I recently had a meeting with university student entrepreneurs who reached out to me, looking for mentorship as they embark to compete in the Hult Prize competition. This year’s 10th anniversary of the prize’s challenge is to build the foundations of a venture that will provide meaningful work for 10,000 youth within the next decade. It is a lofty goal. I was flattered by them seeking my help. I am happy to be of any help. We had an amazing first meeting, which turned philosophical at times. What is the meaning of meaningful work? This kept me thinking for the past couple of days.
As a youth, at 11, I became a newspaper delivery boy. I was able to save money. I bought myself a new 20 inch wheels bike at 13. At 14 I bought my own plane ticket when the family went to visit my uncles and cousins. Being able to not be dependent on my parents for things like that and contribute that way was meaningful to me. At 15 I took over the “shopkeeper” role at my school’s bookstore at $2.20 per hour. Learning all the titles to all the novels, and their authors, became meaningful to me as years later I still was able to brag about all the titles I knew John Steinbeck or Tennessee Williams had written. That knowledge still proves useful when I get pulled into trivia games. In the summers, I worked inventory counts at a P & G warehouse, and then at a Nissan (then Datsun) dealership. Those were short gigs, but receiving a nice check that assigned actual monetary value to what I had contributed with my labor proved meaningful. I had no worries about keeping a roof above my head or putting food on the table. The adults took care of that, but there was still plenty of meaning attached to finding myself valuable in my youth.
I told the students the story of a friend, who had to flee his home country and had his sizable business taken over by the totalitarian regime now in power. This was maybe 2 or 3 years ago. He has worked really hard to put a roof over his head and food on the table for his family. I saw him struggle in multiple ways. I know he drove for Uber and performed any job that would bring in some money. Alongside the struggle, for many months, in the little spare time he had, he validated a business idea for a niche online marketplace and put an excellent plan together to start a new venture. He pitched to investors, who became interested, but not enough for such an early stage venture. The angels I know fund about 1% of the deals they screen. This is a very hard game to play, especially when you can’t make a living in your current condition.
While pursuing all these avenues simultaneously, three months ago he decided to learn the intricacies of the world’s biggest online marketplace, with the determination of mastering his knowledge of its algorithms, a skill that would serve him well for his new future venture. He invested the last $500 he had to his name. In the last 3 months, he has finally started to see meaningful returns in his online e-commerce efforts. He stopped by to say hello a few weeks ago. I had not seen him in a couple of months. His countenance was altered. He is a changed person. He has made more money in the past month than he probably has since he arrived in this country. He has worked awfully hard to get to this point. I told him he has to write a book. He has become successful by providing good value to his customers. Finally, he can pay his bills – and this is, as far as I can tell, just the beginning. He can dream of a future of prosperity for him and his family. As we walked to have lunch a week ago, as he affirmatively commented, this allowed him to make money even as we were having a conversation. For someone who I can attest has struggled, and scratched the bottom of the barrel due to forced exile, this is meaningful work. I could not be happier for him. I am rooting for him.
I think getting a fair day’s market determined wage in compensation for an assigned task is meaningful and dignifying. I think perceiving monetary returns in accordance with the value you provide others in non-coercive market driven transactions is meaningful and dignified. It means you are able to compete along with the rest of the players in the market, and win your share in congruence with your skills and effort. The harder you try and the better you become, the higher the value you can perceive. If you are able to benefit more people than yourself (your family, for example – or your friends, or beneficiaries of your charitable giving) because of the higher amount of value you can accrue to yourself, the higher the meaning of the work will be. It will be meaningful to you, it will be meaningful to your customers, it will be meaningful to the people that benefit from your work.
I believe the age at which you do this is secondary. It is not so much about the money as about the people you serve or you care for. If anything, I would say that the older you become, because of all the accumulated social connections which you can choose to benefit with this accrued value, the more meaningful your work can become.