To Find Meaning in Your Work, Change How You Think About It
Feb 18, 2023
A wonderful New York Times article from 2007 recounted the 20thannual “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.”