When I asked her “What’s the best part of your job?” she looked at me wistfully and said “Nothing, really.” She was smart, young, and creative, but somehow her spark had gone out. She told me she didn’t want it to be that way but, given the environment she was in - the people around her and the way things were - she didn’t know how to feel better about work.
I tried to show her she had more control than she thought.
A Job, a Career, or a Calling?
It turns out that fulfillment and meaning at work aren’t correlated to our specific jobs as much as they’re correlated to how we approach our jobs and the conditions in which we do them. The job of a surgeon isn’t innately more or less fulfilling than the job of a factory worker. What matters more is their very subjective view of surgery and factory work and the environment in which they do it - the people, physical environment, systems, and processes.
To test this assertion, researchers surveyed people in a wide range of jobs to understand how they viewed their work. Did they think of their work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling? People with Jobs viewed work as being just about money and not an end in itself. Those with Careers had a deeper personal involvement with their work, marking their achievement through advancement. And those with Callings worked for the work itself and the fulfillment that came from doing it.
Surprisingly, people in the same roles (executive assistants, for example) were evenly split in viewing their work as a Job, Career, or Calling. Simply put, the way people related to their work “could not be reduced to demographic or occupational differences.” So it must be something else that makes us view similar roles so differently.
What makes you not hate work
That something else is whether we are intrinsically motivated to do the work. There's been a lot of research on why we do what we do and it all points to the same, basic truths, summarized succinctly here in this quote from Drive:
“...we have three innate psychological needs - competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”
Your drive - your motivation to do something and how you feel about doing it - is based on whether or not you’re meeting these needs. And that’s highly subjective and personal. Do you feel related to your company’s purpose or to the people that work there? Do you feel you’re getting better at what you do? That you’re in control? If the factory worker taps into this drive and the surgeon doesn’t, the factory worker will indeed find work more fulfilling.
Crafting your job
What the researchers Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton found is that, even in highly prescribed jobs, individuals can makes changes that can fundamentally alter their view of what they do. They called it “job crafting.”
“We use the term job crafting to capture the actions employees take to shape, mold, and redefine their jobs. Job crafters are individuals who actively compose both what their job is physically, by changing a job's task boundaries, what their job is cognitively, by changing the way they think about the relationships among job tasks, and what their job is relationally, by changing the interactions and relationships they have with others at work.”
They provided examples from a wide range of jobs. In each of them, workers tapped into “competence, autonomy, and relatedness” by proactively making changes that helped them develop skills and relationships. “Even in low-autonomy jobs, employees can create new domains for mastery and shape facets of job tasks to take control over some aspect of the work.”
- Computer engineers who offered help to colleagues, either doing the work themselves or connecting them to people and resources they needed.
- Nurses who viewed themselves as patient advocates, taking extra time to provide information to patients and their families.
- Hospital cleaners who interacted more with patients, families, and staff.
- Hairdressers who sought to know their clients better (and fire clients they didn’t like).
- Restaurant cooks who took extra steps to “create a product worthy of pride.”
Imagine what you can do
Now imagine what you can do in your own job which may have even more freedom than the examples above. Even better, by working out loud - making your work visible and extending your network - you can amplify those feelings of control, learning, and connection while opening up possibilities for yet other kinds of work.
Yes, some jobs and some bosses are awful. And yes, work is different from pleasure. But you can create a more blended life, one that you find genuinely appealing and one that’s more fulfilling. It’s not just for those with certain skills, for the young, for the technology savvy, or for extroverts. It’s for everyone.