Last month U.S. job growth continued to slow, according to a new Department of Labor report. It is unclear to me, and I assume to many others, whether the addition of 236,000 new jobs is a good thing, whether a recession is nigh, whether I can ever go back to a restaurant without selling plasma.

This instability has been with us the past five years or so. The job market has shifted dramatically as a growing number of idealistic millennials and zoomers collided with less-than-ideal vocations. It seems as though the established employment ecosystem and younger workers have struggled to make sense of each other’s values and expectations.

As we all know, this led to the “Great Resignation.” As a millennial, it’s the only “great” thing I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. But writing for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson pointed out that “the Great Resignation (wasn’t) really about quitting jobs; it (was) about switching jobs.”

As a currently employed person, I agree. Whether for higher pay or more satisfaction, my generation has been searching for fulfillment in our work. More young people are struggling to find redeemable qualities in entry-level tasks, making this age-old conversation about job satisfaction all-important.

But how can we find it? And who can show us the way?

Is anyone actually satisfied at work?

The data surrounding work is ambiguous and sometimes conflicting. I was surprised to read a 2022 Gallup pole that found 49% of those surveyed were “completely satisfied” with their job, and another 39% were “somewhat satisfied.” Another 2022 Gallup report, however, found “60% of people are emotionally detached at work and 19% are miserable.”

I don’t exactly know what to make of this.

Many companies have chosen to circumvent these issues with perks. I’ve worked at corporations that bought bean bag chairs and kombucha-on-tap for the office. They’ve handed out gym memberships, promoted social causes, encouraged flexible work arrangements. If a report came out saying Gen Z wanted free soup everyday, the break room would grow slick with chowder.

Unfortunately, these trendy solutions are not able to keep the youths engaged; the perks orbit but never approach the core issues at hand. No matter where I’ve worked, from cushy startups to dimly lit factories, my peers ask the same questions about fulfillment and satisfaction: Can I find a job I really like? Does what I do matter?

Arthur Brooks, host of the “How to Build a Happy Life” podcast, offers hope. He says work can be rewarding if we thoughtfully disentangle ourselves from unrealistic expectations, and focus on what matters.

What is job satisfaction?

One of the greatest things to come out of social media is instant access to the world’s foremost authorities on any subject. Each topic (crochet, puppetry, horse barbering) is crowded with authority figures, but the true masters are easy to identify.

They don’t speak of technical details as readily as the average teacher. They communicate desire — an infectious desire built over years of figuring out what they want.

The language of experts is the language of desire.

Frank Proto is a professional chef and culinary instructor, whose videos I watch quietly while my housemate thinks I’m “taking a nap.” Proto’s recipe for “The Best Pancakes You Will Ever Make” is simple, yet his excitement over these sugar cakes is infectious. “Every layer gets a HUGE knob of butter,” Proto shouts at his film crew. “Look at that crispy edge!”

By his own estimation, he’s a “little bit nuts about (his) pancakes.” There seems to be a correlation between Proto’s professional expertise and the strength of his yearnings.

Chef Wolfgang Puck supports this theory. “Musicians have to train their ears to listen to music. ... We, in the kitchen, have to learn how to train our palate and how to season things properly because without that, you can buy the most expensive ingredients, and the food will taste flat.”

Last year, I reported on a banjo lesson with Frank Fairfield. He, too, spoke the language of desire. Fairfield didn’t coach my quivering fingers through hammer-on’s or double-thumbing. Instead, the master musician talked of the longing he felt when he heard a piece of music. That hunger for a phrase to reach resolution, for my limp tickling to become music. When he plucked his banjo, his intentions became a physical reality, his desires brought the little folk tune to life.

These masters have earned their titles through repetition and experimentation. They have internalized their trade and now conduct business subliminally. There is a rhythm to the work. They know what they want, they work toward it, and when achieved, their craft brings a profound sense of satisfaction.

Whether in work or daily life, satisfaction is the falling action in a larger cycle. Before anyone can be satisfied, they must be dissatisfied. They must have a need or want that remains unfulfilled. This is where a chef’s butter preferences might hold significance for a desk jockey who struggles with apathy. Wanting is half the battle.

