Key Point: “Purpose isn’t magic — it’s something we must consciously pursue and create. With the right approach, almost any job can be meaningful.” This is a quote from a wonderful HBR article by John Coleman. You may have read this site and/or listened to our podcasts in which we’ve reinforced the importance of “purpose” in organizations over last few years. The complete magic is when it connects with both personal meaning and purpose at work. From time to time, skeptics have challenged me on the reality or utility in finding that personal meaning or purpose at work. Isn’t a job at the end of the day just that, a “job?” Coleman offers a practical response to that question and a framework to help each of us find more of that personal work connection. He comments:
“Remember why you work. Most of us don’t have the luxury of working solely for fun. We may enjoy our jobs, but we also work to earn money and pay bills. For most of us, work in and of itself is a meaningful act of service. Parents often work hard to invest in their children; and those without kids often help support aging parents or other relatives. Those without families often use their resources to support organizations they love in the community or their friends in times of need. It’s rare to find someone working with only their personal needs in mind. Who are you working for? Identify that person or group of people. When the hours are difficult or the tasks are unglamorous, remember that your work is an act of service for those you care about in your personal life. Keeping this front of mind will help you tie more purpose into your work, even when accomplishing the most tedious of tasks.”
Coleman goes on to offer a very thoughtful and accessible personal framework:
“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… 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.
- 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.’”
Personal Leadership Moves:
- Be clear on who you’re serving, working for and why.
- Become a masterful job crafter, regardless of role.
- Love the people you work with.
- Connect your personal meaning with the organization purpose.
As always, it’s that simple and that hard. Happy New Year in finding more personal meaning in our work.
More meaningful work in Personal Leadership,
One Millennial View: This is so true and valuable for a personal and positive mindset. It’s easy to be disheartened about some positions “on paper,” and society likes to say things like “well you’re not curing cancer.” Fine. That is likely the case. But for example, surgeons need coffee too, so even if you’re a barista, your good service (and a smile) might highly impact their performance… The point is, you just never know, your role could matter a lot more than you might think.
Edited and published by Garrett Rubis