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Work is far more than a means to an end

06 January 2017

Understanding what we do as being a vocation means that it becomes a daily sacrament and offering, says Eve Poole

MUCH of life is taken up working. But we have become rather prac­tised at explaining away this activity: bringing home the bacon; another day, another dollar; it pays the bills.

But it is part of the human con­dition to yearn for meaning. Ex­­plain­­ing the meaning of work has often focused on the end, or telos, of work rather than on the work itself. We put up with bad pay or difficult colleagues, or we work as volun­teers, because the end justifies the means, whether that is a secure in­­come, professional recog­nition, career advancement, or great work-life balance.

But I would like to ex­­plore the meaning not just of work but of working: the how as well as the what. A thorough understand­ing of working as vocation means that daily behaviour becomes a sac­ra­­ment and an offering.

Many people not only carry out work activities, but supervise others to do so as well. Enabling and nur­turing the talent of others is both a privilege and a duty, and not one to be taken lightly. Managing wor­kers and performing work are both opportunities for virtue, because both require excellent practices.


THE idea of professional excellence has been explored most recently in the work of the virtue ethicist, Alasdair MacIntyre, who is keen on the notion of practices. In his book After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press), he defines behaving virtuously as the differ­ence between doing something for the extrinsic or instrumental re­­wards it provides, or doing it just because it is a good thing to do in and of itself. Art for the sake of art.

To illustrate this, he uses an analogy of painting. Painting a portrait gives the artist an ex­­ternal reward (payment or fame). But, in paying deep attention to its quality and excellence beyond that which might be required to generate this external reward, the artist also contributes to the general professional practice of portrait-painting, an internal re­­ward or good in itself.

In the business community, where the practice of mindfulness is the Zeitgeist, this has particular res­onance, because it is about being both “present” at work and deliber­ate about its performance. It is about doing something beautifully, even if no one is watching.

MacIntyre argues that excellent practices school us in virtue. We should not do good work just for what we might get out of it, or because we are contracted to do it in some particular way: we should do good work because we rejoice in it.

Work that is primarily about ends drives “contingent” behaviour — that is, behaviour that depends on the situation or the reward. But MacIntyre says that we cannot be genuinely virtuous if we are so only on occasion, or only if we are in­­centivised to be so. If we may or may not act virtuously, depending on circumstance, he thinks that this introduces both a level of condition­ality, and a level of selfishness, into the equation.

Dorothy L Sayers calls this “serv­ing the work”. In her 1942 essay “Why Work?”, she worries that if we constantly have one eye on our audience, we do not have both eyes on the work. This renders us victims of fashion, with no enduring idea of quality, because quality becomes an entirely move­able feast.

Furthermore, if we establish a psychological contract that expects approval, or at least some apprecia­tion, for our pains, we set ourselves up for disappointment if the reward does not quite match up. This also devalues the work, and makes us focus on those elements of it that are most likely to attract approval. We all know companies that have intro­duced stock options and perform­ance bonuses, with the best of intentions, only to discover that the behaviour it drives is nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the maxim “What gets meas­ured gets managed.”


SO MY plea for anyone who worries about meaning at work is to focus very particularly on the craft of it. Even the most prosaic of meetings or work conversations can be im­­bued with meaning, if they are performed beautifully and with pur­pose. Instead of being a thief of time, the next could be an oppor­tunity for creativity, service, learn­ing, and nurture. They lapse into tedium only if we let them, and if we choose to waste our own time.

Our choice of employer is a per­sonal decision, and our chosen organisa­tion might or might not yet serve a good end. That is a matter for con­stant wrestling and influence.

But, whatever the choice, please also attend to the mundane and the routine of the day-to-day. Savour every moment of it, because it is the stuff of this one precious life: don’t wish it away as a means to an end. Whether at home with the children, volunteering in the com­munity, work­ing in a busy office, or manning the phones, as George Herbert famously put it, “Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws, Makes that and the action fine.”

This applies to parish life, too. Clergy might like to consider how they can pastorally and liturgically support the work of everyone in the community, by noticing and prais­ing daily excellence wherever it is found, particularly in the small things of life, and in the tucked-away jobs that make life run smoothly.

One of a parish’s New Year re­s­­olutions could be to include workers and working in its inter­cessions, and to encourage ex­­travagant ex­cel­lence in the per­form­ance of all regular parish meet­ings.


Dr Eve Poole is an Associate of the St Paul’s Institute, which recently held a series of events on “meaningful work”, in partnership with the LSE.

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