The Work You Were Born to Do
Self-help gurus would like you to believe that you have a purpose—and that purpose is work.
This is the 6th installment of Strange New Work, a special series that uses speculative fiction to explore radically different work futures. Find the whole series here.
A Ubiquitous Promise
Chris Guillebeau's 2016 bestseller, Born For This, makes what's become a ubiquitous promise. The book will help you "find the work you were meant to do." Right on the second page, he describes the people who "have it all," writing, "Whether through their own brilliance or, more likely, as a result of trial and error, they've found the work they were born to do."
Jonathan Fields's 2021 book, Sparked, makes a similar promise. His Sparketype framework will help you "discover your unique imprint for work that makes you come alive." He writes:
We can't know where to steer our lives until we better understand what makes us come alive, and what empties us out. It all starts with one central question, What am I here to do? When most of us ask, we're thinking about work. What is my unique contribution? To my life. To the lives of those around me. To society.
In an article for Bustle, bestselling author Brianna Wiest offers "9 Ways to Figure Out What You're 'Meant' to Do" and closes with this line: "Your best self is the person you're meant to be, and whatever that person is and does, is what you're meant to do."
Crack open just about any career or personal development book on your shelf, and you're to find sentiments that echo these three.
Figuring out what you were put on this Earth to do is big business. Selling the secrets to life's purpose has made thousands of people fabulously wealthy. And it's convinced millions of us that we're "made" for a certain kind of work.
Twitter user @thetrudz offered a different take in a 2019 tweet, saying:
"My ‘dream job’ is . . . not working. No work. I don’t dream about labor."
According to Jacobin, the line "I don't dream about labor" is now often misattributed to James Baldwin—who, for the record, I was also going to attribute it to until I googled "don't dream about labor james baldwin" and discovered my error.
It's no wonder that @thetrudz tweet went viral.
It exposes the absurdity of a message most of us normalized by the time we entered kindergarten.
There's work we're meant to do, a career we were made for, and a job that we dream of. The existential bar is set incredibly high from the moment we're first asked, "What do you want to do when you grow up?"
It's also no wonder, then, that "I don't dream about labor" was repackaged as a catchphrase for the influencer class. Caitlyn Clark wrote about this shift away from the original critique of the tweet for Jacobin:
The phrase has been transformed from a pithy anti-capitalist critique to an endorsement of neoliberal capitalism’s worst excesses — used to justify wealth without work and mindless consumption, feeding the capitalist need for endless growth.
Instead of a structural critique of the ways our "dreams" are used to justify labor under capitalism, the phrase was added to TikTok's audio library and paired with videos by luxury travel, fashion, and lifestyle influencers.
Rethink work. Become a free or premium subscriber and get What Works automatically delivered to your inbox every week!
Keep reading or listen on your favorite podcast app.
Before I go further, I want to put my cards on the table.
I know there are many people—maybe you!—whose religious or metaphysical beliefs mean they do, indeed, believe they were made for a purpose. They believe that God or The Universe gave them their unique talents and strengths as part of a bigger plan. I do not share those beliefs—but I am also not arguing against them. In fact, it's those true believers who I actually think are at the most risk of harm by the way these messages leverage existential questions for exploitation.
In today's installment of Strange New Work, I want to take the "born for this" justification to its logical ends by examining stories in which people are literally created to work. And I want to consider what it might take to separate our identities and earnest beliefs from the paradigm of labor.
Bred for This
In the world of China Miéville's Embassytown, a small human outpost exists on a world populated with a species whose language humans can learn to understand but physically cannot speak. When linguists made first contact, they began to compile a database of sounds. They processed those sounds through their language-learning devices and, within "a few thousand hours," figured out what the native species was saying. They were also able to mimic the exact sounds and intonation of the language in response.
But the Hosts, as they're referred to by human locals, "did not understand a single word."
Over time, the linguists learn that the Hosts's Language is unlike any other form of communication in the known universe. Miéville writes:
Hosts' minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue. They couldn't learn other languages, couldn't conceive of their existence, or that the noises we made to each other were words at all. A Host could understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words. That was why those early [linguistic] pioneers were confused. When their machines spoke, the Hosts heard only empty barks.
Physiologically, humans weren't able to speak Language, being unable to produce two sounds at once the way the Hosts did. But semantically, even two trained humans couldn't reproduce Language together. Language depended on a single intent behind the words. The words must come from the same mind.
Human linguists had some minor successes with identical twins, but the real success came when linguists began cloning pairs of Ambassadors called doppels.
They were bred in twos in the Ambassador-farm, tweaked to accentuate certain psychological qualities. ... The Ambassadors were created and brought up to be one, with unified minds. They had the same genes but much more: it was the minds those carefully nurtured genes made that the Hosts could hear. If you raised them right, taught them to think of themselves right, wired them with links, then they could speak Language, with close enough to one sentience that the [Hosts] could understand it.
The Ambassadors were quite literally made for the work they did. They were the only human representatives who could speak with the Hosts, whose planet they lived on. At first, the doppels seem content with the situation. They hold a special place in the human community and seem to be treated quite well. But as the story unfolds and crisis arrives, we learn about the darker side of the Ambassador program.
