When I was an intern, I would sit in my cubicle while thousands of other employees buzzed around me. We offered services that were required by law and that no one seemed to need or care about, and we delivered them poorly and behind schedule. I wondered how long it would take for our clients to notice if everyone in that building just disappeared. I thought we could’ve gotten away with doing nothing for at least a couple of weeks.
That company offered me a full-time job, and I rejected it.
Only 55% of US adults say their job is making a meaningful contribution to the world.1 Those working in healthcare (73%) and education (72%) fields are more likely to say their jobs make a positive contribution while those in entertainment (40%), retail (41%), real estate (40%), and hotels (35%) are less likely to feel this satisfaction. Most people at some point in their careers will ask, “Is this all there is to my career?”
For those of you stuck in a rut, the question is, How do you recapture the feeling that your job matters? Outside of choosing the perfect career in the ideal industry, are there tools that give you are a sense that you are spending your work hours in a worthwhile manner? This article describes why some people feel like their jobs are meaningful and five tools to recapture the meaning in your career.
A reliable source of meaning at work – responsibility
Having a sense that your work matters starts with the interpreter portion of your mind – that part of you that makes sense of the world. If you want your work to feel worthwhile, you must provide that interpreter part of you with evidence that you and your job matters. And where can you find such evidence? The answer lies in taking a small amount of responsibility to look out for another person. You can:
- Take personal responsibility to deliver a product or service to your customers and clients.
- Take care of your peers or the employees who report to you
- Look out for the needs of your supervisor or your investors
- Care for your family and other causes with your hard-earned money
This is how responsibility for another leads to sense that you matter: if you are willing to make even a small sacrifice to help someone, then you must believe that person has some value. If you can assist that individual in some small way, then you must also matter. The interpreter in your head will not be able to deny that you are useful and that you matter.
5 ways to make your job matter
With the understanding that responsibility can become a reliable source of meaning, let’s look at five practical ways you can take responsibility for people around you in a business setting:
1. Occasionally go above and beyond what is asked of you.
Look for an unexpected way to help your supervisor or clients in ways that they haven’t asked you to.
I used to work for a woman named Sarah. She told me once that she needed to read the book Overtreated for her job but that she couldn’t find time to get to it. So, I picked up the book one weekend, read it cover-to-cover and took notes on sections I thought were relevant to Sarah’s work. I sent her the results over email and didn’t think much of it.
Her response surprised me. Sarah seemed to care more about that small act than everything else I did as part of my actual job. She showed me so much gratitude and spoke about it so often that I couldn’t help but feel like I made a positive difference and that I mattered.
2. Follow through on a task that matters to someone
Think about a specific commitment you made to someone at work. If you can’t think of one, then verbally commit to perform a specific task soon. Perhaps there is a new feature or service that you can deliver to a client.
The key to this challenge is a willingness to sacrifice. You must be prepared to face discomfort to fulfill your promise. And it’s only a true commitment if you are working toward a specific deliverable with a certain deadline. A wishy-washy commitment without a deadline is no commitment at all.
In graduate school, I knew a former pilot who stayed up all night one time to deliver on his promise to finish a group paper. At that point, I had not considered that anyone would be willing to give up a whole night of sleep no matter how important the project was. His teammates were grateful for his work and his obvious commitment to them.
If there is no way to fulfill your obligation, communicate a new delivery timeline and then meet that one. An important skill to develop within a work environment is estimating delivery timelines. If you not only take responsibility but deliver on it, you will begin to see yourself as someone useful and worthy of trust.
3. Place physical representations of those you take care of in your work space
They will remind you of the people who matter in your life and why you are working.
Until it disappeared recently, I kept a small wooden lobster that hung from my desk on a twine string. A coworker gave it to me after a trip to Boston, and it reminded me that I go to work to help those on the teams I manage. I also keep a picture of my wife and kids in a picture frame. I knew a CEO who kept small pictures of every single one of his clients on a wall near his desk.
In my opinion, reminders of those people you are responsible for are more meaningful than any trophy or award. They display what people matter to you. And if those people can benefit from your work, then your job must matter too.
4. Spend time with customers getting to know them deeply
Ask them what they like and dislike about your product or service. Inquire what could be better. My experience is that customers love it when someone cares enough to have an actual conversation about their experience and wants and needs – not a survey but a conversation.
The early days of the software company Intuit provide a good example. When customers purchased a new Intuit product, a computer programmer might ask to follow them home and watch them install it. The computer programmers learned how their users were struggling and how to help.
The business guru Peter Drucker once wrote that “the aim of [business] is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” If you want to feel like your work matters, send an email to a client asking if you can meet in person (or over the phone) and talk for at least 30 minutes about what job the customer is trying to accomplish. Chances are that by the end of the conversation, you will know how to help your customer. You will see a way to make yourself useful.
5. Tell people that you are looking out for them
Tell a customer or a group of colleagues that you are looking out for them and specifically how you can help. And mean it.
A while back, I heard my supervisor do this with a team of engineers who were being transferred against their will to another department. He told them he would do everything he could to find a role in the new department or somewhere else where they could be happy. And he did what he could to help. They won’t quickly forget his efforts.
This doesn’t mean you should do peoples’ jobs for them or that you should take over their lives or that you are responsibility for their happiness or their life choices. You are just trying to help them on their way, especially in circumstances where they cannot help themselves. And if you are responsible in some small way and able to lift someone up, then your job matters.
Take responsibility to help others
So, if you want to find more fulfillment in your job and you want to know that it matters:
- Go above and beyond on a commitment to your supervisor or client
- Make a promise with a deadline and then meet it
- Put reminders of those you look out for in your workspace
- Spend at least 30 minutes with an individual customer getting to know them
- Tell someone you are committed to him
Any of these actions will give you a stronger sense that your job matters. You can probably think of other ways too. Taking and fulfilling responsibility for someone else is a path to excel at your job and to stand out from the crowd of people doing the least they can to get by and from those who are only looking out for themselves.
If you are in a role at work where you cannot be of use, you should find another job. There is no amount of money or status that can compensate for feeling like you are worthwhile. And if you would like to learn more about the most recent data and research on how to build a meaningful life, consider picking up a copy of my new book.