“If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work,” psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote in his inquiry into what motivates us to work. But human nature itself is a moody beast. “Given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all,” John Steinbeck lamented in his diary of the creative process as he labored over the novel that would soon earn him the Pulitzer Prize and become the cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later. Work, of course, has a profoundly different meaning for the artist than it does for the person punching into and out of a nine-to-five workplace. And yet even those fortunate enough to be animated by a deep sense of purpose in a vocation that ensures their livelihood can succumb to the occasional — or even frequent — spell of paralysis at the prospect of another day of work. What, then, are we to do on such days when we simply can’t muster the motivation to get out of bed?
Nearly two millennia ago, in an era when for the vast majority of people work wasn’t a source of purpose and meaning but the means for basic sustenance gained through hard labor, the great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius offered an abiding answer in Meditations (public library | free ebook) — his indispensable proto-blog, replete with abiding wisdom on such matters as how to begin each day for optimal sanity and the key to living fully.
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
To the mind’s natural protestation that staying under the blankets simply feels nicer, Aurelius retorts:
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
Our nature, he insists, is to live a life of service — to help others and contribute to the world. Any resistance to this inherent purpose is therefore a negation of our nature and a failure of self-love. He writes:
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.
Many centuries before psychologists identified the experience of “flow” in creative work, he considers a key characteristic of people who love what they do:
When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.
Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?
He revisits the subject in another meditation:
When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic— what defines a human being — is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one — more innate and more satisfying.
Complement this particular portion of Meditations with Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak and find your purpose and Dostoyevsky on poverty, ambition, success, and creative integrity, then revisit Marcus Aurelius on what his father taught him about honor and humility.