WORK AND MEANING
“Meaningful Work” is the new Grail, it seems. Every time you turn around there’s somebody or other admonishing and exhorting you to get out there and “find” the work that gives meaning to your life.
It’s the key to happiness, joy and self-fulfillment, they say.
WHAT MAKES WORK MEANINGFUL?
Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky, in his book THE QUARTER-LIFE BREAKTHROUGH, has a clear and succinct description of the shape this “work with meaning” is supposed to take. He says this sort of work has these four qualities:
- It reflects who you are and what your interests are.
- It allows you to show your gifts to help others.
- It provides a community of believers that will support your dream.
- It is financially viable, given your desired lifestyle.
This is the kind of work that has all the bennies and the good stuff that you like, so I suppose it does makes sense that if you actually had a job like that it’s likely you would be blissed.
Lifestyle and career coaches and fire-starters all seem to agree: If nobody will hand over that Meaningful Work treasure to you, then, by golly, you can just get out there and make your own bread for your own self! (Go, you!)
“MEANINGFUL” CAN BE HARD TO FIND…OR IS IT?
In the real world, it seems to me, a majority of the people who must work for a living often have a limited number of options.
For one thing, they do have to accept whatever available jobs there are that they are qualified to get. (They hope these jobs will pay enough to support them and their families.)
If not, they may choose to take on a couple more similar gigs or invent side-gigs that take up the slack.
Often they may work really hard on acquiring or expanding skill-sets that will make them more attractive to assorted employers.
Some of them may even make the effort to develop skills that will allow them to build a framework for work that is uniquely their own.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a press release issued in March, 2015, tells us that the four most common occupations in America at the time were retail salesperson, cashier, food preparer and server, and office clerk.
All of these jobs are basically low-paying positions that are mostly done by rote. If you tried to fit them into the “meaningful-work” template the life-coaches tout, these jobs probably would flunk a bunch of “meaningful-work” tests.
The thing is, these jobs are still a necessary part of keeping the world around us functioning smoothly and well.
If you take away all the salespeople and cashiers, all the food service people and all of the assorted office minions and functionaries, would we be able to live life as we know it?
WHERE DID ALL THE MEANING GO?
In this YouTube video featuring a TEDx talk given at Azusa Pacific University, Ryan T. Hartwig explores how Meaning went Missing-In-Action from the still-useful post-modern jobs we do.
Hartwig’s point in the video is this: “There is no meaningful job unless someone brings meaning to it.”
It’s not a new idea. For what was perhaps his best-known book, WORKING, which was published in 1997, American journalist and radio broadcaster Louis “Studs” Terkel talked to over 100 people – from gravediggers to movie studio heads — about their jobs and how they felt about them.
He came away with the thought that “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.”
A couple of stories from the book THE POWER OF MEANING: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith, illustrate this point quite handily.
In the first story, John F. Kennedy ran into a janitor at NASA in 1962. When the president asked the cleaner what he was doing, the janitor said he was “helping put a man on the moon.”
The second story is about a road-worker directing the flow of traffic near a repair site on a stretch of Colorado highway. The guy stood in the hot sun and periodically he would turn a sign that read “Stop” on one side and “Slow” on the other. He kept doing that diligently, over and over again.
A driver in the line of cars waiting for their turn to get past the repair site asked the road-worker how he could stand such boring work.
The road-worker replied, “I keep people safe. I care about these guys behind me and I keep them safe. I also keep you safe, and everyone else in all those cars behind you.”
As Smith points out, “The ability to find purpose in the day-to-day tasks of living and working goes a long way to building meaning.”
THE SERVICE AGE
Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant did a survey of two million individuals across over 50 jobs.
Those who reported finding the most meaning in their careers included clergy, English teachers, surgeons, directors of activities at religious organizations, elementary and secondary school administrators, radiation therapists, chiropractors and psychologists.
These people all felt that the world was a better place and other people were better off because they were there doing their work. Grant found it telling that every one of these satisfied workers provided needed services to other people.
We’ve been told that we have moved out of a “manufacturing economy” into a “knowledge economy.” However, as Grant points out in a 2015 Huffington Post article, “Three Lies about Meaningful Work,” we are actually living in a “service economy.”
