Q: How I can discover more meaningful work?

A: Career and pop psychology bookshelves are full of advice on finding a satisfying career. However, if you want to discover what really matters to you, read great literature. Ancient philosophers and modern psychologists contend that stories resonate with us because they cultivate empathy, emotional intelligence and our ability to relate to other humans. Reading my suggestions below can help you explore what makes work meaningful, which is more than pay for performance.

The first is “Ghachar Ghochar” by Vivek Shanbhag. In this book, Anita has married into a family that is all ghachar ghochar — a made-up phrase signifying the entanglements of life. A relative’s fortuitous entry into the spice trade has brought an influx of wealth to support the extended family. After their honeymoon, Anita begins to wonder what her husband does in his seemingly ceremonial position at his uncle’s company. Does the best life involve wealth for no work at all? These characters’ experiences show how honest work warrants more respect than it sometimes gets.

I also recommend “The Embassy of Cambodia” by Zadie Smith. In this story, Fatou passes a seemingly endless game of badminton on her walk to the London home of the middle-class family for which she works as a maid. Paid only room and board and abused verbally and physically, Fatou wonders if she is a slave. Her experience invites the reader to consider what slavery really is when so many of us complain of feeling enslaved by our work.

The famous whitewashing scene from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” describes Tom’s feelings upon surveying the fence he must paint: “Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden.” That is the reaction that any of us might have when facing infinite heaps of work on a Saturday morning: a pile of papers to review, an insurmountable deadline confining us to a desk, a massive spreadsheet rife with errors. Tom’s ingenious solution to accomplish his task comes with this wisdom from the author: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and … play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”


Christopher Michaelson is on faculty in the ethics and business law department at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.