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Applied Mathematics and Meaningful Work: Calculating the Right Formula

By Mark Guterman and Dan King math1

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”  These words, spoken by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, support a belief that all humans have a need to succeed, and to be relevant — and that finding something to do which is worthy, and doing your best, is a good thing. But how do we measure “work worth doing?”  Other than people who work with numbers, whoever gives such thought to the connection between measurement, math and meaningful work?

Mathematics, the study of structure, space, change, and numbers, is one of the primary ways to understand how the world works. Deepak Chopra wrote, “Mathematics expresses values that reflect the cosmos, including orderliness, balance, harmony, logic, and abstract beauty.”  Meaningful work, then, is about the application of one’s deep understanding of applying one’s values to solutions to problems of the world.

Whether you’re mathematically inclined or not, the quest for this kind of understanding leads inevitably to questions of how and where we fit into the scheme of things.  What are you here to achieve?  What are you working toward?  Is it solely the pursuit of a big paycheck?  Or are there are tangible and intangible benefits that come from work?  What are your goals?  How worthy are they?

You can apply many mathematical concepts to find answers to such questions in your quest for meaningful work.  Here are some additional questions to consider:

  • What value does your work add in the world? Meaningful work creates value in myriad ways and contributes to individual well-being and happiness. What is your ratio of give and take?  What do you gain above and beyond a paycheck?  How does your time and energy contribute to “orderliness, balance, harmony, logic, or beauty” in the world?
  • When have you experienced the multiplier effect in/with your work? Meaningful work is, by definition, multiplicative—when you experience meaning you positively affect process, people, and products in the moment and over the long haul. How does your work make a difference to others?  What are the compound benefits of your contributions?  What is better because of your work?
  • How could your work be more meaningful if you added or subtracted certain aspects? Letting go of things that no longer serve you well and replacing them with more rewarding tasks and activities can infuse new energy into your work life.  We all have the ability to get good at things we don’t like to do.  Assess your skills to identify those you would like to preserve as you move forward, then create a new formula for applying them.
  • How divided are you when thinking about/describing your work life? When your story is choppy or without unifying themes, it’s hard to find and experience meaning. What are the threads that hold your career path together?  We’re they chosen or did they just happen to you?  How would you prefer to describe your work?
  • What changes would make your work life more meaningful? What to start doing? Stop doing? Do more of? Do less of? What’s the right equation for meaning to appear.  The prime way to figure out the way to meaningful work is by wrestling with the question:  What am I here to do?

We breed cynicism when we treat our work as nothing more than a financial equation, a necessity we tolerate in order to acquire funds to live, with the hope of somehow achieving success and happiness along the way.  Author and Poet, David Whyte challenges us by asking, “What would it be like to link the powers of calculation and strategy with a radical embrace of the creative unknown, to put strategy in the service of the soul?”

The sum total of the time and energy you put into this quest will equate to any number of ways to build a meaningful work life.  You don’t have to be a “mathlete;” you just need to apply a formula that works for you. We all have different goals and different standards.  But we believe that all humans have a need to succeed, and to be relevant.  Finding something to do which is worthy, and doing your best, that is a good thing.

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