Almost every modern employee is engaged in two types of work. There's actual work (the stuff you get paid to do), and then there's meta-work - figuring out why you're doing a particular job in the first place. We're generally able to make it through the day without much meta-work, mostly because the mental gymnastics it entails are exhausting.
But every so often, meta-work seeps through. Maybe you're sending a nonsensical email, or dealing with a pesky client, or writing a boring project report - and suddenly, you're hit with the realisation that none of what you're doing matters. Sure, it might be important in that if you don't do it, you'll get fired. But when you think about it, the job doesn't seem essential to anyone's life.
Once it strikes, this existential dread is hard to shake, and you begin to wonder if anyone around you is feeling the same way. Natasha in accounting? Steve on sales? Surely, they must not believe that their daily work is changing the course of human history. Why are we here?
A recent Harvard Business Review article describes a survey that found nine out of 10 workers would sacrifice a decent chunk of their pay - 23% of their future lifetime earnings, to be exact - if they could have a job that was always meaningful. The survey was run by career-coaching platform BetterUp as part of a broader investigation into meaning and purpose at work.
Of course, "meaningful" is a ridiculously vague term; it looks different to everyone, and people have different expectations around how much meaningfulness they can reasonably find in their work. But it's a concept that appears to be on everyone's mind.
When I started reporting this story, I posted prompts on LinkedIn and Jobcase, a website that bills itself as "LinkedIn for blue-collar workers." I asked people to share why they did or didn't find meaning in their work. Something in the question hit a nerve - the comments and emails poured in by the dozens.
Most said yes, they do find meaning in their work, and many went on to explain that they make a difference in the lives of their coworkers, or their customers, or their students. A responder described a meaningful job as one that gives you "financial and mental stability and freedom." A freight hauler wrote that his current job is a perfect fit, mostly because he's able to travel across the country and see new places. A warehouse associate said he values the feeling of having put in a day of hard labor.
A smaller group of people said eh, not so much. To them, a job is just a pay cheque - or their boss is a lunatic who prevents them from finding any meaning in their work.
I don't think this lopsided ratio, with more folks experiencing meaning than lacking it, suggests that most employees see their work as meaningful. Instead, I suspect that many people are loathe to talk (or tell a journalist) about work they find boring or soulless.
I also suspect that meaningfulness is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Perhaps the most obvious form of meaning is "saving the world," i.e. starting a nonprofit in a developing country, or performing surgery on patients who would otherwise die. But not everyone has the skills, educational background, or - let's face it - desire to do that. And that's where things get tricky.
Several experts told me that today's workers are under steadily increasing pressure to find world-saving meaning in their work, largely thanks to the internet.
Keith McNulty, head of people analytics and measurement at McKinsey & Co., mentioned the technology-enabled view we now have into what people are doing around the world, compared to the relative myopia of generations past. Seeing photos on social media of friends vaccinating kids against polio, or building homes for victims of natural disasters, makes you wonder: What should I be doing to make an impact? Suddenly your job - whether it primarily involves filling out spreadsheets or serving hamburgers - starts to look gross in comparison.
Ask Rebecca Fraser-Thill, the director of faculty engagement in the Bates Center for Purposeful Work at Bates College and a career coach with the Pivot program, and she'll tell you: "We've set the bar way too high for what constitutes meaningful work." Fraser-Thill shared with me the same thing she shares with her clients and students: Meaningful work is fundamentally about feeling like it's about more than just you. Providing for your family financially counts. Bringing a smile to your coworkers' faces every day counts, too. Fraser-Thill is all but certain that, if we expanded our definition of meaningful work, we'd have a much more satisfied workforce.
If the first problem has to do with employees' conception of meaningful work, the second problem has to do with the employers' conception. More specifically, too many employers believe that everyone who works for them is there exclusively to make a positive societal impact through the company's products or services.
In their new book, "It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work," Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson caution bosses against falling into exactly this trap: insisting that their company is changing the world, and asking that their employees commit to doing it with them. A better goal, they write, is to "set out to be fair in your dealings with customers, employees, and reality."
Fried and Hansson argue that a major consequence of believing your company's changing the world is that your employees feel pressured to work 24/7. Yet another, albeit less tangible, consequence is that people start to feel bad about themselves. If they go to work every day to become the best programmer or the best editor they can be - or, heaven forbid, to make a lot of money - they must be doing something wrong.
Reading through the BetterUp report on meaning and purpose, I was struck by the different categories of meaningful work, which include personal growth, professional growth, and service. Among their 2,285 respondents, personal growth - "the feeling that work is actively contributing to the development of one's 'inner self'" - was the most commonly cited source of meaning. Asked to describe the most meaningful work they could imagine, one survey participant tellingly wrote, "Would both take advantage of my best skills and incorporate things which I am passionate about." This person added, "It would be visible, demonstrating my competence to others."
I asked Gabriella Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp, if bosses are generally aware that some people derive meaning from developing their skills and mastering their craft, and not solely from helping others. Kellerman said no, she doesn't believe most managers are trained to know (or to ask) about people's unique motivations for working.
One of the most memorable messages I received about meaningful work came from Omaste Witkowski, who worked in marketing and technology for 20-plus years. She recently transitioned to an artistic career. "Is meaning found in passion or practiced skills?" Witkowski wrote. "Can we find meaning in tasks we don't enjoy anymore?"
These questions don't yield obvious or easy answers. It's possible that we can find meaning in anything, but that whatever self-deception we engage in to convince ourselves that a job is meaningful wears off over time (say, after two decades).
Social scientists use the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe our tendency to try to make our beliefs and behaviors match up. It's why you might think your current partner is "The One" (if you didn't, you'd drive yourself crazy imagining everyone else you could be with). The same thing might be true of careers: If you don't trick yourself into feeling like your job is meaningful in some capacity, you might never get out of bed in the morning.
Then there's another possibility, that even if you don't find your work meaningful at the outset, you might learn to see it that way. A 2015 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that there are two types of employees: those who think they have to find the perfect job fit and those who think they can take any job and grow to become passionate about it. (Spoiler alert: Both groups wind up just as happy in the end.)
Meaning might work similarly, which is to say that one path to job satisfaction could be trusting that you'll find something meaningful about your job eventually. Of course, that doesn't signify you'll feel like this is the ideal job for you, or that you won't wonder about other positions out there. It just means you'll be satisfied for now.
A Jobcase member wrote me to say that she initially wanted to be a psychologist and a writer, but due to personal health issues, ended up working in hospitality instead. "I can recommend exciting events, fun-filled tours, and delicious food," she wrote. "It's empowering to know that you can influence people in a positive way no matter where you are." Yet she admitted to occasional reservations. "I still have to fight with regret and struggle with the feeling I'm not doing enough, or not doing the right thing," she wrote. "But life is a journey and the journey is not done. I know now that there is more than one way to make a difference."
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