A Moral Obligation To Do Good Work

Why should you learn something new? Maybe life is better lived without progress, merit, or hard work. After all, you can’t take your career with you when you die. The books you read will not pass beyond the grave. The things you build will likely be forgotten in a few generations at best. Despite these truths, you have a moral obligation to do your life’s work.

Moral, because when your mind is focused on a passion project that only you can complete, you’re less likely to do harm to others and yourself. Obligation, because at the end of your life, you will wonder if you have lived well. You owe it to your future self to be able to say, “Yes.”

Anxiety vs. Curiosity In Our Work

Let’s talk about what it means to do good work. The activities that makes your life meaningful are going to be different from mine. This is our first problem. If “meaningful work” was the same for everyone, we could get started right away. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, which means that each person is first tasked with some personal research.

“The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried” (Emerson 139). If Emerson was correct, then you can only find your meaningful work through a process of self-reflection, experimentation, honesty, courageous action, and continual observation.

To do good work is to follow your curiosity with courage. It’s much like reading books. When you find a text that interests you, you’ll devour that book. During that study, you’ll uncover new questions which will lead to more books that feed your intellect. This line of reading by fascination turns your whole world upside down. Many people say they don’t have time to read, or that they’re not interested. I would argue that they’re simply reading the wrong books. They’ve forgotten how to care for their curiosity. “Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour” (Thoreau 100).

In Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, he points out that we face a constant onslaught of anxiety due to our fear of both life and death. His argument is that we yearn to reach our “Godlike” potential and do wondrous things, but at the same time, we know that will require us to take risks which are dangerous. Stepping outside of our comfort zone could lead to emotional or even physical death. So, we settle for less, and this constant push and pull process creates anxiety (53).

I’d like to suggest that the anxiety we feel is heightened when we don’t follow our curiosity. We tell ourselves that to do what we truly love would be impossible. “You can’t support a family on that,” you might say. Or perhaps, “I’d love to follow my dreams, but I have kids.” We tranquilize the aspiration while our curiosity remains, and that churning in our gut feels terrible.

Become a Maker

The term “Maker” has gained popularity within the past several years. You can find makers online building furniture by hand, restoring old paper presses, crafting wine, and collecting honey. We’re fascinated by these people because their labor and time translate into something physical.

When we look at our own work, we wonder, “What am I making?” Many of us sit at a desk processing data or text. At the end of the day, it can feel like all we’ve done is manage email. This doesn’t make our work meaningless, we just need to discover our product and determine if it’s valuable enough to dedicate our lives to its production.

In general, no matter your field, you must think of yourself as a builder, using actual materials and ideas. You’re producing something tangible in your work, something that affects people in a direct and concrete way. “To build anything well—a house, a political organization, a business, or a film—you must understand the building process and possess the necessary skills. You are a craftsman learning to adhere to the highest standards. For all of this, you must go through a careful apprenticeship. You cannot make a thing worthwhile in this world unless you have first developed and transformed yourself” (Greene 64).

The is the second obstacle you must overcome if you are to do good work. You must determine what your efforts are creating, ask if it’s worth sacrificing your life for that product, and if so, you must seek real apprenticeship in that art so that you can become a skilled craftsperson.

What Have You Produced with Your Time?

I got into a fight with a friend because he tried to recruit me into a multi-level marketing business. I asked him what they produced, and he told me that the company sold financial coaching. When I dug a little further, I found that he was making money, but not from quality coaching – the success he enjoyed came from his “downline.” If you’re new to the term, the idea is simple. In multi-level marketing, you try and get other friends and family to buy in and sell the products. For every product they sell, you get a share of the revenue. They become a part of your “downline.”

I told him I preferred to stick with my current work as an accountant because I was helping businesses get profitable, and that I didn’t feel like pyramid-schemes added any value. He cut me out of his “friendship circle,” and he hasn’t spoken with me since.

I wasn’t rude, nor was he. But I’m simply not interested in dedicating the majority of my life to ambiguous work. That may sound superior, but it’s not meant to be. I’m terrified of getting to the end of my life and realizing that I did nothing of substance – that I wasted my life’s opportunity.

