Finding Meaningful Work…or Finding Meaning in Your Work?
I had an “aha” moment recently. I was pondering why I get “itchy” every three years or so and change jobs (and usually, cities). (To see some of the jobs I’ve held, see the post “A Bibliography for Job Hoppers Like Me.”) It could certainly be that I am a Scanner, as Barbara Sher describes. I have a lot of interests and the thoughts that constantly run through my head go something like this:
Oh! I want to be a caterer!
Now I want to be a lawyer!
Ooooh, let’s move to Las Vegas!
Let’s live at the beach!
But my “aha” moment was this: I tend to lose interest in a job when it no longer feels meaningful. I don’t mean (necessarily) like a ministry or saving the planet (I guess I don’t aspire that high). Just feeling like my day is spent on worthwhile things. Not TPS reports. (Office Space? If you haven’t seen the movie, do. Then you’ll get this reference. More importantly, you’ll laugh. A lot. Hopefully.)
One of the things I love about being a college professor is the opportunity to help young adults (or not-so-young-adults) figure out professional and personal things that will help them live a meaningful and fulfilling lives. I’ve taught at several different universities in my life. The experience has been pretty much the same – I start off excited about the students, the opportunities to help them learn about what I think is a fun and exciting career area, and teach them information and skills they need to know to succeed. The first year is fabulous. I’m in hog heaven. The second year is good, but I feel a little frustrated that I’m not “getting through to them.”
By the end of third year, I am downright depressed and worn down because SO many students don’t seem to be interested in learning. Some don’t bother to show up in class at all. Some show up, but sneer at me all through class [I’ve actually kept two students after class to ask them if they know what their facial expressions look like (both said they didn’t)…and explain that this may be a detriment in an interview or work environment. Then again, they may just really not like me.]
In other words, I can’t find the meaning in the work any more. I’m not blaming the students. They are who they are and they do what they do. And it could certainly be that I’m a lousy professor, although I have some kind former students who are nice enough to say otherwise (thanks, y’all!). Plenty of professors stay in the job for years and years. Clearly, they find something I can’t. Maybe they find meaning in research (I don’t – not the academic kind, anyway) or administration (I’m a worse bureaucrat than sales person…and I’m a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad sales person). I don’t know.
The first time in my working life that I realized the importance of having meaning in my work was when I worked as a front desk clerk at a hotel during college. It was a revelation to realize the effect I could have on someone else’s mood, just by being friendly. After a long day of work, a flight, and a life-threatening taxi ride from one of the D.C. area airports, they would arrive at the hotel, bedraggled and tired. And find me, a 20 year old college student, at the front desk. If I gave them the key to their room, fine. They went up and their day was no different. But if I smiled and joked with them or found something in their profile to start a conversation with (e.g., “You’re from Dallas? My brother lives in Dallas!”), it sometimes seemed to make their mood better. And I helped!
That’s how public speaking is for me. When I do a good job boiling what I think is important information into understandable chunks and use those to ignite a conversation with and between the participants, it feels meaningful. It’s information that will help them in some way. And I was able to help give it to them. Meaning.
Still I wonder sometimes…is there really no meaning? Or can I just not find it? Or do I stop looking for it?
How about you?