It turns out that the doppel process doesn't always produce successful Ambassadors, and those who don't work out get disappeared. We learn about the existential heartbreak that a doppel goes through when their clone dies before they do. And we begin to see the prejudice that humans harbor against these people who don't seem to be fully human.
In other words, if you're made to be an Ambassador, things are fine enough in normal, everyday life. But at the smallest crack in the façade, things can get bad fast.
Who are you if you're not able to do the thing you were meant to do?
What's your place in the world if you're not able to hold the space you were born for? What do you do when your "dream job" becomes a nightmare?
Ann Leckie uses a similar framework to imagine an alien race called the Presger and the translators they've engineered to interact with humans. Over the course of the Imperial Raddch trilogy and two standalone novels in the same universe, we never really learn much about the Presger themselves. That's just fine because Leckie does an excellent job of presenting aliens as truly alien, rather than just weird humans.
We know two things about the Presger. First, for some reason, they love taking living things (including humans) apart. Second, they have the ability to manipulate space-time in such a way that allows them to travel vast distances instantaneously, as well as create doorways from one place to another. Everything else we know is limited to their translators.
Presger translators appear human on the outside. But psychologically and physiologically, they are anything but. Translators, too, enjoy taking living things apart and travel by manipulating space-time. But they spend their 30-year childhoods learning human language, customs, and propriety. After those 30 years are up, their bodies initiate a transition into adulthood that requires them to "match" with another Translator. In the matching process, the two Translators physically merge, recombining into two much more similar adult Translators who are considered the same entity.
Just like the doppels in Embassytown, the Presger Translators are made for the only jobs they can hold. There is one reason they exist and one reason only. If they can't perform that job, they're disposed of.
In the world of Annalee Newitz's The Terraformers, workers are grown and decanted by corporations who own them as slaves. Instead of homo sapiens, the workers are homo diversus. The corporation chooses the exact physiology of the workers based on need and cost. Newitz describes an encounter with one such worker like this:
One of the people stood up and strode across the floor to them with a big smile splitting their face open. Like all the hominins here, this person was an H. diversus—a synthetic offshoot of H. sapiens—their forehead sloped back to a point, their chest wide enough to fit most standard atmosphere filtration systems. Their limbs were long, with multiple joints working beneath their padded sleeves. “I’m Slim, using she,” the person said, extending a hand with two thumbs framing her four fingers.
The workers slaved to corporations in The Terraformers have no rights. They're required to do the job they were made for—and no consideration is given to their health, personal desires, or relationships. They come into the world as workers and leave, naturally or not, as workers.
There's something seductive about having a predetermined purpose. We find the idea that we were meant to do a particular thing with our lives stabilizing. But at the same time, being born for a particular kind of work or contribution to society brings with it existential angst.
The Ambassadors, Presger Translators, and homo diversus workers are all explicitly disposable. If they can't do the job, they get shipped off to "a farm," eaten by the young, or simply left to starve on the job site.
Meant for More
While human workers in the here and now don't face quite the same material consequences, failing to discover what we're "meant to do" or learning that we're unable to do it for any number of reasons threatens to make us a pariah of our class. It can seem that there's something lesser in working a job to collect a paycheck and health insurance. Or, it can seem lesser to even have a "job" that's not your own business.
Especially among college-educated middle and upper-middle-class people who increasingly look to work in the same way their parents' generation looked to religion, not living up to expectations can put a gloss of failure over one's entire life. That's why it's strange to me that so many self-help writers, career coaches, and personal development gurus continue to frame work in the language of purpose.
Why do the stakes need to be so high?
Why are we motivated by language like "doing what you're meant to do" rather than put off by its metaphysical all-or-nothing view of life?
On one hand, I think it's marketing. As in, bestselling writers know that big promises sell books. People want to buy books that tell them there's more to life, that they themselves were meant for something bigger. There's a demand, so writers and gurus are happy to provide the supply.
But these "made for work" mantras also bolster what Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski call the "new spirit of capitalism." Beginning in the 1990s, Chiapello and Boltanski analyzed common themes in management and leadership books to compare them to themes from prior management discourse. The theory they formulated describes three distinct "spirits of capitalism"—borrowing the term from Max Weber.
Each spirit of capitalism represents a narrative that serves to motivate workers despite the obvious inequality and exploitation inherent to employment under capitalism. The narrative isn't some centralized conspiracy, of course. Instead, the narrative coalesces around the ways employers and government respond to worker complaints.
The first spirit, as originally described by Weber, emerged from complaints about poverty, insecurity, and industry-driven upheaval in rural communities. It characterizes the period between the late 19th century and the 1930s. In response, the ownership class pointed to new forms of labor offering a path to a higher station in life, including personal property and a bourgeois-style family.
The second spirit was a response to complaints about the massive disparity between the ownership class and the working class and describes the 1940s through the 70s. Now, work was portrayed as a compromise between the time you spent earning a wage and the time you could spend enjoying the spoils of your labor. During this period, we see the rise of retirement as an institution and the birth of careerism.
