice. I couldn’t recommend it enough!

However, while I was attending seminars and listening to the panelists at the Q&A and generally absorbing information about leadership and career things, I had a realization. I noticed there was something that no one covered during the Summit. In fact, it’s never been covered at any of the Summit sessions I’ve attended, ever. Perhaps it’s because it seems like it should be taken for granted, like it’s common knowledge–but I distrust common knowledge on principle, and besides, I think in today’s world it’s really worth reflecting on:

What is a career? What are jobs? This thing we do called ‘work’–what IS it?

The Basic Philosophy

If you’re among the (small) group of people who have given this serious thought in the past, then I congratulate you on your wisdom. For the rest of us, this isn’t really ever something we stop to think about–the nature of jobs and their purpose in society–unless we’re mid-existential crisis. Which usually isn’t the best time to draw conclusions.

I caught myself considering this issue all throughout the Summit. What is work? Or better yet, what should work be? What is the fundamental purpose of a job? Why does the concept of career exist at all?

I can start by crossing off what work ISN’T supposed to be (in my opinion, at least).

A job is NOT meant to be:

  • a method of making money/accruing wealth;
  • a vehicle for attaining social status, fame, or glory;
  • a “box to be ticked off”, a required component of a ‘normal’ human life;
  • a way to earn the approval of loved ones;
  • a way to pass the time–even to pass the time meaningfully (although this one can be debated, I’m putting it here due to reasons discussed below)

These are all things that become of jobs. They’re ways you can react to a job, or ways other people react to jobs, or possibly motivations toward getting any one job in specific. But they are not the fundamental point of work. They’re byproducts.

The way I see it, the actual core purpose of work and career is a very simple thing: it’s a strategy implemented to solve a problem.

Let me say it again. I want you to really chew on it for a second.

Fundamentally, the concept of work is identical to the concept of problem-solving.

When you start thinking about the workforce/North American work ethic/our economy in these terms, things start to get pretty weird.

Basic Philosophy, Applied

First of all, you notice real fast that:

  • there are tons of problems in the world that, so far, have not been given solutions/jobs;
  • there are tons of jobs out there that solve NO PROBLEMS (or that artificially create problems in order to justify and legitimize their ongoing existence)

If you’re anything like me, chances are you held some vague understanding of this to begin with, but once you start dissecting different careers for the fundamental problem they are (or aren’t) solving, you get really good at telling the useful careers from the extraneous ones.

It’s also at this point that you figure out what you personally identify as a problem. There are some things–disease, malnourishment, homelessness, poverty–that are universally recognized as problems that need solving ASAP. But beyond those, your own influences and values are going to play rather a large role in the decision-making process of what a “real” problem actually is. If you want to go full-on altruist (or as close as any human can come to that), then the choosing gets really simple: pick the problem that you feel has the largest, longest-lasting impact on humanity and the planet as a whole, and then work on solving that. (Elon Musk is a person I’ve been reading about who pretty much did exactly that.) If you want to be a little more selfish–and I’m telling you right now, as a dedicated artist, that selfishness is not inherently something to avoid–it becomes more of a balancing act: find a problem that a) affects the planet and that b) has personal significance for you. Work on solving it.

Furthermore, you start to notice how much work is being done that goes almost entirely unacknowledged. I’ve mentioned this before, and written a very odd resume to prove my point, but our society really doesn’t shine the spotlight on the things that have true, lasting impact. It’s still largely focused on things like wealth and status, as opposed to things like service and community. It seems rather backwards to me that you can receive no compensation for working to solve some very far-reaching and fundamental problems (see also: volunteer efforts across the globe), yet become staggeringly wealthy doing a job that might not be nearly so helpful. It’s startling, and deeply confusing. How did we get to this point?

Approaching the concept of work and career with this problem-solving philosophy is an invaluable tool for entrepreneurship. Creating your own job or starting your own business isn’t for everybody–it’s painted very glamorously these days, but it’s got just as many challenges as the ‘traditional’ job model–but it sure is necessary right now. As previously mentioned, new problems are appearing all the time, new and unprecedented and solutionless. We need to approach them from the appropriate mindset if we want to make any genuine progress towards solving those problems.

Lastly–we’re diving back into murky waters here–it really makes you ponder where the concept of work is going to evolve. Because, guess what, a lot of the jobs we default to are going to disappear. Really, really soon.

(A note: remember those existential crises I mentioned? Prepare yourself to have one after watching this video.)

Our Principal Donald Ipperciel actually mentioned this growing trend of automation in his speech at the end of the Leadership & Career Summit. It’s not ‘the immigrants’ who are taking our jobs, friends, it’s the robots. And some would argue (myself included) that that’s actually a good thing–if a job is a strategy implemented to solve a problem, and computers/robots are more efficient, more accurate, and generally better at implementing the strategy, then why wouldn’t we let it happen?

Well, because we’re humans. We’re scared of change–especially big, scary, socially-reforming change. And because our particular human culture upholds work like nothing else. It’s a long and complicated story wrapped up in Puritanism and individualism (and a healthy amount of ableism while we’re at it) but the gist of it is this: we have no idea how to value ourselves, if not on our work. That doesn’t have to be a problem, so long as we start thinking long and hard about what ‘work’ means, what it can mean, and perhaps what it should mean.

All this, from one small but critical shift in mindset. And you wondered why Philosophy was a well-respected major.

A huge thanks to everyone who contributed to the planning and organization of Glendon’s 2017 Leadership & Career Summit–it’s because of you that I had the kick in the brain to really think this over!

Do you see value in considering work/career with this philosophy? What problems do you see in your community/society that need solutions? Discuss it with me in comments, the Ask box, or anywhere else!

Love and pondering,




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