Tag Archives: meaning

Choosing Career(s)

We spend about 80,000 hours of our life engrossed in our chosen careers; and a majority of those hours, for a majority of people, are spent being disengaged at work. One reason may be that we end up being round pegs in square holes.

Our initial career choices are mostly determined by parental expectations, peer pressures, financial security concerns or status and prestige of those professions. For some of us, it may be driven by an overarching interest or passion; but for most of us, a highly paid job with least amount of stress seems like a good deal.

But that doesn’t explain high levels of disengagement and lowered fulfillment in many people holding high paying jobs or a sense of boredom and ennui in those holding routine jobs requiring little stress. We may figure out that probably such lives are lacking in meaning and hence not fulfilling – and to make our work lives fulfilling we need to add meaning to it.

And we are right to an extent. But how do we add meaning to our lives? and is that the only answer?

The right answer, imho, lies in choosing a career such that it satisfies the four major goals of life:  Happiness, Success, Meaning and Morality/Integrity. Let me elaborate.

  1. Happiness: Happiness, in the moment, can be thought of as a plethora of positive emotions over a scarcity of negative emotions. One aim of determining the right job for yourself could be answering whether that job will feel pleasant while executing and will have least amount of stress/ anxiety/ negative experiences. However, a better predictor of job satisfaction would be answering which are the jobs in which you lose sense of time, perform at your peak and are in the zone. In short in which types of work do you have more opportunities to have ‘flow‘ experiences. We have more flow experiences at work than at home and its important you chose a career that affords possibility of such experiences. For e.g. 2 years ago I had a mid life career crisis and had to decide between remaining a  software professional or move to life/ strengths coaching. I enjoy coding, I enjoy managing people and especially coding and debugging allowed me to enter focused flow experiences often; similarly whenever I am with a client or conducting a workshop, I am in flow, so both options provided and will continue to provide flow experiences. So couldn’t decide on this alone.
  2.  Success: Success is often a result of excelling at what you do. And a lot of factors affect your performance and excellence.  While some believe that excellence is a function of aligning your work with innate talents, other believe talent is overrated and things like deliberate practice and plain old hard work are really important and that the skills you have developed over the years are to be the guiding principle. A similar strand suggests that one has a unique passion/ overarching interest (just like talents), and discovering that is a panacea; others believe that passion has to be cultivated and developed slowly by investing your time and energy and committing to something.  A middle ground is to discover and honor your strengths (which is a combination of talent +investment + skills + knowledge) and your potential (aptitude rather than mere interest or skill). In deciding between a software job and a psychology based career my strengths like maximizer, individualization, relator made me lean towards coaching while arranger was a good fit for management career in software.  Also, pragmatically speaking, you need to consider your odds of success while choosing the career. For e.g. as per study with college undergraduates, about 90 % had strong interests in arts, sports or music but there were less than 1 % jobs for the same. That doesn’t mean you should not try if you have good aptitude/ strength in that area, juts be cognizant of your odds of success.
  3. Meaning: Meaning often results from doing something that either feels very subjectively fulfilling or can be objectively seen to be making a real impact in the world out there. That is why teaching can be so meaning filled activity, as its highly subjectively fulfilling, though perhaps the real world impact can be seen much later only.  Similarly, doing social work directly can feel so enchanting and meaning suffused as it provides opportunities to see real world impact in the here and now. However, without getting entangled and caught up in whether  the work you are doing is either subjectively fulfilling or objectively impactful, you can use a simple metric: does it help people and if so how many (quantitative) and to what extent(qualitative difference). For e.g. in my role as a manager, I was perhaps touching the lives of a few peers and direct reports, but as a coach/ workshop facilitator I could perhaps touch a larger number of people and make greater contributions.
  4. Morality/Integrity: Finally, your work should be such that you can look at the man in the mirror and be proud of what you do on a daily basis. You can do this either by choosing a job that requires authenticity (being true to yourself- your values, potential etc) or by choosing  a job out of a moral imperative of what is required of you (- your duty to others). Again without getting too much caught between whether your dharama is what is authentic to you or what is your socially sanctioned duty, a good thumb of rule may be to find the fit between you and the world.  Where do your values align with the needs of the world. In my case it was clear that coaching/ workshops will provide me more avenues for aligning my values with what I needed to do.

When it comes to choosing a career, there are no easy answers and each individual’s journey will be different and unique; but hopefully thinking about your career in these terms will make you best suited to make your mark on the world and have fulfillment too!

Orientation towards work and job crafting

In the last lesson, we looked at the importance of doing meaningful work. However, that might have prompted some of you to think that some jobs are inherently more meaningful than others and if you are stuck with a dead end job, there is no salvation for you. Not so quick!  In this chapter we will look at how you can take any work situation and make it more meaningful and personally fulfilling.

We will look at research by Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues, especially as related to work orientation and job crafting.

