Saruman, in the popular movie Lord of the Rings, is a villain. Sauron, an even bigger villain, wants Saruman to “build an army worthy of Mordor.” The Orcs come to Saruman wondering what Sauron has commanded. Then Saruman says something I’ve found to be quite meaningful. He says, “We have work to do” meaning they are commanded to build an army and there is an urgency to commit to the work of building it.
We tend to have a negative perception of work. It’s not something we want to do, but rather something we have to do. Saruman’s quote is meaningful to me because it emphasizes the importance of work and the fact that we need to work. Karl Marx was the first to understand that, being human, besides needing food, shelter and sex, we also need meaningful work. We need food, shelter and sex to survive, but we also need work to grow. So how do we approach work as a growth opportunity instead of just something we have to do?
We are driven by finding meaning. We can choose to find meaning either extrinsically or intrinsically. The mind is skilled at being motivated extrinsically; external end results such as making a lot of money, climbing a specific grade, and having an important job that gives us status in society. The mind uses these end results to create meaning. We feel we have a meaningful life because we have accomplished these end results.
The heart is skilled at being motivated intrinsically, internal processes that help us learn, such as engaging in activities, building relationships and learning. The heart uses these processes to create meaning. We feel we have a meaningful life because we’ve experienced activities, built relationships and learned.
If we take the extrinsic path we gain meaning temporarily, but then lose it as the end results change. We could lose all of our money; the difficulty grade we’re able to climb declines as we age; our status in society changes as our jobs change. If we take the intrinsic path we gain meaning that we can’t lose. We retain what we learned from the activities we’ve experienced and relationships we’ve built.
We need to utilize the mind and the heart to find meaning. The mind can set extrinsic goals and then the heart can fuel the intrinsic process—to enjoy the process—as we achieve goals. There needs to be a hierarchy of importance between the mind and the heart for finding meaningful work: the heart is more important than the mind.
Motivation is an important part in this process. We’re motivated by gaining something, such as a reward. We want some payoff from the work we do. There’s a difference between “what gets rewarded gets done” and “what is rewarding gets done.” “What gets rewarded” is the mind’s tactic, which is focused on gaining a reward from extrinsic end results. “What is rewarding” is the heart’s strategy, which is focused on gaining a reward from intrinsic processes. If we have work to do, as Saruman says, then we need work that is primarily intrinsically rewarding.
Work is stressful. If we follow the mind’s extrinsic motivation we wouldn’t work. We would simply find ways to gain easy money so we could be comfortable. To fuel intrinsic motivation we must want to be in the stress that comes with work. We must understand that it’s through work that we grow and find meaning. The heart is the only part of us that can sustain our engagement and carry us through the stress of work. We can’t manufacture intrinsic motivation. It must originate organically; it can’t be forced; it must flow from the heart.
So how do we make the shift from mind to heart, extrinsic to intrinsic? The German writer and teacher Rilke gives us a clue when he answers a student’s question. The student was confused and wondered if he should become a writer. “Write only if you have to.” The work we do must be something we have to do, because it’s something that needs expression through us. This kind of work grows us as human beings because it’s meaningful. We can’t think our way through this process; we each must listen to our heart.
Practice Tip: Listen and Feel
Paying attention to how your heart directs you can give you insight into your work. What do you do without being rewarded? There are books you read, activities you do, and topics you talk about without someone forcing you or rewarding you. These are clues into your intrinsic work.
Don’t turn this into a data collection process. If you can logically explain the work you should do, then it isn’t coming from the heart. You can’t explain why your heart directs you as it does. You need to just listen and feel.