The Market for Meaning
An interesting skill many CEOs and charismatic leaders have is the ability to synthesize tasks that feel meaningful, thus attracting people to work on these tasks without thinking too hard about the material benefits that accrue to themselves from these tasks. People generally want money and material well-being, but for some — especially many relatively talented and hardworking people — the drive to do something meaningful is much stronger than the drive for material well-being.
As a result, there appears to generally be a sizable "meaning premium" in labor markets: tasks that are perceived as meaningful pay somewhat worse, than comparable tasks which are not perceived as meaningful. A few examples:
Tech pays somewhat worse than finance for comparable tasks, likely due to the perception that tech is a higher-meaning field.
Academia pays worse than both, for arguably similar reasons.
Art, show business, music, sports, and other fields perceived as “meaningful” pay very poorly on average.
Meaning trades at a high price in market equilibrium, because there's a lot of demand for meaning, and relatively limited supply. Most tasks most places are fairly boring, and don't make you feel like you're in the midst of something big. So if you're, say, a tech company CEO, there's an arbitrage you can play: you synthesize and sell meaning, in exchange for below-market skilled and dedicated labor. You convince your workers they're part of something bigger: "don't be evil", make the world more connected, so on and so forth. If you're good at this, and your workers identify with and buy into this, they are willing to work 80-hour weeks believing in the mission.
It happens to be very profitable, for the company as a whole, to "not be evil"! But conveniently for you, most of your workers don't think too hard about this if they buy into the mission. Thinking about how big the pie is feels slightly dirty, distracts from the overall sentiment that we're changing the world for the better.
Conveniently for you, the pie goes to you first, and you decide how much of it goes to the workers. This situation implies that you get to end up keeping a relatively large share of the pie, because you have collected many workers that primarily wanted neither money nor power nor status, just meaning, which you are very good at synthesizing.
Ironically, in the process of synthesizing meaning, you as the charismatic leader are likely unable to be as deeply immersed in meaning as your workers, because you have to deal with the gory details of how the "meaning sausage" is made. Backroom deals, firing people, backstabbing, bullshittery, brutally destroying competitors' livelihoods, and — most of all — creating a nice pretty synthetic curtain of meaning, insulating your workers from all the above, allowing them the privilege of immersion in essentially pure meaning.
The synthesis of meaning is a lonely, cynical task. Is the Pope Christian?
This sounds cynical, but the price of meaning is really just the result of market equilibrium! Meaning is in high demand and short supply, and trades at a high price. Those few who are endowed with the ability to supply it — and who are willing to make the personal sacrifice of limiting the amount of meaning in their own lives, to supply it to others — are richly rewarded. The many who are endowed with talent, but demand meaning, and are unable or unwilling to create and supply it to others, are still compensated, but slightly less than their full economic marginal product. In some sense this is a fair outcome: they've simply spent some of their wealth purchasing meaning.
In the end, the market for meaning behaves very much like any other market. Every individual, consciously or not, decides whether they want to purchase meaning and pay its price, or sacrifice meaning in their lives and harvest its premium.
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