  1. Work as a job: Some people see their work primarily as a way to earn a paycheck. Their primary motivation is money and all they look forward to is vacations and Weekends as in Thank God It’s Friday. These people typically do not feel as fulfilled in their work or are as productive. They of course have life beyond work as in hobbies etc, but they keep their work life and personal life separate.
  2. Work as a career: Some other people see their work primarily as a way to advance and grow in status and reputation. Their primary motivation is status and higher responsibilities and they look forward eagerly to the next promotion. These people have medium outcomes in terms of happiness and productivity.
  3. Work as a calling: The rest if us see work as a calling , as a way to serve people or to make a lasting beneficial impact on the world around us and as a way to express ourselves completely and authentically.. They see their work as a privilege and would continue doing it for free too.  They look forward to more work and more opportunities to have an impact. These people have the best outcome in terms of happiness and productivity as they find their work immensely meaningful.
  4. A calling orientation: One may find a calling orientation in the least likely of people and jobs. If you are like me, you may believe that some jobs are more suited to a calling orientation than others. For example in a hospital setting, doctors as per this line of thought may be more calling oriented than the janitors, whose work is menial. However, Amy’s research has found that each profession has its shares of work orientation. Thus a hospital janitor who defines her role as ensuring hygiene so that patients don’t get infected maybe having a calling orientation, while the doctor for all you know may be in it for just the money.
  5. Job Crafting: You may feel you have little control over how you enact or perceive your work, but you do have some latitude. Job crafting involves changing some aspects of your job or perceiving it is a different way or creating different relationships and emphasizing certain interactions, in the pursuit of a more meaningful work identity. For example, a hospital cleanings staff who is sensitive to how the patients are feeling and thereby taking some time to chat with them and uplift them , or ensuring that the ceiling they stare at is free of troubling distractions , are crafting their jobs to make it more aligned with their view of themselves.

I encourage all of you to creatively craft your jobs and to at least try moving to a calling orientation- it will ensure you find the majority of time you spent at work fulfilling and meaningful. In the next lesson, we will take a look at how to remain motivated at work.

Finding meaning in work

Till now, our focus has been on happiness or positive emotions in the workplace. However, psychological research has shown that happiness and meaning, though closely related, are different constructs. And we all intuitively know that if the happy state of affairs is not accompanied with a sense of personal meaning and accomplishment, it’s a hollow state of affairs. It’s like taking the blue pill and remaining trapped in the Matrix. If one adds, making work meaningful, as another lever of making employees engaged and productive, then the combination of happiness and meaning becomes more than the sum of its parts.

A pile of Lego blocks, of assorted colours and...

A pile of Lego blocks, of assorted colours and sizes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Ignore at your own peril. How would you feel if your contributions at work were ignored or if what you did was actually meaningless and never put to use? Many product based companies have realized that a majority of features they add are never or very rarely used, so this is a real situation. Consider a study by Dan Ariely, in which students had to complete a task on a sheet of paper and there were three conditions. In one the experimenter looked at the paper and acknowledged their work. In the second, the paper was immediately shredded before their eyes before anyone else could take a look at their results; and in the third the paper was ignored and put in a pile of papers. Both passive ignoring and active shredding was equally demotivating to the individuals, so think twice before discouraging or ignoring someone at work.
  2. Sisyphean tasks, anyone? In another experiment, Dan Ariely asked participants to make Lego toys and again there were two conditions. In the Sisyphean condition, the lego toys were destroyed immediately before the eyes of the participants who made them while in the meaningful condition, the created toys were hidden under the table and would be destroyed only later once the experiment was over. The first group made only 7 toys on average while the meaningful group made on an average 11 toys. The point being that if your day job is meaningless and likely to have little impact, you will be less productive/ engaged/ happy.
  3. Knowing the impact you have is the key. Now that we know that meaningful work is important, how do we endow meaning to work? Research by Adam Grant gives some clues. In one study, Adam worked with telecallers associated with University of Michigan and responsible for raising funds from the alumni. Because of the nature of work, where majority of people refused donations, the burnout was high. To address this Adam made the telecallers interact for 10 minutes with students who had benefited from the fundraising by receiving scholarships. This brief interaction boosted fundraising by 171 percent and time spent on calls by 142 percent. And all this was below conscious awareness of having found meaning. Thus, a parallel way to induce meaning in your work is to visit / interact with the end beneficiaries or customers and see for yourself the impact your products or services are having in the real world.
  4. Be other centered: In another interesting study Grant put up signs at a hospital’s hand-washing stations, reading either “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases” or “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Doctors and nurses used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer in the stations with signs that mentioned patients. The bottom line being that you find it more meaningful when the work you are doing is benefiting others and society and not just yourself. Be on the lookout for opportunities to define your work as not just a paycheck for yourself but as a way to help others.
English: hand washing with soap

English: hand washing with soap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this lesson, we looked at the importance of meaningful work and how we can add some meaning to our work; in the next lesson we will take a closer look at crafting our jobs to create meaning and happiness.