How to Give Meaning to Any Work
“By the sweat of your brow, you will eat…until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken, for dust you are and from dust you will return.” –the Bible (Genesis 3:19 NIV)
A typical American introduction goes like this:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a ---“ throws out an obscure sounding job title that no grade school children ever heard of or aspired to be in adulthood.
The other person, not having the remotest inkling about the job, fishes for a clue: “How are you liking it?”
The person with the “Chandler Bing” job shrugs and follows with a classic response:
“It pays the bills.”
It-pays-the-bills. That familiar phrase the uninspired American worker used to justify doing work that is not particularly meaningful.
By the Sweat of Our Brows, a View of Work from Literature
What, then, is meaningful work? What separates meaningful work from one that just “pays the bills?”
You might find the following descriptions of work, as I have, to be most interesting:
From the Bible, in Genesis, we learned that work is a means to find food, and God was quick to warn Adam and Eve that it will involve, well, a ton of perspiration.
By the sweat of our brows, we shall toil until our dying days.
While the realists in the room are nodding to this; I, being a pragmatist, still squirms from it.
Another description of work, softened up a bit for the modern worker, is from Michael Gerber, the author of the E-Myth Revisited (HarperCollins, 2001).
“Work is only an idea before a person does it. But the moment a person does it, the impact of the work on the world becomes a reflection of that idea…as well as the person doing it.”
How I define and view work falls somewhere along this continuum.
My Philosophy of Work
My first paying job was a humbling position, and it has now become somewhat a rite of passage into the American workforce for most Southeast Asian immigrants - a dishwasher. A close friend of my mother’s put in a good word to the manager, so after school, I found myself behind stacks of dirty dishes in the kitchen of a local steakhouse.
I was 15-years old. I can still remember the pride of holding my first paycheck. That paycheck meant many things to this kid then but the overall feeling was one of pride. I was able to contribute to my family’s weekly groceries and household bills. So meaningful work to me then was an honest pay for an honest day of work.
Later in my twenties, meaningful work was obtaining a level of financial security that would make all my parents’ sacrifices worthwhile. I was also driven by less noble reasons – the chase after prestige, status, the “more” of everything that I perceived to have lacked in my childhood. What wouldn’t I give to walk into a store and buy what I need without putting it first on lay-away?
Along the way, the pursuit of money for its own sake became boring, and meaningful work shifted from money to some important intangibles.
• Solving a problem no one else can.
• Following through on what I say I’ll do and being counted on by those who trusted and depended on me.
• Mastering a skill and teaching it back to others.
In time, even those factors were not enough to sustain me. So now, meaningful work evolved to:
• Fully using the talent fingerprinted deep within my soul.
• Being of service to others.
• Showing others how to reach their potential.
• Helping others achieve their dreams.
• Leaving the world a better place.
You may be thinking right now if what you do matters at all. If, perhaps you should quit and follow a forgotten dream or a different dream.
I won’t pretend to know what it is like to be in your shoes. That’s a tough call.
The thing to remember is - there is no right or wrong. There is only different.
In the act of doing, the meaning becomes clear.
To start is simple.
- Pick a path.
- Take that first step.
- See where it leads you.
- Don’t like it?
- Retrace steps.
- Take the other path.
All work carries meaning when done with your indelible care, passion and deep love for the work. Regardless of your current title and role, and whether it is a paid one or not, your work has meaning when it is a reflection of your character and your deepest soul’s need to serve the world.
What gives meaning to your own body of work?
In case you are new to TAOLOL, below is a collection of essays exploring meaningful work with the underlying themes of productivity and success habits:
On Leadership and Influence