There are people who just have a job, and there are others whose work is part of a bigger personal mission in life. Sadly, there are far more people with just jobs.
It’s fairly easy to spot them. They are always tracking how many more days until the weekend. They daydream daily about their retirement and how great life will be when they don’t have to work anymore. Oddly, they often answer my questions with unrelated information. For example, I might ask, “how are you today?” and they respond: “you know, it’s Monday” or “it’s only Tuesday” or “it’s almost Friday.” But I didn’t ask what day of the week it was.
These folks do what they need to do — no more, no less — to get through each day until they desperately make it to the next weekend or vacation, retirement, or until they hopefully win the lottery.
But every so often I have the privilege of meeting someone on the job who is on a personal mission each day. They display everything from excitement to quiet contentment. They are present and happy to be where they are in that moment. Work is not just a job for them—they’ve decided to fulfill a bigger mandate. They are curious and creative about how they can help the people they serve, and aren’t limited by company policies and processes. They are willing to seek and get approval for alternate solutions if it makes sense for the people they serve.
It’s the kindergarten teacher who sees her role as not just teaching 4-6 year olds how to write their names, but an opportunity to help mold the next generation of kind, compassionate, loving children who are excited about learning new things.
She does it one year at a time. Twenty kids at a time.
It’s the plastic surgeon who is able to help restore a patient’s self-confidence after an accident that left their face severely scarred. The surgeon understands that his work will have a deep impact on the patient’s life long after their stitches dissolve.
When you speak with him, it’s clear that he’s grateful to do what he does each day.
I know someone who happily performed an entry level job for 25 years. She wasn’t interested in moving up the corporate ladder because the time commitment for her job met her lifestyle needs. She was responsible for checking the mortgage renewal forms clients sent into the bank, and making sure what was on the form matched what was entered in the system. Are you kidding me? Where’s the higher purpose in that?
Well, from her perspective, her job was critical to customer satisfaction. If a mistake went unchecked, a client could start their relationship with the bank on a negative or stressful note. If their first mortgage payment bounced because it was being taken from the wrong account, or the account was set up with the wrong payment frequency, it created extremely frustrated clients. She took great pride in her work and won many awards over the years for her performance.
The biggest reward was her personal fulfillment and satisfaction. Her job wasn’t something she had to desperately escape from.
There are butchers and bakers and candlestick makers who have a bigger mission in the work they do. Conversely, there are lawyers, operations managers and sales executives who just have jobs.
If you just have a job right now, how do you find a deeper meaning in your work?
First, you have to recognize that it starts with YOU, not the job. The people with a bigger mission have an attitude of contribution, and are always looking for ways they can help—whether they are cleaning bedpans or getting ready to take their company public.
What is your contribution to the world through your work?
Maybe you’re a realtor. How do you link that to a higher mission? Well, without your specific expertise, your clients may buy properties for more money than they need to, or sell their property for less than necessary. Perhaps the process will be more stressful and confusing without your expert guidance.
I do business consulting with large companies and I am motivated by so many things. It’s about working with new people and agreeing and disagreeing on the best path forward. The lively debates challenge us and broaden our thinking. Finding new and better solutions to old problems expands what’s possible, and keeps me excited about the work I do each day.
Gratitude also plays a big role. I don’t care what kind of job you do, I know there are people who would love to switch spots with you. Remember that every day—especially on those inevitable frustrating days. Think your job is crappy? Talk to a university graduate eager to land their first job. Talk to the new immigrant trying to get work experience in their new country to start building their new life.
It’s a privilege to do the work you do. If your job is no longer fulfilling, then start a plan to move to something you prefer. While making that plan, you can still be grateful for what your current job provides — whether it’s money to meet your needs, benefits you use regularly, or critical experience that will allow you to move to the next stage in your career.
If we assume the average person works for 45 years, and averages 40 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year, that adds up to 90,000 working hours in a lifetime. This doesn’t include the conference calls you take at 7:30AM at the drive through while taking the kids to daycare, or the presentation decks you worked on at 8:00AM on a Sunday morning. That’s a lot of time to just tolerate where you are and what you’re doing. You’ll need a huge retirement clock to count down 90,000 hours.
Work will not inspire you every day. You’ll encounter the usual frustrations. If you work long enough, at some point a co-worker may take credit for one of your ideas and someone will eat your lunch from the fridge. Hopefully you can shake these off and still have a good day, even if it’s only a Tuesday.