Ho! Newsletterers! I’m Nat Bennett. You’re reading Simpler Machines.

Can we find meaning at work? Clearly, yes. Should we look for it there? I’m less sure.

This is a theme that I've hit before on this newsletter, but I’ve been thinking about it again lately — meaning, in the “man’s search for meaning” sense. I used to get a lot of it from work. Thought about my job in terms of “contributing to society.” A lot of people think about work this way. The point of the job isn’t to make money for shareholders, it’s about “organizing the world’s information.”

There’s an instinct— and modern corporations take advantage of that instinct— to want to contribute to an institution, an organization with a purpose. To “be part of something larger.”

This isn’t really how corporations work. It might have a mission, for a little while, as long as it’s got a particular CEO and a particular board, but the mission doesn’t last. Companies get bought. They get sold. They’re not institutions in the same sense that a military, or a nation, or a university, or a church are institutions. A few corporations might outlive me. The vast majority won’t.

There’s a limit, to how much meaning a person can get from a job.

Three books, if you, too, wrestle with this stuff.

First— Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace. (Read it on your phone if you’re embarrassed to be seen hefting the thing around a coffee shop— it’s what I did. No one ever noticed.) The book is many things but one is an extended meditation on the idea in the “This is Water” speech — that you have to choose a thing to worship, or the world will assign one too you, and most of the things it assigns you to worship will eat you alive.

Second— The Silmarillion. Yeah, I know, that Silmarillion— famously boring, nerdy prequel to everyone’s favorite doorstop monument to conlanging.

It’s good. Also, if you are serious about meaning you’re gonna have to read a few doorstops. Sorry, but I don’t make the rules here. Get it on your phone, read it instead of browsing– you'll be done before you know it.

The thing about the Silmarillillion is that it’s the best thing I’ve ever read about the act of creation, and the people who are obsessed with making things. The act of creation, the desire for creation— where does that come from? Where does it lead? Beauty and usefulness are good but there’s this other thing that Melkor, Sauron, Fëanor get caught up— a love of making things and ordering things, set above other things that they maybe ought to have valued more.

Finally— The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Much shorter than the first two— if you’re going to read just one, read this.

Again— a lot here. It’s so short that it resists summarization. (And a lot of it is about the importance of the Sabbath in the context of Judaism specifically.) But I’ve found it enduringly useful in thinking about the inherent value of rest and the relationship between rest and work. Why, for instance, is writing specifically forbidden— but not reading?


Do you worship work?

Are you sure?

- Nat

Do you worship work?

Three book recommendations for thinking about getting meaning from work