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The meaning of meaningless

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 11:14 a.m. CST

Let me ask you a question: What’s the best part of your job?

Is it your paycheck? Not hardly. Is it the opportunity to work with a group of scintillating, attractive, intelligent people? Not really. Is it the opportunity for personal growth thanks to a manager whose brilliance and wisdom are like beacons shining in the cosmic darkness? Say what?

If you’ve responded to all my questions in a nugatory fashion, you are like most Americans. What you like most, if you like anything at all, is the fact that what you do has meaning. You have a purpose. You are making a difference. You matter.

At least, that’s what Adam Grant wrote earlier this year in “The #1 Feature of a Meaningless Job” on Huffington Post.

“For decades,” explains the Wharton School of Business professor, “Americans have ranked purpose as their top priority.” As Studs Turkel put it, we want “daily meaning as well as daily bread.”

So what is the purpose of all this purpose we’re supposed to be wanting? According to Grant, it’s all about feeling good about our jobs and ourselves because our work “makes the world a better place.”

Consider a recent survey in which ordinary folks were asked the level of meaningfulness in the jobs of fashion designer, TV newscast director and airline reservation agent. When the results were in, 90 percent of respondents felt these jobs were not only not meaningful but that “if they didn’t exist, people wouldn’t be all that much worse off.”

These results are, of course, ridiculous. How would you ever present yourself as a total fashion-plate love-muffin if it weren’t for the labors of your personal SWAT team of fashion designers, makeup artists and plastic surgeons?

On the other hand, jobs such as fire chief, child life specialist and neurosurgeon were considered meaningful. Really? I say, the next time you need a new outfit to wear to the office party, call a fire chief.

But back to the data. Yet another survey, this one of 11,000 employees, found “the single strongest predictor of meaningfulness was the belief that the job had a positive impact on others.”

This would make your job very meaningful, indeed. Your attitude of indifference and scorn, combined with your lack of productivity, have the positive impact of making your co-workers look like superstars in comparison. That’s meaningful!

All this raises the question: If you’re not a neurosurgeon, saving lives left and right, how do you make your job meaningful? One suggestion is to shorten the distance between the work you do and the end users of your products and services. Grant cites the case of “automotive safety engineers who never meet the drivers of their cars.” (Chances are, he wasn’t talking about safety engineers at General Motors, who regularly see their customers — in court.)

Establishing this maker-user connection is why John Deere employers are encouraged to meet and mingle with the farmers who buy their tractors. And why “leaders at Wells Fargo film videos of customers describing how low-interest loans have rescued them from debt.”

These videos must be very meaningful to the bank employees, especially the part where the customer is dragged, kicking and screaming, out their property, while bank employees connect with foreclosure documents.

If you want to develop a sense of purpose in your job, don’t wait for your managers. “People often make the mistake of treating their job descriptions as fixed,” Grant writes, “overlooking the fact that they can take initiative to alter their own roles.”

“Job crafting” is what this exercise is called. As an example, consider a change made at a hospital in which “hospital cleaners who lack patient contact stepped up to provide emotional support to patients and their families.”

It’s a beautiful idea, and I’m sure the patients and their families really felt it was a meaningful gesture when the cleaning crew put down their mops, picked up scalpels, and stepped up to announce they were neurosurgeons.

In yet another study, Google employees became happier and more effective after only 90 minutes of a job-crafting exercise to make their jobs more meaningful and contribute more to others.

Then again, Google employees may not need quite so much meaning in their work. Forget the gargantuan salaries and the cascading piles of stock options. In the cafeteria, Googlers get all the “It’s It” ice cream sandwiches they want — free!

Now that — I’m sure you agree — is meaningful.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, Calif. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.

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