My first after-school job, at the age of 14, was a ‘bagger’ at a small-town grocery store — a job that required me to pack grocery bags and stock shelves. It wasn’t exactly a riveting job. But, while many of my co-workers were having a smoke in the warehouse, I would organize the shelves, sweep the floors or help out in other departments.
I’m pretty sure my boss thought I was … weird. But I figured, if I was going to straighten the soup can aisle, it was going to be the best soup can aisle anyone had ever seen. By taking pride in what was, quite frankly, a terribly boring job that didn’t pay well, I was able to enjoy my time there, rather than dreading it and constantly looking at the clock. It was a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since.
Maybe you haven’t found your ‘dream’ job. Maybe you have — but you’ve discovered it’s not quite as dreamy as you thought it would be. Do you look forward to your workday, or dread it? Do you feel unfulfilled? If so, how can you find true value in your work and look at things from a new perspective?
Ignore the ‘what’ and heed the ‘why’
Maybe we need to stop pursuing ‘happiness’ at work and start pursuing ‘meaning’ instead. “Increasing a sense of meaningfulness at work is one of the most potent — and underutilized — ways to increase productivity, engagement and performance,” writes Jessica Amortegui for Fast Company.
In other words, stop thinking about what you ‘get’ out of your job and start thinking about what you’re giving. Or, as Amortegui says, ignore the what and heed the why. “People aren’t inspired solely by what they do,” she writes. “People are lit up when they know why what they do matters.”
Case in point: A surprising report by the American Psychological Association found that hospital janitors who did menial tasks such as cleaning bedpans and wiping up vomit — what some would consider the worst job possible — saw themselves as part of a team that helps people in need. It’s all about perspective.
The importance of framing your tasks
What many of us fail to realize is that “work can be meaningful even if you don’t think of it as a calling,” writes Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, in an article for the Harvard Business Review. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hospital janitor or a rocket scientist. "If we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others," she says, "any occupation can feel more significant."
“That means you can find meaning in nearly any role in nearly any organization,” writes Smith. “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.”
It's not all about the paycheck
'Meaning' has nothing to do with how much money we earn. If your job is soul-sucking, “it doesn’t matter how big your paycheck is (in fact, if you’re in it for the attractive salary alone and could care less about any other part of the job, it’s unlikely that you attribute a lot of ‘meaning’ to your work), and it doesn’t matter what your title is (a label that has no connection to meaning),” writes Stacey Lastoe in The Muse.
Of course, we want to get paid well, and there is a sense of satisfaction that comes with the ability to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. But what’s vitally important is a sense of meaning that comes from the work itself, rather than working for Pay Day. That doesn’t mean, however, you need to run off and dig a well in a drought-ravaged country to find meaning.
Acknowledging the difference you make
“Making a difference isn’t always about saving the whales or other large humanitarian projects; you can also make a difference when you compile the payroll for your company,” writes Katharine Brooks, Executive Director of the Career Center at Vanderbilt University, in an article for Psychology Today.
Or straighten the soup can aisle. Likely, you’re already making a difference, but you may not realize (or acknowledge) the difference you’re making. Once you figure out why you do what you do — and why it matters — it will be easier to find value in your work. And to stop waiting for the clock to strike 5 p.m.