To Find Meaning in Your Work, Change How You Think About It

by John Coleman

A wonderful New York Times article from 2007 recounted the 20th annual “Operator’s Challenge” — aka the “Sludge Olympics” — a competition for New York sewage treatment workers. The participants compete to show skill in their work, and often do so with great passion. Emily Lloyd, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, said of the work the competitors do, “It’s tough work. It’s frequently unpleasant work. And they’re terrific at it.” And as you read the article, you note the pride the competitors have in their work and the purpose they find in doing it well. One man, George Mossos, noting how anonymous their work can be, is quoted saying, “It’s enough to serve the public.”

Why is it that some people can be extraordinarily well-paid and work in pampered settings but feel empty, while others can work in the sewers of New York City and feel fulfilled? Part of the answer is purpose.

As I noted recently in a recent article, for most people, purpose is built not found. Working with a sense of purpose day-in and day-out is an act of will that takes thoughtfulness and practice. Having observed friends and colleagues working with and without purpose for years, I’d offer the following advice on how to consciously endow your work with purpose regardless of your profession.

Connect work to service. When I was in graduate school, I once heard Bill George tell a story about how he’d highlight both patients and employees at the Medtronic annual meeting when he was CEO. He’d invite a person whose life had been saved by a defibrillator, for example, to speak to his assembled colleagues and tell them how their work had saved his life. He’d highlight someone in the Medtronic quality control department and explain how her dedication and rigor were saving thousands of lives. He’d connect his colleagues directly to the people they served.

While everyone may not handle situations of life and death at work, we each do serve someone in what we do. Teachers can see every day the young lives they are shaping — and visualize the lasting impact they may have on the young lives they touch. Corporate accountants can connect themselves mentally to the larger work of their organizations and take pride and purpose in the customers they help. Who do you serve? Connecting our day-to-day jobs — consciously and concretely — to those we’re ultimately serving makes completing that work more purposeful.

Craft your work – and make work a craft. Yale Professor Amy Wrzesniewski once did an in-depth study of hospital custodial staff to determine what helped certain members of the custodial team excel. Her results (recounted by David Zax) were fascinating. Wrzesniewski uncovered a practice among the happiest and most effective custodians she termed “job crafting.” These custodial workers, focused intensely on serving patients, would “[create] the work they wanted to do out of the work they’d been assigned—work they found meaningful and worthwhile.” One would rearrange artwork in rooms to stimulate comatose patients’ brains; others devoted time to learning about the chemicals they used for cleaning rooms and figuring out which were least likely to irritate patients’ conditions. They were pursuing excellence in service to others and would adapt their jobs to suit that purpose. They enhanced their assigned work to be meaningful to themselves and to those they serve. Wrzesniewski and her colleagues have even begun to think more deeply about exercises that can help anyone focus on crafting their work into something that gives them purpose while still getting the core of their job done.

In another sense of the term, this crafting was also a demonstration of treating work as craft — focusing on the skill needed to complete one’s work and dedicating oneself to perfecting those skills. This atmosphere of constant improvement in service of craft — so ably demonstrated by the sewage treatment workers of New York — in itself seems to fill professional pursuits with greater purpose.

Invest in positive relationships. Who we work with is as important as what we do. Psychologist Martin Seligman (among others) has written extensively on the importance of relationships to happiness and fulfillment (it’s a core element of his “PERMA” model for flourishing); and the now famous Harvard Grant Study found that happiness and even financial success are tied to the warmth of one’s relationships, with the study’s chief architect famously concluding, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

While relationships necessarily (and appropriately) look different within the workplace than outside of it, they still matter. We’d all be served by identifying more ways to develop positive collegial relationships at work. Identify a newer or younger employee you’d like to empower, and offer to help them navigate your firm. Take the lead in scheduling an event that will allow you and your colleagues to know one another more fully. Simply take the time to reflect on a new colleague each day, trying to understand him or her and why you’re grateful to have the opportunity to work with them. Whatever your approach, efforts to enhance the positive relationships you have with others at work — often investing in serving them — can give work greater meaning.

Remember why you work. Most of us don’t have the luxury of working solely for fun. We may enjoy our jobs, but we also work to earn money and pay bills. For most of us, work in and of itself is a meaningful act of service. Parents often work hard to invest in their children; and those without kids often help support aging parents or other relatives. Those without families often use their resources to support organizations they love in the community or their friends in times of need. It’s rare to find someone working with only their personal needs in mind.

Who are you working for? Identify that person or group of people. When the hours are difficult or the tasks are unglamorous, remember that your work is an act of service for those you care about in your personal life. Keeping this front of mind will help you tie more purpose into your work, even when accomplishing the most tedious of tasks.

Purpose isn’t magic — it’s something we must consciously pursue and create. With the right approach, almost any job can be meaningful.

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