Changemakers LAB. The Power of Giving Meaning to your Work and how to Achieve it

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl states that “what drives a human to do an action or project, what motivates him, is the search for meaning in life.” According to Frankl, this applies to all aspect of life, from desire to learn, experience and evolve, to the need to find answers to the big questions in life.

You can learn to find purpose in your daily activities. In fact, many of the things we do already have an impact on others, or are part of something bigger, but we aren’t aware of it. What is important is to recover this sense of meaning and be aware of why we do things. In truth, purpose often depends on our perspective. The following story illustrates the wonder of what I mean.

“Three stonemasons walk into a bar to rest and have a beer after a long day of work. The barman asks the first what he does for a living and he responds “I carve stone.” He asks the second the same question, and he says “I carve stone to build walls.” The third, without waiting for the barman’s question, quickly and proudly says: “I’m building a school for village children so that they can have the education they deserve.”

Which of the three do you think was happiest doing his job? Who do you think put care, love and enthusiasm in his work?

Likewise, a group led by researcher Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale University claims that there are three styles of approaching work, depending on the purpose you give it:

  • “My work is a job.” People in this category mainly work to earn enough money to finance their activities outside of work. For them, work is a necessity, an obligation to be fulfilled; normally they want time to pass quickly and look forward to weekends and holidays. If they had enough money, they wouldn’t work and would prefer to do something else instead. These people generally don’t recommend their job to friends or family members, and they count the days until retirement.
  • “My work is a career.” People in this group enjoy their work, but they hope to get promoted to a higher position or level. Their principal motivation for working is related to status, power and prestige, and although they show greater loyalty and work ethic than the previous group, they also invest lots of energy in developing strategies to get ahead of their peers.
  • “My work is a contribution.” For people in this group, work is one of the most important aspects of life. Overall, they are very satisfied with their work and it’s one of the first things they tell others about themselves. They work because they love what they do and they can’t imagine retiring anytime soon. They’re convinced that, through their work, they’re building a better world and they usually recommend their line of work to friends and family members.

And you? Why do you work?

If you already consider your work a contribution, congratulations! If you don’t, below you can find some ideas to enhance your sense of meaning at work. It is an extract of my book Be the Change: how to find your Passion, define your Purpose and Create a Better World. 

1. Give purpose to your work

As you already know, you don’t have to make big changes to experience a sense of purpose in your work. Sometimes it’s only a matter of adopting a new perspective to give meaning to what you already do, or maybe getting it back if you lost it. For this, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • What influence do I have on the well-being of others in my work?
  • Where can I have indirect influence that I’m not aware of?
  • Who benefits from my work?
  • Can I change or reinterpret my current job to help others? If so, how can I do so?
  • Will I look back and see my professional experience and its results with satisfaction? What would I like to tell my grandchildren?
  • Would I do this job even if they didn’t pay me, or if my material needs were already met?
  • Would I still do this if I knew I were going to die son?

This is about redefining what you think about what you do, focusing on what inspires you, motivates you or improves the lives of others, seeing the context of your work within a broader framework.

These questions can also guide you to take decisions regarding your career path. I found very inspiring the testimony of a top leader of a European organisation. When I asked him how he did maintain his drive and sense of purpose during his career he shared the following insight with me:

“It is easy to get cynical in a world where so many (notably men….) have no notion of the common good when they act. In fact, in organisations, people tend to seek influence often without reflecting on what they will use it for.  I have often asked myself, or some close friends in my organization, when considering applying to an alternative position or for a promotion:  “what would I want to do with the new job…?” i.e. how could I use the new position to do have positive impact within the organization or in the outside world?. This seems for many not the primary issue, but rather what does it mean for themselves only, for their career…. A change of attitude for people to work again for the good, for a higher cause is needed in Europe, among politicians, leaders and everyone. I know organisations where this is there. Such change would create positive thinking and open the door to build a better world one person at a time”.

2. Job crafting: redefine your work

You can also reflect on what you could change in your work so that it has more meaning for you and more positive effects. Some experts have called this job crafting, which redefines default characteristics of your job or occupation so that is has more meaning and significance.

In 2001, Jane Dutton, professor at the University of Michigan, and her colleague at Yale, Amy Wrzesniewski, started to study how people with seemingly uninteresting jobs were able to face what we could call “undervalued tasks” with optimism and satisfaction. To start, they selected cleaning staff at a hospital. What they learned from the studies was astonishing and changed the course of their research for a decade. During interviews, they discovered that some didn’t see themselves as maintenance staff, but rather a part of the professional hospital staff and therapeutic team. They dedicated part of their time to getting to know patients and their families, chatting to cheer them up and offering them support through small details, always trying to improve their spirits and health. One of the employees explained how she had decided to rearrange the paintings on the walls for a patient who was in a coma, with the hope that the change of scenery could have a positive healing effect.

People looking to reinvent their own jobs without changing professions typically do what is expected of them (because it’s their job) and also find a way to add something new that benefits their team, company or client.

Exercises to redefine your work or occupation

Choose to be happy at work

The first thing is to decide to be happy at work and willing to do whatever it takes to be so.

There isn’t constant work satisfaction, even for those who love what they do. Everybody has bad days or goes through difficult times. In all jobs, there are boring tasks or unpleasant people that you have to deal with. But from your initial choice, you can put into practice a series of strategies that will not only help you enjoy your work activity, but also let you make the most of your day. This even makes other tasks or situations, such as housecleaning, shopping or waking up early, etc. more pleasant.

If you want to try it, I recommend the following practices:

Act as if you were happy

Think of a moment in your life when you were happy at work. Ask yourself:

  • What were you thinking? ____________________
  • How did you feel? ____________________
  • What did you tell yourself? ____________________
  • How did you behave? Think about what you told others about your work, your posture, your tone of voice, etc.

Every morning, commit yourself to acting as if you really like what you do (from your “I’m excited about my job.”) At the end of the day, evaluate your progress on a scale of 1-100%.

  M T W Th F
Imagining yourself excited about your work          

Redefine your responsibilities

Within the responsibilities that you have, which do you like the best, or which challenges you the most? ____________________

How can you bring out those that inspire you most? ____________________

How can you dedicate more time to them? ____________________

Which activities aren’t your responsibility, but that you would like to add? ____________________

How can you redefine your tasks so they have more meaning? ____________________

An example: go to a meeting with an inexperienced co-worker in your area to enhance his/her professional development, although it’s not your responsibility.

Redefine your relationships

What new relationships can you create at work? ____________________

You can follow the cleaning staff’s example above, who interacted more with patients and their families, transforming their roles and giving greater meaning to their work.

How can you change the framework of your relationships? ____________________

For example, you could be interested in the work results of your employees, but also their professional ambitions, thus inspiring  job crafting in others.

In the following table, you’ll find a summary of different exercises and practices that you can do to give more purpose to your work or current responsibilities.

Summary of Practices

Summary of Practices
Give purpose to your work Interior change, re-evaluating the sense of what you already do and changing your interior thinking and dialogue.
Choose to be happy at work Commitment to making the necessary changes within your work to experience purpose.
“Act as if you were happy” Start to act as if you were happy.
Redefine your responsibilities What unforeseen activities that you like could you add? How can you redefine your responsibilities to have more purpose?
Redefine your relationships What new relationships can you build? How can you change the relationship’s framework?