Week 2: Philosophy & Work

January 19, 2011by
In this lecture we will begin by looking at some basic definitions of philosophy, and examples of a certain manner of being a philosopher. Then we consider how your own philosophy of life and work relates to the kind of professional you want to be.

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The reason I am so concerned for you to think about being a philosopher is not that I want you to be interested in the things I, or philosophers generally, are interested in. I’m concerned that you learn to be a philosopher in your own right because I believe it is very much connected to how you discern what you want to do with your life, and this in turn is deeply related to how you approach your education. And both of these things can have a profound effect on your quality of life, not to mention that of those in the world around you.


Everyone has a more general philosophy of life, their own answer to the question of the nature and meaning of life, and since so much of our lives are taken up by the work we do it is important to think about how our understanding of work relates to our philosophy of life.

What is your philosophy of work? What are you going to do with your life? Why? What will it matter to the rest of the world what you do?

Most people would say they want their work to be something more than just a way to pay the bills and get as much of the stuff they want as possible. Most people, it seems, want to do something that connects with who they are in some way, that means something to them, even something that meets some need in the world and provides some service toward making the world a better place. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant one’s place might be, More impassioned people want to change the world. They see people starving and they devote their lives to solving the various problems of violence, corruption, and depravation. Some discover something they love to do and decide they will find a way to make a living doing that. In a word they follow their passion.

A more general word for this vocation. From the Latin term for ‘calling,’ vocation is a name for the general sense of feeling compelled or drawn to some profession or type of work. It’s what makes some course of life and work “just seem right.”

English educator Ken Robinson has recorded several stories of how people discovered their calling, or made professions out of their passions, in his book The Element. The “element” is his name for this thing you discover when you find what you were made to do, when you realize there is something you are so good at, or love so much, that you cannot imagine not doing it. One’s element is the kind of thing that they will do and stick to even in the face of serious obstacles.

Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby, tells the story in his recently published book Anything You Want about his work as a musician. Sivers was driven to be both a songwriter and a singer, and he was doing pretty well at it. He had a band, and they were getting enough gigs to make a decent living. Most importantly, they were doing what they loved. But for Sivers there was a significant catch: he wanted to take the next step in his career as a singer-songwriter, but people, some of whom he deeply respected, kept telling him that he “just wasn’t a singer.” He was hearing that the thing he most wanted to be was the exact thing he simply was not! But he kept at it, convinced it was only a matter of time before he developed his singing skills enough to achieve the quality of performance he was driven towards. When he was 25 Sivers gave some of his songs to a mentor, whose musical judgment he highly respected. The response he got: “Derek, you’re just not a singer. You really need to stop trying. Admit you’re a songwriter, and find a real singer.” This seems like enough to stop most anyone dead in their tracks. But it barely even phased Sivers. He kept working, following his calling, and four years later it happened:

At twenty-nine, I had done it. After fifteen years of practice, and about a thousand live shows, I was finally a very good singer, at least by my own standards. (Someone who heard me for the first time then said, “Singing is a gift you’re either born with or you’re not. You’re lucky. You were born with it!”

Anything You Want, p. 48 [The Domino Project]


While Sivers is not one of the people featured in Robinson’s book, he tells the story of dozens of other individuals whose discovery of their element absolutely transformed their lives, and in many cases changed the world. But listen to what he says the book is most essentially about:

But this book isn’t really about them. It’s about you.

My aim in writing it is to offer a richer vision of human ability and creativity and of the benefits to us all of connecting properly with our individual talents and passions. […] I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. I believe it is essential that each of us find his or her Element, not simply because it will make us more fulfilled but because, as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it.

But there is a major obstacle preventing people from discovering what they are passionate about and good at: education. The very thing that ought to be helping people discover and foster their talents and abilities, Robinson says, is actually discouraging and stifling them. And one of the ways in which he believes this has happened is through the devaluation of the arts.

This diminishing of the arts is consistent with some of the purposes for which the public education system was designed. Our system of public education was created to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the schools and curricula were designed accordingly. The problem is that we no longer live in this time, while our education system does. And it’s such a socially solidified system it’s difficult to change.

Listen to how Seth Godin describes it in a recent blog post (and the brief interview that follows):

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage at seven-year olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work–they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale to sell this major transformation to industrialists was that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence–it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

Ken Robinson’s talks at TED will give you a fuller picture of what he believes both the problems and some of the solutions to our predicament are:

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The quality of education we provide as a culture is a major moral issue.

The most important thing on the path to fulfilling your calling in life is your education. Your parents and your culture hang their hopes for the future on your education. And when I say “education” I mean something more like real learning and development than formal academic performance and achievement. Your education doesn’t have to be formal, and it’s likely that if you’re concerned to do anything with excellence in life most of your learning will not be institutionally structured (see Malcolm Gladwell on the 10,000 hour rule). Most of your it will involve no classroom and no teacher, thank goodness! It certainly won’t involve questionable standards like a grade or a GPA. But it will profoundly affect the quality of your work and life. And more than this, the quality of our collective education will shape the future quality of our life together as a society.

Possibly the earliest philosopher of education was the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius. One of the central elements in his view of how a society could become and remain virtuous is through education. For Confucius education is supposed to cultivate virtue in individuals through exposing them to all forms of learning, all the disciplines and expressions of human thought and life. The goal is not to prepare one for a specific job or profession, and no field of study is privileged over any other. Instead, the system is designed to give students the tools they need to become virtuous individuals. In turn, so the theory goes, the presence of more virtuous individuals in a society will give rise to a more virtuous system as a whole. Preparation for professional life still happens, of course, but it is not the driving factor.

Given the degree of corruption, violence, and other moral deficiencies so prevalent in the world today, the question of how to change things is becoming more and more urgent. Education in some form will have to be the fulcrum for any thorough, long lasting moves to be made. But what will it take to make the necessary changes?

What do you think our vision for education ought to be? And what are you going to do to bring it to life?