Why do so few people find fulfillment in their work?
A few years ago I posed this question to Amy Wrzesniewski, a Yale School of Management professor who studies these issues, and she offered an explanation that made a lot of sense. Students, she told me, “think their calling is under a rock, and if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.”
Surveys confirm that meaning is the top thing Millennials say they want from a job. And yet her research shows that less than 50% of people see their work as a calling. So many of her students are left feeling anxious and frustrated and completely unsatisfied by the good jobs and careers they do secure.
What they — and many of us, I think — fail to realize is that work can be meaningful even if you don’t think of it as a calling. The four most common occupations in America are retail salesperson, cashier, food preparer/server, and office clerk — jobs that aren’t typically associated with “meaning.” But all have something in common with those that are, such as clergy, teachers, and doctors: They exist to help others. And as Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has shown, people who see their work as a form of giving consistently rank their jobs as more meaningful.
That means you can find meaning in nearly any role in nearly any organization. After all, most companies create products or services to fill a need in the world, and all employees contribute in their own ways. The key is to become more conscious about the service you’re providing — as a whole and personally.
How? One way is to connect with the end user or beneficiary. In one study, Grant and his colleagues found that fundraisers in a university call center who’d been introduced to a student whose education was being paid for by the money raised spent 142% more time on the phone with potential donors and raised 171% more cash than peers who hadn’t met those scholarship recipients. Whether your customers are external or internal, an increased focus on them, and how you help them live their lives or do their jobs, can help you find more meaning in yours.
Another strategy is to constantly remind yourself of your organization’s overarching goal. There’s a great story about a janitor that John F. Kennedy ran into at NASA in 1962. When the president asked him what he was doing, the man said, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Life Is Good is an apparel company best known for colorful T-shirts with stick-figure designs, but its mission is to spread optimism and hope throughout the world, and that’s something that even warehouse employees understand. If you work for an accounting firm, you’re helping people or companies with the unpleasant task of doing their taxes. If you’re a fast-food cook, you’re providing a family with a cheap and delicious meal. Each of these jobs serves a purpose in the world.
Even if you can’t get excited about your company’s mission or customers, you can still adopt a service mindset by thinking about how your work helps those you love. Consider a study of women working in a coupon processing factory in Mexico. Researchers led by Jochen Menges, a professor at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, found that those who described the work as dull were generally less productive than those who said it was rewarding. But the effects went away for those in the former group who saw the work (however tedious) as a way to support their families. With that attitude, they were just as productive and energized as the coupon processors who didn’t mind the task. Many people understand the purpose of their jobs in a similar manner. The work they do helps them pay their mortgage, go on vacation — or even support a hobby that gives meaning to their lives, like volunteer tutoring, gardening, or woodworking.
Not everyone finds their one true calling. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to work meaningless jobs. If we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, any occupation can feel more significant.
Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters and an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where she manages the Ben Franklin Circles project, a collaboration with the 92nd Street Y and Citizen University to build meaning in local communities.
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