All of us want to do meaningful work. Most people wouldn’t say their life goal is to be a customer service representative in a call center. I would say most of us want to contribute in meaningful ways, leave lasting legacies, and improve the world in some way through what we do – and we’d like to be able to do all these things in our careers. We interview, apply and sometimes get jobs at companies that have inspiring vision or mission statements explaining their purpose to the world. But somehow, many of us still end up feeling like our jobs lack meaning and purpose. Why is there a disconnect?
Sometimes, the inspiring vision statement just doesn’t translate down into your actual tasks. When I worked as an account manager in a graphic design firm our goal was to help other companies effectively market their products & services through great branding and design. The design team worked hard to create a great vehicle for the perfectly tailored messages our staff writer composed. My job was to make sure communication with the client flowed smoothly, projects got completed on time and that everyone walked away happy. It sounds like a job with plenty of purpose . . . but at the end of the day, often the only thing I had to show for my work was . . . emails. Often, we wouldn’t get any feedback on how an ad campaign went. We never found out if the new branding really sparked an increase in sales. We never saw the end results we were working so hard to improve. It’s hard to maintain a sense of purpose when you’re too far away from the action and a lack of feedback makes you feel like you’re working in a void.
On the other hand, a plumber sees the purpose in his work precisely because the effects of his work are obvious. The faucets are fixed, the flood is mopped up and the homeowner is effusive in his or her praise and relief.
Matthew Crawford writes,
“There is a pride of accomplishment in the performance of whole tasks that can be held in the mind all at once, and contemplated as whole once finished. In most work that transpires in large organizations, one’s work is meaningless taken by itself. The individual feels that, alone, he is without any effect” (Shop Class as Soul Craft, p. 156 ).
So much of our work these days is non-tangible and I think that makes it hard to see how it really helps people. You might get some residual sense of purpose from hearing about the end result but your work doesn’t feel directly connected. Sometimes, it feels like our work is just getting sucked into a black hole. Nobody seems to care. Nothing really changes because of it. There doesn’t seem to be much purpose in it.
Other times, the inspiring vision statement is false. Plenty of businesses aren’t about helping people or making the world a better place, they’re simply about money no matter how lofty the vision statement sounds. A lack of integrity in organizations sometimes leads to harming consumers and employees (consider product recalls and dangerous working environments). Barbara Ehrenreich explains that over time corporations have evolved from their original design as task-oriented entities created for projects to product producers for overall contribution to society, but,
“with the advent of ‘finance capitalism’ in the 1980s, shareholder’s profits came to trump all other considerations, even pride in the product . . . The New York times captured the new corporate order succinctly in 1987, reporting that it ‘eschews loyalty to workers, products, corporate structures, businesses, factories, communities, even the nation. All such allegiances are viewed as expendable under the new rules. With survival at stake, only market leadership, strong profits and a high stock price can be allowed to matter’” (Brightsided, p. 108).
Employees are pretty smart. We know when we’re being lied to about why we do our jobs. Sometimes, official company policy is regularly undermined by the actual standard operating procedures and when that happens, meaning and purpose in the job are undermined as well.
A sense of purpose is important. But beware the wishful thinking that simply finding a job with “more meaning” will solve all your problems. In my circles, it’s not uncommon to hear people talking about how everything would be better if they could just find a job “in ministry” or with a non-profit. While having a clear purpose is important, it will not automatically provide job satisfaction. It can definitely help. But we’re still missing a big reason we’re discontent, bored, unmotivated and dissatisfied with our jobs . . . and that’s a lack of autonomy. Stay tuned for that post. It will be a big one.
In the meantime, tell me about your job: Do you feel like your work has meaning? Why or why not?