Is Your Work Important? How About Meaningful?

By MARK RIFFEY for the Flathead Beacon

Like a lot of people, I was drawn to this TED talk by the death of Roger Ebert.

As you watch it, imagine how it must’ve felt to see that as a member of the speech synthesis team at Apple. Hearing Roger appreciate what they have done and describe how meaningful their work is to him, his life and his work must have been incredibly rewarding.

What a gift such validation must be for that team, in return for the gift that their work clearly gave Roger. Not just because validation was delivered at TED, but because it came from someone whose life was so intertwined in the ability to communicate.

Find meaning
Depending on what we do and perhaps because of where we do it, our work may never get validated in that way. It’s even less likely to be validated on the TED stage. I think that’s OK. After all, if your work is all about waiting for validation, maybe it’s the wrong work for you.

What isn’t OK is to spend a substantial portion of your life doing work that has little meaning to you. Is that what you want to tell stories to your grandkids about 30 years from now? I suspect not.

That doesn’t mean your work is meaningless unless you cure that terrible disease or rescue people in burning buildings. While there’s little doubt that kind of work is meaningful, but it may not be what gives *your* life meaning. That’s the difference.

Why spend your life doing work that doesn’t interest or motivate you? Why work at a place that doesn’t value what you do?

Yeah, but…
Almost everyone has had the opportunity to do what they might consider “less than meaningful” work because they have obligations to fulfill. Things like mouths to feed and bills to pay tend to trump finding meaning in people’s work, at least in the short term.

Even if you’re in that mode – and particularly if you expect to be there a while – find a way to make that work meaningful to you until another opportunity presents itself.

The speech synthesis team at Apple didn’t likely start their programming careers on that work, but something from their past that they found meaning in probably led them to it. Some of them likely had rather winding journeys to that team, so don’t feel like you have to be doing the work of the next Jonas Salk on day one. If you are, that’s great – but it might not work out that way when you start.

What are you working on? Where is it leading you?

Why would employers care?
Employers have a role in that discussion too.

If you employ people, you don’t escape these things. In fact, they become more important. Are those you perceive as your “most valuable” staff members being challenged by work they find meaning in? If not, you risk losing them. The situation is no different for the rest of your staff.

Your responsibility as the leader in your business includes helping your staff find meaning in their work.

You might feel the staff should find their work meaningful because if they don’t you will replace them or that they should be happy just because they’re getting paid. While you might have fit in nicely during the days of copper barons and coal-fueled railroads, smart business owners know better.

Showing your staff how to find meaning in their work is what helps them care about what they do and, ideally, who they do it for. The last thing you want is a staff “going through the motions”. Show me a restaurant with a dirty floor and nasty restrooms and I’ll show you a restaurant with ineffective management.

Menial, schmenial
Even those who are commonly undervalued (such as the people who sweep the floors and shovel the sidewalks) find value in their work unless you’ve devalued it for them. This “menial labor” can reduce on-the-job injuries due to falls (reducing insurance costs as a result) and has a substantial impact on the first impression your customers have of your business.

Ultimately, helping people find value in their work is as simple as showing why it means something to you.

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s sitecontact him on Twitter, or email him atmriffey@flatheadbeacon.com.

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Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s sitecontact him on Twitter, or email him atmriffey@flatheadbeacon.com.  Check out the Flathead Beacon archive of all of Mark’sblogs.