As we dream of 'fulfilment' in our working lives, we'd do well to bear in mind that in Samuel Johnson's widely acclaimed Dictionary, published in 1755, the word doesn't even make an appearance. Now, 10 generations or so later, we've reached a point where personal fulfilment is so crucial that the slightest promise of it saw over 900 urbane pilgrims pack into a London church venue (better known for leftfield music gigs) on a Monday night for some tips on how to achieve it.
The event was the brainchild of the School of Life, purveyors of secular enlightenment to the well-heeled and curious. Thoughtfully reflecting the zeitgeist, they have just released a series of guides to everyday living - How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric being one of them. Admittedly, most of the attendees were probably more interested in Alain De Botton's contribution from his own title How To Think More About Sex, but for me (or at least the professional me) the discussion around fulfilment at work was top of the bill.
This is partly because my professional interest is all about working in newer, smarter ways to get a more rounded - dare I say a more fulfilled - work life. It was also due to the fact that the story of one of my very own colleagues is a case study in How To Find Fulfilling Work. In the book she relates the tale of sitting on a beautiful beach in Sicily and asking "Surely my career should offer me more than this - is this it?" It's a moment that most people can relate to, though my colleague is insistent that a combination of reflection and action has allowed her to move on from this state (if her current ability to combine a high-powered part-time legal career with a burgeoning clothes-swapping movement is a measure, then I'd say she's definitely moved on).
Roman's positive spin on all our career confusion is that the economic uncertainties we find ourselves living in today actually provide us with the impetus to find a new way of working that represents the many sides of who we are. He described how there is a growing trend towards becoming 'wide' achievers rather than 'high' achievers - turning a hand to teaching yoga or garden design as well as the more linear career progression created in a society when retirement happened at 65 and pensions were safer. The portfolio life as a legitimate career choice - it sounds good to me.
As someone who has spent four years exploring other people's fulfilment-at-work as part of a business model, it can all seem rather shifting and nebulous. However, I'm increasingly convinced that the foundation for fulfilment is actually quite simple - a sense of autonomy. People have all sorts of differing hopes, dreams and motivations when it comes to their working lives but without that crucial autonomy it is hard to achieve any of them.
In the real world new ways of working can't be about reading a book and jacking in your 9 to 5 the next day - that's like thinking travelling involves flying to the other side of the world to do nothing on a beach. However, if we are able to think more clearly about how we can change our working lives to achieve greater autonomy, that might just be the first step on the path to working differently.
Back to Monday night's headline act, Alain De Botton's pronouncement that we need to separate our view of our partner (the person we put out the bin bags with) from the view of our partner (the person we want to have sex with) may have been the lesson that the majority of the audience were pondering as they left. But for me, sadly, I was still wondering whether it's a universal experience for the 21st century that we all have to have our "is this it?" working moments. I think 99% of us probably do - we just have to hope that remember to do something about them. After we've put out the bin bags.