When Work Feels Pointless

By Madeleine Inskeep

Photo by Brendan Church

Photo by Brendan Church

I have built my whole adult life — and traveled around the globe — in the pursuit of success.

It started when I left America to pursue an education at one of the most prestigious literature schools in the UK. Four years and countless hours of study later, I decided to prolong my stay and pursue an MA in publishing. After all, even with a fancy degree from a university older than my own country, who was going to hire an English major? Surely, the publishing MA would give me an edge! Especially if the job pool in the book-making world was as competitive as I’d been warned.

The MA did give me an edge, for within a week of moving back to the United States, I’d landed a job in New York with one of the world’s most recognized publishers. I work nearly 50 stories in the air, have incredible benefits, a cool title, a view of Lady Liberty from my desk, and a whole genre of books under my care.

But I wake up every morning questioning if it was all one massive waste.

THE REALITY OF MY JOB

See, it’s easy to use the career buzzwords and flash a resume around, letting that feeling masquerade as fulfillment, especially in New York City. But when I fall into bed at night and actually think about what I do all day, it takes every ounce of my faith to set my alarm for another day of copy-pasting other people’s words into an email that only 10% of our send-list will even open.

Yes, despite all the hype, that’s actually my job. And yes, it’s mind-numbing. After my first week, a friend even helpfully commented, “Wow, that’s your job? I’m pretty sure we have robots for that now!”

I did the math: five years and hundreds of sleepless nights of work, all for a job in an industry that is nothing like I was told it would be. I know there are hundreds of other people out there who took a similar track to mine, who agonized over plans, funding and networking events, and I know they would do anything to be in my position. And yet, here I am — maybe selfishly, perhaps pridefully, but at least honestly — questioning if my work is pointless.

After pursuing the dreams, promises, and goals around an editing career that I thought had been seeded in my heart by a loving God six years ago, I can’t understand how I’ve ended up all alone in a cubicle, copy-pasting my days away.

UNDERSTANDING THE WHY

But, I do think I’m starting to understand why.

Say what you like about Martin Luther, but the German reformer once wrote something that has helped me in my daily struggle of the “pointlessness” of my work.

“God does not look at the insignificance of the acts, but at the heart that serves Him in such little things.”

Even such little things as typing “command C” and “command P,” over and over again, every day?

Actually, yes.

As one of many young, hard-working and privileged people in this city, I had completely bought into the lie that because of my efforts and my accolades and the sweat of my brow, I deserved to be doing something that was “maximizing my potential,” “investing in the future” or even, a current cultural favorite, “changing the world!”  

But then I look at God, at Jesus, and I see a Creator who was content to live the years of his working life as a carpenter. Thirty years of building tables and chairs before diving into the three short years of mission that birthed a new world and ended his life.

God was a carpenter… and something in me says that he probably took just as much care and effort over those chairs and tables as he did for the world he changed. As Dorothy Sayers puts it, “No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth.”

If I am loved by God, and called to walk in his footsteps — to love him with all that I am, and my neighbor as myself — then no work I do is too small. Nothing is too menial or too boring for him. My work is an opportunity, not just to love my coworkers well by trying to do my job well, but to let my heart be humbled. To serve him in the little things.

After all, God spoke the universe into existence, yet was happy to use his human hands to make tables and chairs that have long since rotted away.

If this is true, my study of the last five years is in no way wasted, and my copy-paste nine-to-five isn’t pointless.

In fact, it’s anything but.

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Madeleine was born in Los Angeles and since then has lived in Beijing and London. She’s not yet sure where “home” is, but for now, she’s made one in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. She works in the publishing industry, but most days would rather be running long distances in the Scottish Highlands. You can usually find her where books are sold.