Is work a means to an end, or a means in itself?
While the answer to that question might depend on a whole slew of factors, in the end it’s those who see work as a calling that have a much better time of it.
According to Amy Wrzesniewski, professor in organisational psychology at Yale University, people who are passionate about their vocation are much more engaged, productive and satisfied. Importantly, it’s not necessarily the job itself that matters, it’s how you look at it.
In a pivotal study, Wrzesniewski et al found that people conceptualise work in three different ways: Jobs, Careers or Callings. For some, work is a mere necessity to earn a crust – it’s just a job. For others, work is a career that enables advancement and the opportunity for prestige. For one particular group though, work is meaningful and rewarding in itself; it is a source of considerable enjoyment, identity and contribution. For these people, work is a calling.
That’s nice. But getting to do fulfilling work might seem like a pipe dream to many. Does it have to be though?
In an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks about a study conducted with hospital cleaning staff. While some staff outlined their roles in terms of the job descriptions, others said they were ‘ambassadors for the hospital’ or even ‘healers’. These staff altered the work they did so that it was more meaningful, an act termed ‘job crafting‘. That is, unofficially redesigning work to increase engagement and satisfaction, leading to resilience and flourishing.
Such job crafting sometimes jeopardised the cleaners’ contracts, like when they visited patients they thought were lonely, or stewarded elderly visitors to the exit so the patients wouldn’t worry about them getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors. One woman even switched the pictures around on coma patients’ walls, hoping that the change in stimulation would aid their recovery.
The same principles of job crafting are implicit in ‘intrapreneurship‘. When our work starts feeling stale, instead of leaving we can try carving out a role that fits better within the current organisation.
Can you pilot a new project, train up in an emerging skill, or take/trade responsibility for a growth area? Doing so, you become the go-to person for that specialism, and you’ll have re-written your own job description. You also gain the recognition (and ideally the remuneration) to boot, not to mention marketable experience to ease the way for future career changes.
When we’ve got the gusto and are in the position to make a career overhaul, incredible things can happen. I’ve got a hunch that a lot more people out there could be blowing their own socks off with the work they’re doing.
Career strategist and author, Jenny Blake, uses the term ‘high net growth individuals’ for people who prioritise meaningful work that utilises their strengths and provides ample opportunities for learning and having a positive impact on others. These ‘impactors’ ask three essential questions of their roles: What did I create? What did I learn? What did I contribute?
Blake characterises these people as being allergic to atrophy, entirely unwilling to simply phone it in, to the point that they may get physiological symptoms if stuck in a position that doesn’t allow them to create, grow and make a difference doing something that feels authentic.
Blake points out that radical advances in technology have reinvented the world of work. Change has accelerated, with product life cycles going from 10 years to 10 months or even 10 days. Many roles have been automated, changing the nature of the work we do, and new roles that never before existed have emerged from brand new industries. The project-based economy is on the rise, with workers being helicoptered in to deliver on a single piece of work before moving on to the next gig or working on several projects at once.
Blake’s point? Career change is the new normal, so we’d better get good at it. The subtext is that we’d also best put to use our ‘magic sauce’ – that thing we’re talented in and love doing. In her practical and insightful 2016 book, Pivot, Blake shows why it’s not just acceptable but worthy to want to do wildly enjoyable work.
As researchers like Wrzesniewski are discovering, when we love our work we do it way, way better.