What Does Your Work Mean?
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
One of the essential qualities of work that people find satisfying is "meaning." We want our work to be meaningful. We want that for everything we do, whether we get paid for it or not. But we want it most of all for our jobs, careers, businesses. I think every one of us can have it. Even in the dullest, most tedious or most tiresome of jobs. It all depends upon the stories we tell ourselves about our work.
There's a story you have probably heard about the three bricklayers. (Sometimes it's told about only two bricklayers.) When asked what he is doing, bricklayer #1 says: "I'm laying bricks." Bricklayer #2 says: "I'm building a wall." Bricklayer #3 says: "I'm building a cathedral that will bring together thousands of people for worship, inspiration and joy."
That story has been used to illustrate a number of concepts, but no matter what else other tellers use it for, it's always clear that their work means something different to each of the bricklayers.
And that's true for every individual, in every line of work, in every culture.
Look at the story again. There's more to understand than simply that each worker having a different view or a different meaning to his work. Yes, the original storyteller likely meant to imply just what shows on the surface: the first two workers found little meaning in their jobs.
But, if you consider it, all three workers are right. Not only that, many jobs are exactly the way described by the first worker. The lowest level workers and even the middle level workers get lots and lots of humdrum, repetitive tasks that are boring or even unpleasant. Yet, even the first bricklayer can find meaning in his task, as plainly as he describes it.
What if, behind his uncomplicated answer, his attitude is: "Yep. I'm laying these bricks like the talented, experienced worker I am. I'm laying them straighter and more carefully than a machine could be invented to do. I'm fast, but I'm thorough. My being good at my work is helping all my coworkers do their jobs better. When I get off from the job today, I can feel proud of doing good work. Then I can forget about the job and go do something more interesting or relaxing."
Sure, even then his answer would be simplistic and without a great deal of ambition. But how much more ambition does he need in order to be satisfied with his work and enjoy life?
You don't have to tell yourself you are "building a cathedral," or make up elaborate fantasies about the importance of your work or position. You only have to take pride in yourself, see that what you do is making a contribution of some sort, and believe you are doing the best you can in making that contribution.
Every job has meaning and adds something to the world.
All the same, if your paid job doesn't have enough meaning for you, take what pride you can in how you do it, but find a different opportunity -- such as in volunteering for a worthy cause -- to bring further meaning into your life. And get a job you find more meaningful, if you can.