In the United States, nearly three out of every ten employees are knowledge workers, Grant says in the article. They are outnumbered by the service workers who represent eight out of every ten American employees.
Not only that, but it was estimated that in 2016 almost two-thirds of the world’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was produced in the service industries.
In this YouTube video of a 2012 “Capture Your Flag” interview, author and public speaker Simon Sinek answers the question, “What makes your work meaningful?”
“Capture Your Flag” is executive producer Erik Michielsen’s educational media company which has been creating online video content and helping to develop material for online and educational publishers since 2009.
In the series of videos Michielsen continues to produce, he interviews what he calls “rising leaders” and “near peers” (people a step or two ahead of the viewers of the video) who have faced and resolved familiar business and career situations and problems.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND A TAKE-AWAY
If the only meaning in work is what you, the worker, brings to it, then it seems to me that it would be a good thing to think on the counterintuitive advice Professor Hartwig gives at the end of his TEDx talk:
- Focus on the good you do in your work. How you help others and the value of the work you do are important building blocks for finding meaning in your work.
- See and act beyond the bottom line. Profit is an important thing, but it is not the only thing of value for your bottom line. Building relationships, connections and community transcends and adds to your bottom line.
- Never say, “I’m just a ________” (Fill in the blank) You are more than just a job title. Remember that.
Hartwig also encourages managers and administrators to develop a work environment that will help to foster this way of thinking by allowing and encouraging workers to make their work more meaningful and allowing them to use all of their human qualities to do it.
Here is a poem I wrote about what being a property manager means to me and the lessons it has taught me. [Kuleana is Hawaiian for “responsibility.”]
THE GATEKEEPER SPEAKS
Ya know, I’ve been thinkin’,
I get to walk through Other People’s worlds –
All of them valid, all of them real.
The people living in these worlds
Are who they are,
Are what they are,
And they have to be Real with me.
Because I am the gatekeeper –
The foo-dog holding the key that
Unlocks the theater back door.
In order to use that stage that is my kuleana,
These people must get by me,
So I become a tourist in their lives.
They show me its shape –
All the good parts, polished up and spiffy-nice.
(It’s only later that I get to see
The darknesses and broken crockery.)
This all helps me understand a fundamental thing:
These others walk wrapped in a bubble-world
Of particular hopes and dreams.
They come to me lugging a load
Of issues, the consequences of past mistakes.
It has nothing to do with me
When some dream blows up in their faces,
Or some hope dies a lingering, agonizing death.
It has nothing to do with me.
Their moves then are predicated on
The prevailing climate in their own world-bubbles.
Sometimes I get caught in the crossfire of conflicting other-people needs.
Sometimes I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time –
The quintessential bystander
(Not always innocent)
Who gets the random fist in the nose.
It has nothing to do with me.
But, DANG! It hurts!
Since I don’t see it coming,
A face-block’s the only move left to me. Ouch!
The blows a reminder-tap.
It says, “Pay attention!”
It surely is a liberating thing to know:
People are doing what they do,
And very often,
It has nothing to do with me.
I do not have to take what they do personally.
by Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: The Grail by Carlos Garcia via Flickr [CC BY-2.0]
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20 thoughts on “WORK AND MEANING”
This was a great experience reading your content! I loved it so much I was about to start sharing it after just the first few paragraphs! Your information really does make you think hard about the world we live in everyday – all the people we come in contact with in our lives. To see it from this point of view is so refreshing! I enjoyed how you placed your affiliate links. Your site was very easy to navigate as well. I think it is a great idea to have the share links right at the top, i was about to use them pretty quick! Great work, you can see how much time and effort you have put in.
Hey Lori: Thanks for your visit, your comments, and for sharing the post too. I do appreciate it. Please do come again….
I love the videos, adds another dimension.
I am lucky I love my work and at 60 years of age I can’t wait to get to work.
I like you comment about being just a….. I use that term all the time and will now try not to use it.
I love, and am passionate about my work and I am told it shows.
Mark, good on ya! It’s wonderful that you are loving your work. Thank you for the visit and for your story. Please do come again….