The third spirit of capitalism is the one that Chiapello and Boltanski studied in real time. Beginning in the 1980s, this narrative emerged in response to complaints about the boring, rote nature of work and the tedious layers of bureaucracy that supported it. The response from the ownership class was to push the individual as a creative, self-directed, and often self-managing pseudo-entrepreneur.
You didn't change jobs to improve your pay or benefits; you changed jobs to add to your portfolio. You sought promotions not to wield control over others but to exercise your creativity and work on new, exciting projects.
In the 2010 postface to The New Spirit of Capitalism, Chiapello and Boltanski note that in the decade since the book was first published, the third spirit of capitalism has only hardened its grasp on the psyche of workers. But from our vantage point here in the 2020s, I think we might be able to discern a fourth spirit of capitalism emerging. One that will coalesce around responses to our fervent complaints about injustice and inequality.
I see this fourth spirit of capitalism whispering through the works I cited at the beginning of this episode.
It's no longer enough to have more flexible, creative work. Instead, work must be portrayed as an existential need. We're born for this. We're doing what we were meant to do. We're part of something bigger than ourselves.
We are made for work.
Chiapello and Boltanski argue that a "spirit of capitalism" must satisfy three criteria: (1) it must offer an exciting narrative that motivates workers, (2) it must demonstrate how work leads to personal security, and (3) it must communicate how work contributes to the common good and promotes fairness. The "made for work" message hits all three of these points.
First, as I mentioned earlier, the reason that so many books, Instagram accounts, and motivational LinkedIn posts center on finding the work you were meant to do is that it's exciting. When we learn that our unique talents and skills add up to the potential to find the work that only we can do, how can we respond with anything less than enthusiasm? The whole "made for work" genre is a series of pep talks.
Second, the "made for work" message promotes an understanding of personal security that leverages branding, entrepreneurship, and self-discipline. The more we're in control of our own work by virtue of our self-promotion and risk-taking, the more secure we are. In Guillebeau's Born for This, this security is literally described as "the winning ticket for your career lottery."
Finally, we must consider whether the "made for work" message promotes fairness and contributes to the common good. Surely, part of this message is existential navel-gazing. It's profoundly individualistic and lacking in any meaningful critique of existing structures. However, what the "made for work" message succeeds at is reclaiming the mantel of meritocracy and, with it, the veneer of social justification.
"Fairness" becomes a function of everyone getting what they deserve based on what they were made for and how effectively they pursued that thing. And if everyone pursues what they were meant to do, then we can create a utopian society of meaning-driven, purpose-oriented humans.
No, sorry. Of course, it doesn't.
You know this "made for work" message inside and out.
You've read the books, heard the TED talks, swiped through the Instagram carousels. I might be giving you a new framework to think about that message, but the message itself is part of the cultural DNA of anyone born after 1980 or so.
So what does it have to do with the future of work?
Well, each of the three previous spirits of capitalism have lasted approximately 40 years. The third spirit of capitalism that Chiapello and Boltanski describe began in the 1980s, which means the fourth would start around—checks calendar—2020. Each of the previous spirits have come as a direct response to a popular and salient critique of the nature of work under capitalism. The first responded to the second industrial revolution. The second responded to the Great Depression. The third responded to stagflation and the gains of the labor movement. It's no surprise that today, we're seeing a new spirit emerge at the same time we've seen massive protests and labor strikes.
This fourth spirit of capitalism will likely last another 40 or so years.
The future of work is being shaped by it right now. The platforms we use, the management strategies we employ, the side hustles we take on, the retirement plans we made (or don't make, as the case may be)—they all depend on us buying the "made for work" message.
Speculative fiction gives us a way to imagine overtly coercive systems that breed people for specific jobs and dispose of those who don't make the cut. But here, in the early decades of the 21st century, we find ourselves taking on similar, more covertly coercive systems.
We're not made for this work—this work that subjugates our own needs and desires in order to aid others in their pursuit of wealth.
There's no reason to be motivated, existentially or otherwise, by a job, a side hustle, or even our own small business that salvages our time and productive effort to make billionaires into trillionaires. There is no fairness or common good to be found in a message that continually reinforces social and economic hierarchy. And there is no security in self-reliance.
We're not made for work, but perhaps we make ourselves through work. Maybe the real crisis we face today and on into the future of work is the way external circumstances constrain our ability to make ourselves beyond work. What we're after is truly contributing to the common good—and creating a common good that has an active role in making everyone's lives better. Maybe that's all the motivation and security we need.
I imagine a future of work where I'm not doing the work I was made to do but instead doing the work that I choose to do. And what I choose is based on the needs of my community, the skills I have, and the wide open spaces that emerge when each of us is committed to our neighbors near and far. In this world of choice, I apply my ambitions to my craft rather than escaping my class, to my community rather than stockpiling my private property.
Rethink work. Become a free or premium subscriber to get What Works automatically delivered to your inbox every week!