There’s a big difference between the work you do and the tasks you perform.
The two often blend together, at least in how we perceive our work and how our time is spent. But recognizing the difference can be vital to how we orient our lives.
Consider an accountant, working for a clothing company that cuts out the marketing and manufacturing middle-men so they can pay local workers an excellent wage. The accountant performs the normal accounting tasks of tallying, multiplying, filling in spreadsheets, but what she’s doing is helping to shake up a stagnant industry, making higher-end, durable clothing accessible to the masses, and ensuring that a factory full of people are able to pay their bills and keep food on the table.
Note that the tasks she’s performing aren’t different from those performed by any other accountant: she could be working for clients with completely different values and she’d still have essentially the same duties.
But the work being done, the process she’s a part of, is very different based on where she flexes her numerical muscles. That’s a powerful thing.
It’s easy to view the tasks you perform as cog-like, which could mean your work feels unimportant, and as a result, the big picture doesn’t seem to matter too much. You might as well work for the company that pays the most, or the largest one available, as it’ll be less likely to fail and leave you job-less. You’re just an accountant, you can’t help it if that safe, reliable employer also happens to be destroying the rain forests, or is hiring sweatshop labor to produce their goods.
This view is based on the tasks you perform, but lacks consideration for the work that you do. It leaves out the fact that your effort, combined with that of others, has consequences. Changes things. Your work has an impact and what happens because of it is therefore worth your attention.
We live in a world where the results of our actions, good or bad, are meaningful, should we choose to acknowledge them. And though this can seem like taking responsibility for things outside of our direct control (like the actions of the corporation we work for), it also means that if enough people take personal responsibility for the work they do, there will be fewer negative consequences to track.
Wars can’t be fought without the participation of soldiers, even if politicians are the ones who send them into battle. Likewise, business interests can make all the plans they want, but unless they can find people willing to work for them, willing to do their dirty work, task by task, they’ll be left stranded, numbers un-crunched, spreadsheets empty.
Perform your tasks responsibly so that you can acknowledge and take pride in the work you do.
Update: April 14, 2017
This can be a very uncomfortable realization, but it’s interesting seeing the empowered look in people’s eyes when they recognize this power they wield.