3 Lies About Meaningful Work
Wharton Professor and Entrepreneur in Residence Adam Grant redefines what it requires to do meaningful work.
In the 1980s, when Steve Jobs was trying to lure John Sculley away from Pepsi to join Apple, he clinched the deal with a single question: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Back then, the organization to which people belonged was the dominant driver of whether they found their work meaningful. A sense of purpose came from belonging to a company with a mission that mattered. Selling sugar water was worthless; reinventing computers was worthwhile. But now, where you work is no longer the major source of meaning. And in the next decade, employers will fade even further into the background. Today, there are some professions where almost everyone reports a strong sense of meaning: clergy and religious directors (97%), surgeons (94%), elementary and secondary education administrators (93%) and chiropractors (93%). These jobs have one essential thing in common—they debunk three common lies about what makes work meaningful.
Lie #1: Meaning comes from where we belong
You don’t need to work for a company like Apple to find meaning. All of the meaningful jobs above are completely untethered to specific organizations. Surgeons and members of the clergy often work at multiple sites, while education administrators and chiropractors can do the same job anywhere, and the nature of their work stays the same. They identify with occupations, not organizations. As Dan Pink wrote in Free Agent Nation: “Bye, bye, organization guy.”
Lie #2: Meaningful work is knowledge work
You might have heard that the industrialized world has shifted from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, but this isn’t actually true. We work in a service economy, and that’s where the meaning lives. In the US, only about three of every ten employees are knowledge workers. This number pales in comparison to service workers, who represent about eight of every ten American employees. The service sector now accounts for almost two thirds of the world’s GDP—up from half in the 1980s. The most meaningful jobs are all service jobs. Surgeons and chiropractors promote physical health. Clergy and religious directors promote spiritual health. Educators promote social and mental health. If these jobs didn’t exist, other people would be worse off. Meaningful work makes other people's lives more meaningful.
Lie #3: Meaning depends on having a visionary boss
You don’t have to work for Steve Jobs to have a meaningful job. Purpose isn’t scripted by a boss or dreamed up by a charismatic leader. Instead, it’s shaped by the people who hold the job. Researchers Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton call this “job crafting”: taking the initiative to become an active architect of your own job. They worked with a surgeon who created greater meaning by spending less time consulting with other physicians and shifting his priorities toward teaching more by giving lectures and educating residents. They also discovered a group of hospital cleaners who were able to make their work more meaningful by finding creative ways to take care of patients, even though it wasn’t in their job descriptions. One cleaner worked on a wing with patients who were in comas, and she started rearranging the artwork on their walls in the hopes of sparking their awareness. At its heart, meaning-making is an act of self-expression, a chance for us to reveal who we are through what we do. After interviewing hundreds of people about their jobs, Studs Terkel observed that, "work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” To find it, we need to realize that meaning is about what we do, not where we belong. It lives in the relationships between people, not ideas. And it’s created from the bottom up, not the top down.