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Redefining Work in a Technological Era: From Overworking to True Purpose

By Tuan Ho
January 3, 2024

In 1930, the illustrious economist John Maynard Keynes penned the visionary essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” postulating that, with a century’s progress, technological advancements and productivity would overcome the age-old “economic problem” of scarcity, consequently ushering in a 15-hour work week. His belief was that humanity would break free from the toil for mere survival, seizing the opportunity to bask in richer, more fulfilling pursuits.

Where have we landed nearly a century on? While productivity has rocketed to unprecedented peaks, so too have work hours, stress levels, and instances of depression and burnout soared. Keynes was a beacon of optimism in a world yet untouched by the complexities of modern life.

Reflecting on my personal odyssey, I launched my enterprise at twenty, simultaneously navigating the rigors of college. Eighty to a hundred-hour workweeks became my norm over five relentless years. Amidst the grind, my life balance plummeted, and personal sacrifices mounted. The hustle culture consumed me, enriching my skills at the cost of my humanity.

I could gaze upon autumn leaves without appreciating their vibrant spectrum. Meals with friends were overshadowed by looming agendas; sustenance was a mechanical requirement, flavors unnoticed. Melodies faded into silence, with audiobooks taking their place to feed an unending loop of learning. Social encounters were filtered by their utility to my goals.

I had morphed into an economic instrument, propelled by the alluring myth of a brighter future that awaited just beyond reach. Then, the pandemic struck, sweeping away my life’s work with a sterile document marked “Company Dissolution.”

In this era, the corporate landscape idolizes overworking as proof of dedication, particularly in tech. Venture Capitalists and influencers extol the “glamor” of exhaustive labor. Yet, what has this cultivated? The quiet quitter phenomenon — individuals fulfilling their job specifications, nothing more. We’ve learned that being effective can paradoxically result in more work without additional recognition.

Ask a child about their future aspirations, and you won’t hear dreams of endless Zoom meetings or corporate servitude. Their hopes hinge on self-actualization, a stark contrast to the survival-centric roles that pervade the job market.

“Why did you apply for this job?” a recruiter might inquire.

The candid reply? “I need a job to meet my basic living costs in this challenging economy while I discover my true purpose.” Such honesty, though, would likely sabotage the prospect of employment.

Leadership mandates a profound understanding of employee motivation — the genuine “why” behind their presence. This insight can only flourish in an environment that prizes authenticity over facade. We must forge roles that offer purpose intrinsic to the actual lives of employees.

Contemplating Keynes’s words in our burgeoning Age of AI, it’s clear that while machines may facilitate greater efficiency, we shouldn’t discount the individual’s drive. Passion can fuel boundless effort toward a cherished goal, turning the prospect of enforced leisure into a deterrent. Keynes, in his wisdom, overlooked the essence of the human spirit.

The future, with AI’s ascent, may be indistinct, but one certainty prevails: intertwine work with true purpose, and that synthesis will carry you triumphantly through adversity. If you can ignite this union within your team, then you can cultivate not just a workforce, but a community brimming with zeal and resilience—a collective that transcends mere productivity to embody the liveliness of human potential.

At the age of ten, Tuan moved from Vietnam to Boston. By 15, he’d garnered the Young Leader in Recognition Award from Harvard’s Institute of Politics. He started his first company, ScholarJet, at the age of 20. Tuan earned a Mechanical Engineering degree from Northeastern University and an MBA from Quantic Business School, complemented by MIT’s AI certification. He is recognized as a Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative Fellow and a Forbes 30 Under 30 lister and board member. Tuan is currently lecturing at Northeastern University and leading his company, The Point AI.

Tuan Ho is presenting at this year’s Leadership & Innovation 2024 Online Conference!

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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