Existential intelligence: struggling with pointless office work

Existential intelligence

My work inbox is full of meaningless emails that are marked as high priority or contain “URGENT” in the headline. Likewise, my Outlook calendar is full of “critical” meetings that are equally as pointless. If my younger self could have looked ahead in time and seen what I’m doing now, how disappointed would I have been? It’s safe to say that working in an office wasn’t my dream in life.

Tarring everyone with the same brush

On the whole, I believe that office work is completely pointless, and by that I mean: work that doesn’t support positive production in any shape or form. With that being said, it’s not true for absolutely everyone. There are scientists, health, and teaching professionals that do office work too.

If we look at work categories as a whole using the list provided by the International Standard Classification of Occupations, it’s easy to spot the occupational sectors with purpose, for example; agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. It’s also easy to spot the job sectors that are likely to add no value, such as:

  • Business and administration professionals
    • Finance professionals
    • Administration professionals
    • Sales, marketing and public relations professionals
  • Business and administration associate professionals
    • Regulatory government associate professionals
    • Administrative and specialised secretaries
    • Business services agents
    • Sales and purchasing agents and brokers
  • Clerical support workers

I’ve spent most of my working life in the “Business and administration professionals” classification, and based on experience, I can say that we don’t help with global output much. Nothing we do makes any difference, although our PowerPoint slides would make you think otherwise.

When I’m in pointless meetings, it’s not unusual for me to look around the room and think to myself, surely my coworkers see this absurdity too?

I now realise it’s a mistake to think like this. It’s easy to assume that everyone experiences the world as you do, however, we’re all different, especially in the way we think. Just because I find the pointless nature of office work psychologically challenging, it doesn’t mean my coworkers do. A big factor could be that “meaning” isn’t as important to some people as it is to others.

A while ago, I watched a video on Big Think’s Youtube channel called “8 Intelligences: Are You a Jack of All Trades or a Master of One?”. It’s by Howard Gardner who’s a professor of psychology at Harvard University. If you don’t have time to watch the video, the synopsis is that there are many types of intelligence, however, society only recognises a few. For example, a tradesperson who’s illiterate but can fix anything around your home, or build a home for that matter is considered stupid by society’s (and certainly IQ) standards, however, this person is clearly smart.

In the book What Intelligence Tests Miss the author Keith Stanovich, states that IQ tests are “radically incomplete as measures of cognitive functioning” as “they fail to assess traits that most people associate with good-thinking, skills such as judgement and decision-making”.

As others have commented on before, just because you have a high IQ score, it doesn’t mean you’re smart. The only thing we know for sure is that you’re good at IQ tests.

Existential intelligence is just one of eight intelligences according to Howard Gardener

I was never academic, I have a handful of unimpressive GCSE results, and never went to university, however, I’ve always known that I can think in ways that others don’t. There was no lesson at school that allowed me to put this thinking to good use. Instead, I had the usual options of Maths, Science, History, Geography, English, French/German, Art, and Computing.

So after learning about Howard Gardner’s theory and more specifically existential intelligence, it answered a lot of questions about myself, and maybe for you too.

What is existential intelligence?

If you have existential intelligence then you enjoy thinking about thinking, reflecting, and critical thinking. You’re a clear thinker. It’s never more apparent that you think differently than when you’re in a muddled and confused meeting. Someone with existential intelligence can cut through the mess and get straight to the point.

I’ve lost count of the meetings where participants are going off on tangents with convoluted solutions being suggested to simple problems. When I’m engaged in the topic (often I’m not), I find it easy to boil down the subject to its essence to get everyone back on track.

This skill is something I’ve never previously considered, but I’m sure it’s like someone that’s linguistically intelligent and finds learning another language, remembering names, and spelling second nature (all things I’m terrible at).

Anyway, what does this have to do with working in an office?

Struggling with pointlessness

If you have existential intelligence then you’ll think about meaning a lot which doesn’t bode well for being in an office. You’ll often ask, what’s the purpose of this? Why am I (or is everyone) doing this?

Several years ago, I told my siblings and parents to stop buying me Christmas presents and to donate the money to charity instead. I could no longer put up with the charade of pretending I liked whatever present I was given when it was something that would end up at the back of a cupboard, the bin, or the charity shop. I asked myself, why are we doing this?

I understand why children are given presents from Santa Claus, but when you reach a certain age (I’m in my 40s), it becomes absurd. It’s a ritual that we’ve been brainwashed into doing. Just like many other rituals in society that we do for the only reason that everyone else is doing it.

The office is full of meaninglessness and it doesn’t get much worse than the “forced fun” of Secret Santa. How did this make its way into the workplace? You have to buy a present for someone you barely know and probably don’t like and need to receive some pointless tat that will most likely be thrown in the bin on the way home from the office party.

I hear some of you say, “it’s Christmas, where’s your sense of fun?” However, this demand for meaning is why I (and I speculate others with existential intelligence), read non-fiction, would rather watch a documentary vs Game of Thrones and don’t see the appeal of video games or social media. Because what’s the point?

You have to be able to tolerate pointlessness when you work in an office. Some people I’ve met are fine with this and enjoy office politics. There are others that think what they do is meaningful but probably haven’t thought about it hard enough. Others are content with office life and don’t really care what it is they are doing.

But for those of us that spend our time reflecting, thinking about thinking, and questioning why we’re doing things. Working inside an office is probably a bad psychological fit. If you struggle with the idea of playing Grand Theft Auto for a few hours, then a life of masquerading in the office probably isn’t for you.

Further reading

I believe that knowing which intelligence you’re stronger in can help with career choices, some articles make occupation recommendations based on intelligence strengths, here are two worth reading:



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5 thoughts on “Existential intelligence: struggling with pointless office work

  1. Lol, after reading that, I almost felt like asking “Well, what’s the point of anything?”

    I’ve successfully managed to convince myself that the job/career I do is worth doing and meaningful – it makes life a lot easier.

  2. I enjoyed this post as it reflects my experience and thoughts too. My pointless office job was cosy, flexible, and sociable and paid better than a litter picker but I’d much rather have been a litter picker at least l could make my city look cleaner. After considerable patience retirement income was sufficient that l no longer had to ‘tolerate pointlessness’ no meetings or secret Santa’s. I could make my own choices and create my own worthwhile activities.

    The only good thing that came from doing a pointless office job was the incentive and thinking time it gave me to learn about investing and plan the end date on my own terms.

    I only gave up on Christmas presents for extended family last year , what a relief. Commercialism from advertising, is driving this need for excess materialism. Enjoy the Christmas holidays with less waste and less hassle.

  3. Thanks for the post, I work as an electrician which seems to be rare in financial freedom circles.

    I empathise with you. I have refitting offices lately and have found office managers unnecessarily adding pointless procedures to my work and requiring constant updates.

    Their are downsides to my work but I do appreciate the fact I can see progress and feel satisfied that actual work completed.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks, Stuart!

      I’m fully aware of the pointless procedures and incessant updates. Providing updates is all we do in the office!

      Yes, I can imagine working in the real world vs digital/office world being more satisfying.

      Thanks again.

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