Knowing Thyself Takes Werk

 minute read

According to Gallup, more and more American workers gain a sense of self through their work as opposed to approaching their jobs merely as a means to an end. But why? Is it that the evolution of the workspace has fostered a stronger sense of belonging? Or is it that, more and more, we find our output aligns with our self-identity? Perhaps both.

In today’s modern workspace—which departs from the economics-driven workstation of the past—collaboration and socializing largely informs the layout. This allows for a sense of belonging—a culture—whereby unique identities are free to connect. This was the ideal for philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill, who felt that such a freedom was necessary for the development of individuality; and that the cultivation of individuality was one of the leading essentials of well-being.

For author and research professor Brené Brown, belonging is: 

The innate human desire to be a part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. 

In other words, when we express our authentic selves and connect with one another, we create a sense of belonging whereby our best selves materialize. This is especially true when our output aligns with our self-identity. 

When our outputs are closely bound with the self they become a part of the way that we constitute ourselves to the external world. It is in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s, “The Principle of Identity” that we might come to understand why. For Heidegger, human existence can be characterised by our ability to produce things that are reflective of our Being. It follows that our output,  as extension of self, is bound with belonging. We are, Heidegger thinks, in a constant state of openness through which we are always “eventing.” This “eventing” is captured by the term Ereignis, which stands for an event of some significance where self-reflexive insight is gained.* In other words, the event of putting our work out into the world buttresses our sense of self and instills in us a sense of belonging. 

This is true even of our mistakes; when, from time to time, we may be disappointed in our output. As philosopher Daniel Dennett sees it, mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning something truly new. In fact, the history of philosophy is, in large part, many prominent thinkers making and learning from mistakes. It would seem, then, that our output motivates us to introspect; such that when our work is reflective of self, we are assured that the work we are putting out into the world is the right work we are meant to be doing. 

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates strived to “know himself” as he saw self-knowledge as oriented toward self-improvement. Socrates’ concern was with improving himself and others through examination of all facets of life by way of philosophy. Indeed, Socrates’ lifelong output —philosophizing —made it such that he stood and lived in accordance with his true nature. It would seem, then, that knowing thyself is a continuous journey that takes werk.

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