When My Hard Work Amounted to Nothing

Written By Phoebe Cheong, Singapore

I know people who are avid fans of Japanese author Haruki Murakami—his most notable books include Norwegian Wood and 1Q84. But while I don’t understand the extent of their fanaticism, I do see why Murakami’s works are so well-received: he captures the essence of a person’s meaningless drift through life brilliantly.

After all, most of us go through times where we find ourselves thinking of life as a meaningless journey. This could happen when we’re doing or learning something that seems impossible to master, doing work that doesn’t seem to impact anyone, or trying to keep up with difficult friendships and relationships.

If you’ve ever been on an internship, you might identify with the story I’m about to share. Unlike my friends who went through school scouting for internships every summer, I—being the passive person I was—did not. So when a good opportunity in an advertising agency came up when I was in my third year, I decided to take a semester off school and dived into my first working experience.

I remember loving the first month of it. I loved the creative and flexible nature of the work, and the influence, beauty, and wit that a great advertising campaign could have. I loved the fast-paced environment and culture—the fact that people could be themselves unashamedly. I loved my fellow intern, who became a good friend in a matter of days, thanks to hours of talking and working together. I even loved my supervisor, which is probably not a very common thing.

But then there was pitch season, when companies choose the advertising agency they want to work with. It was then that a big part of me died. Advertising pitches in my country work like this: you come up with an entire advertising campaign for a company’s consideration. If they like it, they hire you to do their advertising and give you the money you need to survive another year. If they don’t, you’re forced to ignore the weeks of hard work and sleepless nights you’ve had to endure, and then pretend you’re okay with about 400 hours of good, creative work being dragged into the tiny trash icon on your computer (which most people, obviously, aren’t okay with).

We came into the office daily, only to see our ideas on post-it pads dumped into a bin, our writing deleted, our art trashed, and our hours wasted at the end of each day. I remember a time when my friend and I would come up with (what we thought were) good ideas for the campaign, only to find them all placed on the “unrealistic” and “ineffective” quadrant of an evaluation chart—or in other words, the “bin”.

I felt like a hamster running on an endless wheel (except that hamsters do at least get fit from the workout), and found myself exhausted, disillusioned, and thinking increasingly about the meaning of life. I began to wonder: How many people working in this office and elsewhere found joy, purpose, and satisfaction in whatever it was they were doing? Did they, like me, think that work was futile and everything boiled down to nothing in the end? While I knew that some had found inspiration, happiness, and excitement in this job, my fellow intern and I found happiness only in our hour-long lunch break (and of course, weekends).

While I was thinking about life, God spoke to me through 2 Peter 3:11-12 at a Bible study group that I was attending. The verse said,

 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”

It struck me then that it wasn’t about what I was doing at my job, but about what kind of a life I was living. Was it holy and godly? Was I looking forward to Jesus’ return? Or was I looking for earthly things, such as a fulfilling job to satisfy the craving I had for purpose in life?

Living a holy and godly life while waiting for Jesus’ return doesn’t entail going to church 24/7, or living on a mountaintop in quiet contemplation. It could mean very practical things like pointing a hurting friend to Jesus, refusing to engage in unethical behavior, or being patient with a younger sibling. For me, I’ve been encouraged by this verse to teach children who come from dysfunctional homes and whose parents don’t have enough to give them a good education. This has taught me to wait for my reward in heaven (because there isn’t any tangible reward now), and to seize the opportunity to do God’s work of pointing others to Him while I still can.

Life is not meaningless if it’s lived in the way that our Creator meant for it to be lived. I now keep this verse on a post-it above my desk as a reminder to myself that all these earthly achievements and pursuits will be destroyed, and to live for something that will last—God’s heavenly kingdom.

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