A very huge thanks for sharing this article. I started working when I was 16 or 17 and just stopped very recently to have time for things that I realized are much more important than the things I used to do. It’s so true that one has to be very in sync with the why of things. When we are aware of the reason why we make certain choices, do certain things— then everything makes sense…everything becomes a lot clearer.
Thank you for the visit and for your story and thoughts. Clarity is always a good thing. Please do come again….
Great post! I could see that I was about to line left with tons of value that I didn’t have before.
The TEDx video had a lot of key points. Meaningful work into alienating labor is tough to hear but that’s the reality of what we live in. Sometimes we have a short grasp on our own meaning in life because we spend time judging the lives of others.
Like the man withthe road sign diligently turning it back and forth was questioned. Who is that person to question something he has not done or walked shoes in? To better understand each other and the meaning to why we do things we should take time to see it from others perspectives.
I’ve had jobs where I would ask myself like why was I here doing it? The answer couldn’t just be, oh well I need to support myself. There’s more to it, there’s more reason why you’re put into a situation, regardless of if it’s the right job for you. Thank you for letting me read your article today.
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.
It’s a truth, that. This world’s a learning place and it’s way more satisfying, I think, to figure out how you can add more meaning and mana to your own life…and go do it.
Standing in judgment of other people’s life-choices isn’t a help, unless you remember that every person you encounter is a mirror and reflection of you. Maybe they have things they can teach you that will help you on your own journey.
Please do come again….
Hmm! Very inspiring article. You have showed me another phase to live that is beyond just working and working. I quit my work some months back after an accident and ever since then, I have realised that life is beyond what we think it is and placing things that are of more value to it above just work is the real meaning to it. The videos also showed another phase to it. Thanks
Thanks for the visit and for your comment, RoDarrick. I am glad the post was a help.
Please do come again.
Thanks for this nice post. I love my job so much and although I have had a series of reasons to run away from it, my love for it just keeps holding me back.
I believe some people do not know the reason why they are in a particular place and this makes them lose focus in it. This is very common at work. Getting to know the reason why you are in a particular place would help in giving you a purpose there. My opinion
Dane, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. You’re right, I think. Having a reason why is a big help towards adding meaning to your work.
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What a unique and fulfilling blog post that you have written!
A lot of us are unfortunately more concerned with making money and doing things that we do not enjoy instead of passion-fueled work. For most of my working career, I have been in a field that did not fulfill my passion(s).
I thought that I could just pick and stick with something. Now I realize that I have to pursue my passions, even if I fail at first.
I’d rather do something that I love than to feel drained physically and mentally from a career that I do not like. Your blog post is further confirmation that I have made the right choice to follow my dreams.
Thanks so much for sharing 😊,
Terese, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts. I am so glad this post proved helpful to you. Good fortune on your journey. You go, girl!
Please do come again.
A very thought-provoking article and I liked your poem too.
I guess we all need to look at what we do for a living and think about if it is meaningful to us and the people we serve. I’ve always felt that what I do makes a difference and helps to enrich people’s lives (I’m a musician) but some people think it isn’t a real job and that’s their problem, not mine.
I know that when they want to relax or have fun they will look to the entertainers of our world and enjoy their skills. We all need to find our meaning as life is fleeting!
Lily, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts. I like your riff about “some people think it isn’t a real job and that’s their problem, not mine.” True, dat!
The only one qualified to quantify and parse your own life choices is you. Good on ya for getting that!
Please do come again.
Yes, finding meaning to things we do is a game changer. Or even growing in the appreciation of the things we do.
I have seen huge changes both emotionally and productively when I find the meaning of why I am doing things. And it’s always good to continue exploring and adding to this library for inspiration.
Welcome back, Abel. I do think that knowing your why is a really good way to maintain your stick-to-itiveness. It does help you keep on keeping on.
Thanks for the visit. Please come again.
If your work is meaningful, you’ll be more likely to stick with it in the long run, which means you’re more likely to be successful as a result.
Research has shown that finding meaning in one’s work increases motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment.
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Emmanuel. I do appreciate it.
Please do come again.