October 21, 2018

WANG | Making Work Meaningful

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There’s a moment in David Bowie’s 1972 Top of the Pop performance of his hit song “Starman” in which it seemed the entire Isle of England froze. Bowie, dressed in a skinsuit mishmashed with beaming colors and buoyed by a shock of red hair, is in the midst of an upswing. For a piece of innovative musical composition that promised deliverance, “Starman” begins ominously on the 11th chord, before moving up an octave to prepare for the chorus: “There’s a Starman Waiting in the Sky; He’d like to come and meet us.”

In this upswing, surrounded by hipsters, instrumentalists and college students, Bowie’s lead guitarist Mick Ronson shyly approaches to sing with him; instead, in one sweeping gesture, Bowie embraces him for the chorus. They sing together; a country implodes in shock.

Nowadays, this doesn’t seem much. But  20 years before Bowie’s performance, this had been the same country that has prosecuted Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence, for homosexual behavior. Ten days after his Top of the Pops showing, Bowie would more or less come out as bisexual in an interview to Melody Maker Magazine. Nothing has remained the same since then.

I’ve been thinking a lot about David Bowie recently, and why he’s such a significant figure in the music world. As a programming intern for Cornell’s LGBT Resource Center, I’m tasked with confronting the seriousness of what it means for someone to be a part of the LGBT community at Cornell. For instance, I’ve come up with an idea of a music event that educates students about the history and works of LGBT musicians.

I proposed my idea to my advisor. Well, my advisor asks, what does that mean? What impact does the event have on students? He wants for every student to leave the event with something they can be proud of — he wants it to matter.

Why do we do the things we do? What makes our work meaningful?

For Bowie, his work found meaning in inspiring a generation of queer British teens to hang true to themselves, to be accepting of one’s self and find pride in their own identity. His words and outfits, flashy as they were, lacked the heavy substance without this dimension. He radiated queerness, with bright flashes and explosive choruses. His music popularized LGBT culture in mainstream pop culture; today, a host of musicians credit his persona and flair as having blazed the trail for their work. He stayed true to himself; the rest followed.

In the years since then, as Bowie has become more accepted than polarizing, the fight for social justice has pervaded from the territory of revolutionaries to the domain of corporations and large interest groups. Social justice is demanded, not asked for. We beg our icons to be iconoclasts, our athletes to kneel, our singers to speak. With a more progressive and changing demographic, it’s certainly become more profitable. Nike, as much as it might not like to admit, made the choice to sign Colin Kaepernick not just because it was the socially righteous decision, but because it was the financially righteous decision. We are, bluntly, the most socially conscious generation of our time, and we know it. Social impact is now a core ideal, rather than a periphery one.

So why stop in the arts or athletics; why not devote out careers to find meaning in our work? It’s not simply enough for us to meet deadlines or network, to file paper and impress bosses. We work all day to make a living, but to keep us going, driving, we need a larger purpose to be passionate about, to find meaning in besides just our career path.

So in the midst of my internship search junior year, flipping through company after company. I keep referencing back to the words of my advisor. What makes our work matter? What are we passionate about? How do we find meaning in our work? Why do we find things meaningful?

In my interviews, I talked about my interests in working for that company. I asked questions about what drove the company. What did they do? What did they believe in? And specifically, what did they find meaningful in the work they did?

It was a long process, but in the end, I think I’ve found a company that shares the same values as I do. It makes the work I do feel meaningful, even if I’m just a small cog in the machine. We’re not just career grunts, working up the ladder anymore; rather, we’re social leaders, looking to create meaning with our careers.

William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Willpower runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com.