The quest for contentment

This question comes dangerously close to another common question: “What is my purpose?” The answer is unquantifiable and instinctual, personal and universal — an individual quest for contentment.

Years ago, I found myself standing in a big sandbox with a kindly old Japanese man, 100 yards from shore. I was salty and wet. He had a large wooden vessel in his hands, filled with briny seawater. He was showing me his life’s work — a labor-intensive tradition of harvesting salt from the ocean.

The man took two sweeping, practiced steps before flinging the water into the air in such a way that a fine mist rained down evenly over the sand. The mist crystalized on the sand, where he would rake, boil and filter it. The man did this every day for decades. When I tried, I sloshed a bucketful into the porch framing behind me.

For the average person, nothing is more tedious and mind-numbing than their job. But this man, who spent his days boiling water and raking sand, seemed satisfied with his lot. How? Why?

As far as I can tell, these experts make a habit of being present, observing the world as it happens and reflecting on their role in the outcome. Pro chefs didn’t know the ideal mouthfeel of scrambled eggs until years of scrambling. Salt harvesters had to learn the process the hard way. The mindset of a master is meditative, to a degree.

Corn hole pro Eric Tscherne keeps a spreadsheet of every throw from every practice. He tracks any changes to his technique; he looks at how different bean bag brands affect his score. Little by little, he improved, largely because he was compulsive about understanding how good he was and how good he wanted to be.

The overwhelming question — what do I desire? — is never approached head-on. Instead, the masters treat life like an eye doctor asking “better one ... or two?”

The curse of comparison

It’s long been assumed that your interests drive a large component of job satisfaction. This is why young people are encouraged to chase their passion. But a 2020 study found that interest is only one variable in predicting satisfaction (and less impactful than you would expect). One of the co-leaders of the analysis, Kevin Hoff, reported that “As long as it’s something you don’t hate doing, you may find yourself very satisfied if you have a good supervisor, like your coworkers, and are treated fairly by your organization.”

Work is often placed in the context of a community — how highly your friends value kickflips, or your parents’ hopes for you to go to a prestigious plumbing academy. These factors contribute greatly to what in life is “desirable.”

Being part of a team, contributing to the well-being of others, viewing the task at hand as part of a larger whole instead of the bubble of personal experience — these seem to be important components in finding satisfaction.

A 2021 study of almost 1,600 Chileans supported the theory that “life satisfaction is influenced by social comparison,” with negative feelings of envy acting more powerfully than the positive feelings of gratitude, depending on who participants compared themselves to.

While this seems like common sense, the researchers suggested something surprising. The effects of social comparison (envy, deflated self-worth) are based on highly individualistic tendencies, instead of communal instincts of “solidarity and empathy.”

We often think of experts as solitary creatures, driven by ambition and egotism — Gordon Ramsey in the kitchen, or Stanley Kubrick behind the camera. They don’t seem very satisfied ... ever.

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But there is another kind of master. One that places the craft above the self, who puts their auteurism in a communal framework. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” according to T.S. Eliot.

On directing Studio Ghibli, animator Hayao Miyazaki said, “I am not an executive. I’m rather like a foreman, like the boss of a team of craftsmen. That is the spirit of how I work.”

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What is worthy of being desired, in any job? Being part of a team, contributing to the well-being of others, viewing the task at hand as part of a larger whole instead of the bubble of personal experience — these seem to be important components in finding satisfaction. They relieve the weight of comparison, and affirm the dignity of any vocation.

Finding fulfillment in work cannot happen in isolation. It is a complex issue of sorting through everything you’ve ever wanted to be, everywhere you’ve ever wanted to go and the infinite torture of choice that flattens all desire through comparison.

Those who have committed to and mastered a craft can teach us many things. The most important: there is dignity in every task.

The Dutch master wordsmith Jan Grönloh outlined this process the best. “You create a world of your own, you reject this and take a close look at that, you discover, you add more, and finally you see that it is good.” This is the humble satisfaction of the masters.

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