Hollywood is on strike

When actors are striking, what does that mean for meaning at work?


Have you ever had someone tell you that to find the perfect career you should think about what you would do for free, and then pursue that? It’s a great idea, isn’t it? If you could spend every day doing something that you love so much that the work alone would be a reward, but then you also get a paycheque, that really sounds like the dream. For some people, it can work out that way.

But the reality for most people is that finding meaning at work is a bit more complex.

A perfect example: the current actors’ and writers’ strikes in Hollywood. If you ask an aspiring writer or actor, there’s a great chance they’ll tell you they love the work so much that they would do it for free. At the core of the strikes, however, are fundamental problems with pay. Actors and writers do not receive residual pay (royalties) from streaming services. A large percentage of SAG-AFTRA doesn’t even make enough of an annual salary to qualify for health benefits.

(Sidebar: the cutoff for members of SAG-AFTRA is in the neighbourhood of $26,400 USD per year. According to the US Office of the ASPE, that’s right around the poverty line for a family of four. Yes, the A-listers are doing fine and making good coin. But they make up only a small percentage of all actors. Striking workers claim that fewer than 13% of SAG-AFTRA members actually qualify for health insurance. Do the math: that means that 87% of union actors with families are potentially hovering around the poverty line.)

On top of this, I saw an Instagram post recently that talked about how there can be an expectation that you will accept a lower salary when you do “passion” work. That really caught my attention. Because I think it’s an excuse many employers use to justify low-ball salaries. And it’s not just limited to working in the arts. It’s also something you’ll stumble across in the non-profit world, and in social service work.

I worked in the non-profit world for a number of years. And yes, I got an enormous amount of satisfaction out of my work. I knew I was impacting lives and helping people and doing great things for my community. I also wasn’t being paid very much. I was living in Toronto, which was already pretty expensive and costs just kept going up. One year I got a 1% raise, when inflation in Toronto was around 3.5%. For two years in a row, I got no raise at all, because the organization couldn’t afford to pay us more.

I loved the work, but busting my butt to make ends meet set the stage for burnout. Which I ultimately hit a few years later.


The line between money and meaning at work

But isn’t meaning important? Of course! We don’t all want to be soulless robots at work, slaving our lives away to line the CEO’s pockets.

What you need to understand is that it doesn’t have to be either/or. You don’t have to sell your soul for a livable income. You don’t have to couch-surf and live off ramen so you can live your dreams.

There is more to life than a job.

Don’t necessarily look for ways that work can fuel your meaning. One option is to look at your job as just that: a job. While you should never, ever waste time on a job you hate, it’s perfectly OK for your job to be just fine. Then you have plenty of gas in the tank to fuel other things that have meaning for you – your family, hobbies, travel, volunteering, a side hustle, whatever it may be.

The other option is to flip it around. Look at ways you can create meaning in your work, no matter what the work is. Find a way to connect to the project, the department, your team, your clients or customers that is meaningful for you.


The final word

I heard a great quote recently. Full disclosure, it was from a TEDx Talk given by the Nitro of American Gladiators, but he was quoting the Dalai Lama, so we can overlook that. My paraphrase: with every interaction, you have the opportunity to make someone happier, or to make them less happy.

Imagine how much better your job would be if you approached your work with that mindset. Approach your interactions so that every colleague, every customer, every supplier or delivery person who came into your workspace leaves just a little happier than when they came in.

That is where I think meaning is when it comes to work. If you think of meaning as being in your control, it takes away the idea that your supervisor, your colleagues, your organization or anyone else you come into contact with at work has to fulfill that meaning for you.


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