This post is sponsored by the American Cancer Society.
Take a look at Steve Martin’s business card. I love it because it brings to light the lack of meaning we often feel during the daily routine of work life.
When I was new to the workforce, I saw two ends of a spectrum. On one end, risking one’s life to save dying children, and on the other end, hedge-fund banking to make millions.
If you see the work world that way, then you feel compelled to choose between making good money or doing good deeds. But at this point, I don’t think the world breaks down like that. I think all jobs are meaningful.
1. Meaningfulness comes from relationships.
My introduction to this way of thinking was Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research about happiness and work (compiled into a book I like: The How of Happiness.) She found that janitors are happier than lawyers and the discrepancy arises from the amount of meaningfulness they perceived in their work.
The janitors felt that they were helping people by keeping the school running well. They knew the students and the teachers and they had a nice relationship with them: people asked for help, the janitor gave help, the person thanked the janitor.
With the lawyers, it’s the opposite. People hate having to ask a lawyer for help. They want the lawyer to solve their problems, but in general, you only call a lawyer when you have a problem you will not be able to get out of without one. So the lawyer can’t really make people feel good. On top of that, a lawyer charges by the hour so there is almost never a thank you in exchange for a small piece of work. (More rationale for ditching your dreams of law school.)
2. Meaningfulness comes from feeling some control.
Having control over one’s job and an ability to make a difference — through meeting goals, saving lives, solving problems — is what enables people to enjoy their work, according to research published in The Economist. The prestige of the given job is not nearly as important as being able to have an effect. If jobs are not challenging enough, then people are not happy because they don’t have a feeling of affecting someone else. People like being part of a group, they like being able to contribute.
Relative to the rest of life, work is predictable. Kids are totally unpredictable, health is unpredictable, friends and family are wild cards, but there are rules for work that people follow. Those generally accepted rules are what makes work a safe place to be.
3. Management creates meaning
The relationship between a boss and an employee should be very meaningful. Good management is actually about being nice. A manager’s job is to make people shine, to show them they can do more than they ever imagined and to make employees excited to come to work. Management’s job is to create meaningful work.
In the same vein, an employee’s job is to make their boss’s life better. Whatever you were hired for, whatever that job description said, the bottom line is that you are there to solve your boss’s problems. You will feel good at work if you are making your boss happy–it’s a symbiotic relationship.
4. Creating meaning yourself is empowering.
To be clear, a job does not give your life meaning. How you treat people and how you relate to communities and society is where you get your meaning. Work is just a great platform to create that meaning. You can choose whether or not you make your work meaningful. You can wait for someone else to magically anoint your job with meaning. But you will be waiting a long time. Instead, make work meaningful yourself. It’s an act of freedom, taking your life into your own hands.
5. Look for opportunities.
My step-mom had cancer for more than a decade. She had a breast removed, she went into remission, then back to the hospital, then remission. At first I thought her life was becoming crazy and how could she cope? But then I saw that the best thing for her was that she kept going to work. The stability in her life was her job. She couldn’t control the cancer, or the treatments, or her energy, but she could control her workload and she could meet her goals when she was there.
When she couldn’t be at the office, her co-workers took over her workload so her job would be there for her when she returned. Every time.
When an office comes together to support someone in crisis the whole office is infused with meaning. The strength they gave my step-mom by enabling her to come to work, in turn gave strength to the family members trying to help take care of her.
Work has meaning because it provides stability in our lives, and we create meaning by helping co-workers to use that stability to be brave and strong in the rest of life.
Look around you, all the time — look for people at work who need help with their work. Caring for your co-workers might be the most meaningful part of work for all of us.