Changing attitude can give dull jobs meaning

Focus on fact that even mundane work can contribute to larger goal of helping others

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.”

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.”

 

Why do so few people find fulfilment in their work?

Surveys confirm that meaning is the top thing millennials say they want from a job, and yet so many of them are left feeling anxious, frustrated and completely unsatisfied by the jobs and careers they do secure.

What they fail to realise is that work can be meaningful even if you don’t think of it as a calling. A good starting point is to keep in mind that 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. 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.

One way to do this is to connect with the end user or beneficiary. Whether your customers are external or internal, an increased focus on them, and how you help them live their lives or do their jobs better, can help you find more meaning in yours.

Another strategy is to constantly remind yourself of your organisation’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.”

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 the 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 as a way to support their families. With that attitude, they were just as productive and energised 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 support a hobby that gives meaning to their lives.

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. – Copyright Harvard Business Reviews 2017

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters” and an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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