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How to Find Meaning in Even the Most Rotten Job

Jul 11, 2016

If you have what most people would consider a good job but you still feel like you could walk away from it all tomorrow if given the chance, don’t feel guilty. That doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful or don’t appreciate the opportunities you’ve been given. It just means that your corporate culture isn’t set up to help you acknowledge the purpose inherent in your job.

“ If your job is alienating and you cannot change what you do, you will have to focus on why you do it in order to find meaningfulness,” said Boston College management and organization professor Michael Pratt, co-author of a new paper being published in Organizational Psychology Review that looks at why people fail to find meaning in their work — as well as how they can create a sense of purpose for themselves.

All jobs do have a purpose, Pratt pointed out; after all, a company’s not going to pay you to be there if you’re not contributing something. The trick is figuring out what that job generates (besides just a paycheck) in your search for meaning.

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Pratt said people who do hands-on blue collar work can be more satisfied with their jobs than white-collar workers because, at the end of the day, it’s easier for, say, a carpenter to see what they’ve accomplished that day than a computer programmer. The digitized nature of most office work today creates a sort of barrier between us and our accomplishments.

“For much of history, we measured work by tangible output. That was our measuring stick,” Pratt said. But that metric no longer applies for the majority of the American workforce today.

“With knowledge work, creative work, and the like, I think we need new standards,” Pratt said. “I think we, as a society, are still working this out.”

Part of the problem is that, with the exception of nonprofits and fields like teaching and public service, most jobs today use the amount of money you earn or save the company as the measuring stick to determine your value. While it’s important to pay attention to this for obvious reasons, Pratt said, a singular focus on the bottom line can erode the sense of a deeper purpose in work.

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“Research suggests that there are three to six major ‘stories’ that people tell themselves about why work is meaningful,” Pratt said. “If an organization relies too heavily on any one of them, [employees] will not find this rationale sufficient for finding meaning in their work.”

Since you’re probably not going to change your corporate culture overnight (or by yourself), Pratt stressed the need to adopt a shift in mindset so that you’re able to focus on objectives or accomplishments that go beyond just dollars and profits.

Ask yourself, “Were the people in my organization better off today because of my efforts or not?" Pratt suggested. “They can also be team builders and mentors within their organization, and they can also strive to do work that is of the highest quality.”

And if you’re lucky enough to have a job where you earn a lot of money but just can’t find any deeper meaning, you don't have to quit to go “find yourself” or throw away your career to pursue your dream of writing a novel.

Instead, use the skills that fatten your wallet to enrich others: volunteer, tutor, or find other ways outside of work to give back. While it might not be a cure for cancer or world peace, chances are there is a way to extract some deeper meaning out of the work you’re already doing.

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