No one wants to feel like they’re stuck in a dead-end job, like they’re practically chained to a desk, doing things they don’t see any value in. It makes work seem like an awful lot of drudgery and endless tedium. Under such conditions, disengagement is the norm, and keeping up your performance up itself can feel like a perpetual exercise in feet-dragging.
Exceeding expectations, overdelivering, and going beyond the call of duty: those things are almost fictional when you can’t find a sense of meaning or purpose in what you do.
The thing about purposeful work, though, is that it can be a puzzle in and of itself. In fact, there’s often a shiny, Hollywood-style veneer attached to our conceptions of what meaningful work does and doesn’t constitute. A lot of the time, it’s these misconceptions about meaningful work that end up making us feel miserable about work, and not so much the work itself. Here’s why.
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By far, the biggest misconception that so many people have about meaningful work is that only certain kinds of work can be meaningful. By this logic, only people in service-oriented or helping professions will ever be able to derive any kind of meaning from what they do.
For teachers, counsellors, and surgeons, for example, the meaning that they derive from their work is highly accessible; it’s much easier for them to see how their work directly impacts the people they work for (students, clients, and patients, in these instances.)
If you worked in a call centre, though, it’s relatively harder to access this sense of benefitting others. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s hopeless; meaning is all about your mindset and how you frame your work. The famous story of the janitor at NASA that President JF Kennedy encountered is proof itself of this: his reply when asked what his job was, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon!”
Lots of people seem to think of finding meaningful work as though it’s something that they’ll just naturally be led to one day, or something they’ll definitely stumble across at some point along the journey. It may be romantic to think of it this way, but it’s also crippling.
The truth of the matter is that meaning-making isn’t a passive endeavour at all; it’s something you actively create and have to constantly work at. This is where “job crafting” comes in.
According to Yale professor Amy Wrezsniewski, job crafting is “what employees do to redesign their jobs in ways that foster engagement at work, job satisfaction, resilience, and thriving.” In other words, it’s a process by which people actively shape their jobs into the kind of work that they love doing and which give them a great sense of meaning.
It’s easy to treat the idea of meaningful work as a sort of wishy-washy luxury that only a few people can afford; the harsh reality is that most of us have bills to pay, debts to pay off, and families to take care off. Under those circumstances, meaning-making would probably have to take a backseat as opposed to other criteria, like salary, right?
Not necessarily. First of all, again, meaning isn’t attached only to specific kinds of jobs. Anyone who wants to find it can do so, from janitors to CEOs. Providing for your family and loved ones, for instance, can be a huge source of meaning in and of itself. Secondly, finding meaning in what you do isn’t a frivolous privilege or an exclusive luxury; it’s something that’s been scientifically proven to help you perform better at work.
People who know why they do what they do are also very often those who are willing to do more than what’s expected of them. These are the people who truly value-add to their organisations, because they understand the value in what they do.
A huge reason why people tend to associate meaningful work with privilege and luxury is the idea that those who find meaningful work have somehow found entry into a magical world where struggle doesn’t exist, and effort comes really easily. It boils down to the idea that if you love what you do, work becomes play and play becomes work.
This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. People who can derive meaning from what they don’t instantaneously find that their work becomes effortless. Meaningful work often comes with the same amount of typical career struggles, including office politics, incompatible company cultures, bad bosses, mountains of work, and so on.
Learning to derive meaning from work will not somehow erase all these things from your purview; what it does, instead, is strengthen your sense of purpose at work and in life, which in turn feeds back into your intrinsic motivation. In other words, you gives you more ammunition to weather the storms that you’ll inevitably face in your career if you hope to learn, grow and achieve success in the future.