Photo by Marcel Heil on Unsplash

What Makes a Job Meaningful?

Against the imaginary hierarchy of jobs, and our arbitrary acceptance of it, and in favor of a richer concept of work.

When I was 16, I attended the graduation party of a guy that I worked with at the local supermarket chain. He was a year older than me, and was being pushed into that next phase called adulthood. I recall a conversation taking place, much like so many others I had engaged in around that time. It revolved around the question of what was next for us young adults. Where were we all going, and what were we going to do with the rest of our lives? In this particular conversation, someone made the joke that no matter where they end up, they just don’t want to be asking if people would “like fries with that.”

It’s an easy joke to make — the implication that someone behind the counter at a fast food place has surrendered to the drudgery of meaningless work. Many of us make that joke all the time. The other implication of it is that there is a clear line — existing somewhere — between meaningful work and meaningless work. But what is that line? What separates meaningful work from a soul-crushing job? Is that line objective or subjective?

I suspect that like many things we use as the basis of easy jokes and comforting adages, we have no ever-loving idea.

Hypocrisy and Meritocracy

The joke about fast-food work is easy to make. Many of us worked in that world as kids, and to varying degrees, we hated it. So we denigrate such a job to a lower skill level and assume that such a job can never be the source of meaningful work. And yet, every time we pull up to the drive-thru, we bring with us the expectation that we’ll receive our order quickly, it will be correct, and we can be on our way in minutes. We expect this, and so do millions of others around the world each day — and by and large, that expectation is met. Our experience there can color a large part of our day, and the same is true for millions of others. So why do we imply that the job at the front line of that experience is meaningless?

While we allow our own prefabricated dreams to color our evaluation of which jobs are meaningful work and which are the opposite, what good does this do anyone? Why do we carry around such beliefs? They only serve to hurt those who find themselves in the jobs we relegate to the bottom of the ladder, and also make us feel badly — if we don’t end up in one of the jobs we place on such a high pedestal.

This supposedly meritocratic pyramid of meaningful work is far from a coherent system with any objective basis in reality. Rather, it is a hodgepodge of folksy anecdotal value judgments — put on like so many hand-me-downs by those of us looking to feel better about what we spend over 1/2 of our waking hours doing during adulthood — working.

The Illusion of “Jobs”

By and large, almost any job can be meaningful. Whether it is or not depends overwhelmingly on the person doing it. There are a few reasons for this.

First, “jobs” are not static things that exist apart from the people doing them. When I apply for a job, I’m not standing outside of some sculpted and finished container that I must contort myself into. Sure, some of us may feel like that is the case, but show me an employer who sincerely wishes for someone to only do what the job description says, and I’ll show you an employer who won’t be hiring that way for long. Jobs are ephemeral; they are placeholders in an organization until the real bringers of value — people — find their way into it. Once that happens, jobs cease to exist, and in their place, we find people and work.

Secondly, once you find yourself in a “job”, what you make of it has so much to do with how you choose to work each day. There are as many approaches to work as their are people doing it, but there is a way to categorize work into two broad categories: proactive and reactive work.

Those doing reactive work are more likely to describe their work as both a “job” and to find it lacking meaning. They tend to be exhausted, to view their career as limited by their job description, and to compare their situation with others — despite having very little understanding of others’ situations.

Those doing proactive work are more likely to be both optimistic about their work, as well as mostly dismissive of their job descriptions in terms of how they define the work they do. Being proactive in your work is about looking for and trying to leverage opportunities — not just opportunities to “move up” in a company, but opportunities to just become better at what you do and to help others. A proactive approach to work is about taking pride in what you do as a reflection of your standards, your character, and your self-respect. It has very little to do with where you work or what your official job description is — and any such relation is usually coincidental.

Where the Meaning Comes From

All that is to say that the line between meaningful work and a “meaningless job” is almost entirely subjective. Our attitude and our approach do most of the work in defining the fulfillment we find within the professional realm. Sure, you may consider certain jobs to be more tailored toward your skills, interests, and ambitions — and for that reason you may ascribe more value to some jobs than others.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming for something you really want. But just understand that — should you fall short in your aims (and many of us will at some time) — your failure to get the exact job you want will have little to do with your long-term professional satisfaction. No job will ever provide anyone with the kind of fulfillment we’re looking for. That comes only from our individual approach to our work — something that no mere job should ever be able to control.

At the end of the day, there are no such things as “jobs”. There are only people doing work — whatever work they take on or are asked to do. Within that work each day — all across the world — are millions of battles and millions of victories. There are goals met, milestones achieved, and opportunities to feel a rich appreciation for quality work — no matter what that work might be.

I am by no means saying people should settle for where they are. But I am saying that we should never allow a bankrupt hierarchy of occupations to rob ourselves and others of the opportunity to extract real meaning from whatever work we happen to do. It’s the lest we can do for each other, and ourselves.

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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