Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On Meaningful Work

Next week, I'm leaving the best company in the country to work for. I didn't quite make it a year. Frankly, though there were plenty of reasons, the simplest reason why is that I wasn't happy at Google. Sure, the food is great, the people are nice and smart, and there are plenty of cool perks. But none of that is sufficient if you don't find the work you're doing engaging, and you think another job can offer that.

In the course of researching this post, I came upon the following anecdote:
Three men are found smashing boulders with iron hammers.  When asked what they are doing, the first man says, "Breaking big rocks into little rocks." The second man says, "Feeding my family." The third man says, "Building a cathedral."
Most of the time, I couldn't shake the feeling I was just smashing rocks at Google, and I tried to feel better by telling myself I was doing it to provide for my loved ones. But I never felt I was building a cathedral here, or even a house. In some ways, Google's cathedral has already been built: their search engine is one of the greatest gifts to the modern world imaginable. And I know the leadership envisions building other ones just as impressive. It is likely that the failing to see past the rocks is mine.

In the same article where I found that story, the author, a psychologist who studies what makes work meaningful, outlines three principles:
First, the work we do must make sense; we must know what's being asked of us and be able to identify the personal or organizational resources we need to do our job.  Second, the work we do must have a point; we must be able to see how the little tasks we engage in build, brick-by-brick if you will, into an important part of the purpose of our company. Finally, the work that we do must benefit some greater good; we must be able to see how our toil helps others, whether that's saving the planet, saving a life, or making our co-workers' jobs easier so that they can go home and really be available for their families and friends.
 A lot of the meaning in work, then, has to come from within. If I can see myself contributing to the welfare of my coworkers, it might matter less that I am bored by the tasks I need to complete during the day. But it would be wise if more companies thought through how they can make a job sensible, purposeful and beneficial. Other researchers have looked at the link between a sense of meaning at work and job performance, and found that productivity rises significantly when employees are engaged in work they find meaningful. And yet most companies look to "sugar high" motivators like perks and bonuses to provide lasting motivation: 
When we asked 669 managers from companies around the world to rank five employee motivators in terms of importance, they ranked “supporting progress” dead last. Fully 95 percent of these managers failed to recognize that progress in meaningful work is the primary motivator, well ahead of traditional incentives like raises and bonuses.
If I worked in HR, I would make it my business to figure out what meaning my best employees found in their work, and try to instill that sense of purpose in as many other people as possible.

So, the last question: why do I think I'll find more meaning in my new role (returning to the advertising agency I left for Google) than I did in this one? Well, I'm going to take my direction from this amazing Clayton Christensen article and use the uncertainty and change in advertising as a chance both to share what I've learned and to learn from others. Here's Christensen's advice:

Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.
I think my life will be judged, by myself and those I care about most, by how I grew as a person, what I built, and who I was able to help. I'm going to a place where I think I can accomplish a lot in all three areas. I can't wait to dive back in.

So my question for you: what do you think makes work (and life) meaningful?

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