Meaningful Work

When I was an undergraduate I spent a summer selling books door to door. My boss had never been to college.   He talked incessantly about education and when he did he tended to magnify the value of education beyond reality. He radiated a sense of insecurity about his lack of education. On the other hand, he was a master salesman. As I came to realize how extraordinary he was, I one day told him how much I admired his skill. He was surprised but appreciative. He thought for a moment and then he said, “When I walk down the street with my case in my hand I feel as competent as the finest surgeon.”

Some years later I sat at lunch with a heart surgeon and I asked him about his work. He said, “Sometimes a person is dying. I open their chest and I take their heart into my hands. When I am finished, they are alive. My work gives them life.”

As he spoke he seemed to be far away. There was a sense of reverence in his description of his work. It was the same sense that my sales manager had expressed.

Recently I had some experiences that brought these memories to the surface. In a two day period I taught positive leadership to five different groups of professionals. In each case I put my whole soul into the process and felt that the people were also fully engaged. They were soaking in new concepts and conceptualizing new possibilities. During breaks many of them approached me of their life journeys. As I walked away from the last session I felt a sense of awe. Some specific words crossed my mind, “this work is important.” I then went to a meeting with people from the Center for Positive Organizations.

As the meeting started one person was bubbling with enthusiasm. Betsy is an administrator who has in recent years has had the opportunity to design courses for undergraduates. She also puts her whole soul into the process and the people respond by being fully present.

Betsy told us of having just finished an intense course in which students were given real life experiences in positive organizations. She began to tell stories of what the students did and how they evaluated the course. She gave examples of important life changes. Then she told of the most extreme example in which an isolated and lonely young woman fully reinvented herself. Betsy then indicated that if in life she had done no more than design the class that her own life would have been worthwhile.

While the words were extreme, Betsy said them with perfect congruence. She was speaking of her work with a sense of awe. Awe is wonder, admiration, respect, amazement, reverence. We feel it when we exceed our own expectations.

When we begin to have awe for our own work, our job turns into a calling. It is intrinsically motivating and as we fully invest we experience a growing sense of mastery.   Science suggests that when this happens we feel fulfilled because we are engaged in deeply meaningful action that serves the greater good. Science suggests that we can turn a job into a calling through introspection, reflection, and external feedback. We can also do it by proactively crafting our job so that it is better aligned with our values and strengths.

As I write these words a thought emerges. I imagine a team or organization where everyone is collectively working to help everyone else craft their jobs so as to increase their sense of meaning. What would the process look like? What kind of outcomes might follow? Nurturing meaningful work does not make sense in a conventional organization. In a positive organization it is a challenge worthy of attention.

Reflection

Why do some people put their whole soul into their work?

Is it possible to make work intrinsically motivating?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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