Find meaning in your work
There is a well-known story of American president John F. Kennedy, who was on a visit to the NASA headquarters in 1961. He met a janitor who was busy mopping the floor. Kennedy went over and introduced himself to the janitor and asked him what he was doing at NASA. Without skipping a beat, the man replied – “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”
You have probably heard the old adage, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life”. However well-meaning this sentiment may be, the reality is that for many of us it may not be possible to find a job focused only on things that we love to do. Besides, in any job, you will have those moments of feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and the inevitable bad days. And let’s face it – there might be some parts of your job that you feel just suck.
So, can you flip things around? How about loving what we do instead? Can you find meaning and purpose in your current job or role and through that, find fulfilment and success?
Research shows that people who are able to make this connection are more engaged, better team members, more resilient and more likely to bounce back from failures. They are also people who have a positive multiplier effect on others and thrive in whatever role they are in.
So, drawing from this, my message this week is on how you can try to find more purpose or meaning in your work every day.
Is purpose built or found? I’m inclined to agree with John Coleman, who, in his article, To Find Meaning in Your Work, Change How You Think About It, points out that to be able to work with a sense of purpose every day, you must be willing to become much more thoughtful – and practice it over and over again. Purpose isn’t magic. So, work consciously towards creating it, instead of waiting passively for it to come to you.
Here are some suggestions on how you can try to make work more meaningful, both for yourself, as well as your team:
1. Connect your work with purpose
Like the janitor, find your purpose by making a connect between you and the larger organisation. You have to be able to find a fundamental alignment here, with organisational values and purpose. Research points to how people will eventually only find something meaningful if they also find it matches with their core values. If not, maybe it’s a good idea to ask yourself if you’re in the right place. This is the reason why, when we recently rolled out our purpose as a company, our discussions started with a reflective session on what our personal values are. We also encourage our team members to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work, as opposed to just their ‘work selves’, in the hope that they are able to be as authentic as possible when making these connections.
While more often than not, we may not be in obviously transformative roles, it doesn’t mean that we can’t link to a larger purpose. Take our household insecticides business for example. Our team members could either choose to approach it as just another FMCG product category, or see it as the chance to contribute towards the eradication of vector borne diseases, which are a major health hazard in emerging geographies.
2. Be more curious
Ask more questions, push your boundaries, experiment. Lewis Garrad and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in their article How to Make Work More Meaningful for Your Team, suggest that being more curious makes you more likely to look for and find meaning – or even create it, when needed. As a manager, you will pass this on to your team by allowing them to explore more options and even create spaces for themselves, rather than being prescriptive and micromanaging.
3. Challenge yourself
Not getting caught up in routine and monotony is important, because even as you look for ways to connect and find meaning, you must be able to constantly challenge and raise your personal bar as you work towards realising it. It’s not enough to be inspired by and find purpose in of your work. You have to actually act on that and what it means for you from a creation or delivery perspective. You have to innovate and progress and feel like you’re growing, which in turn will make your work feel more meaningful. Going back to the janitor – sure, he associated with NASA’s purpose, but along with that, he was working as hard as he could in his area to ensure that he was contributing.
4. “Craft your work”
Coleman quotes Yale professor, Amy Wrzesniewski’s study of hospital custodial staff to determine what helped certain members of the team excel. Her results suggested that the happiest and most effective custodians were “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.”
5. Build real, positive relationships
When you’re looking to find purpose, you can’t be transactional. You have to step out of your comfort zone, if needed, and try making real connections with people around you, built on mutual trust and respect. That is fundamental to even begin to feel a sense of belongingness and purpose. Coleman emphasises this in his article, saying that who we work with is as important as what we do. And this can easily extend to your business partners and customers.
6. Learn, learn, learn
It may not come as a surprise that learning is closely linked to finding meaning. To be able to contribute more effectively, you need to be hungry to grow and develop. This journey of learning and self-discovery can be very powerful, as you find new ways to connect and contribute towards a meaningful goal.
7. Remember why you work
I found this point that Coleman emphasises, particularly insightful. If you need any inspiration on the purpose front, turn back to why you are even working in the first place. Most people don’t work for fun alone. This doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy their work, but that they have a reason to be out and working in the first place. It could be educating children or supporting aging parents or even a cause that you feel strongly for. So, go back to the start line sometimes because that can be a very powerful motivator.
Gianpiero Petriglieri, in his article, Finding the Job of Your Life, sums up this quest for meaning very insightfully:
“A meaningful job has boring moments, scary moments, angry moments. It is not a flat line of unvarying personal fulfilment. Nothing is great if it is monotone. There is no job of your life out there, waiting to be found. There are only jobs that may make you feel more or less alive. If you allow them to, that is.”
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.