Efficiency is Killing YOur Authenticity

Another disparity of doing good work has to do with automated intelligence. I can tell when A.I. has written something. There’s a certain lack of soul in the words. As more people use this tool to get their work done, production looks and feels homogenous. When reading a blog post or a paper, I don’t want to read an auto-generated response. I want to read your response. When watching a video, I don’t want to see a processed YouTube scene, I want to see you arguing for your ideas. As Shakespeare said in Macbeth, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Stop outsourcing your genius to A.I., and instead, put your heart and soul into something imperfectly you. I would argue that your imperfect attempt is far more interesting than anything ChatGPT can create.

The act of creation in your work is what makes it meaningful. By staying in a job you hate, or by ignoring that curiosity, you’ll get to the end of your life and wonder what it was all for. And using A.I. to do your thinking will only dig the grave deeper.

Many will push back here and say, “I’m still in control. I’m directing the A.I. and editing the work to make it my own.” To them I would say, “Keep lying to yourself.” You’ve skipped the hard (and most valuable) work of clarifying your ideas, wrestling with them, and making them your own. To prompt A.I. and then to edit the response is not original or creative work – it’s work that only cares about a sterile outcome.

“Focusing solely on outcomes forces us to make choices that are banal, short-term, or selfish. It takes our focus away from the journey and encourages us to give up too early” (Godin 23).

How Much Life Will You Give?

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau worried about his freedom. He argued that working all hours of the day, just to incur debt that you can barely pay, will lead to a life of quiet desperation (7). I’ve always taken that quote personally. I have debt. I’ve worked endless hours. Does that mean that I’m failing at life?


Thoreau considered the cost of a purchase in terms of life lost (44). For example, if you want to buy a new ski boat which starts at $150,000 and you make $45 an hour, you’re giving up 3,333 hours of your life to get it, and that doesn’t include interest!

Thoreau would ask if that’s worth it. Only you can answer this question for yourself. This idea of working for “toys” is critical because our greed encourages us to climb the richest of corporate ladders. We analyze positions based on their annual salaries rather than the meaning they bring to our lives.

For most, once they get their coveted boat, they never have time enough to enjoy it. Anyone with a boss knows that you can never truly go on vacation without secretly checking your emails. And we all have a boss, including business owners who have to keep their customers happy at all times. You may ride that boat a few weekends a year, but you’ve traded your freedom to do so.

Wouldn’t it be more enjoyable to do work inline with your curiosity? You may take a pay cut and you may never have a ski boat, but you will having something that the mass of men do not have – freedom from a life of “quiet desperation” (Thoreau 7).

Find and Commit TO Your True Work

Once you’ve made the commitment to follow your curiosity, you have to accept the truth – that it’s going to be hard work. It’s always easier to take a menial job rather than venture your own path through the woods. There are wolves out there for travelers like you, people willing to leave the safety of the nest and explore. But there are also beautiful sights you cannot see from the well-worn path. Each step into the forest is one foot closer, and that’s how you’re going to discover your life’s work.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear tells us the story of the British Cycling Team, who, as the worst cycling team in the world, hired Dave Brailsford to turn things around. What made Brailsford different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he called “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which is the philosophy of searching for tiny margins of improvement in everything you do (13). His approach led the team to gold medal status in the Olympics.

It simply takes time.

Start today by asking yourself, “What am I curious about?” Follow that curiosity, even if it means taking a different career, going back to school, or confronting your boss. The work you do matters, and when you leave this earth, you’ll be grateful that you had the courage follow your heart.

Again, you have a moral obligation to work this way, to find work that fulfills you. By waking up each morning to a task that excites you, you’ll be less inclined to do harm to yourself or others, and at the end of your life, you’ll be able to answer in the affirmative the only question that truly matters: “Have I lived well?”


Works Cited

Clear, James. Atomic Habits. Avery, 2018.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson. Edited by Carl Bode and Malcolm Cowley, Viking Penguin Inc., 1981.

Godin, Seth. The Practice: Shipping Creative Work. Portfolio / Penguin, 2020.

Greene, Robert. Mastery. Penguin Books, 2013.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Vintage Books, 2014.

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