When new grads think about their career options, many envision a dichotomy: you sell your soul for a paycheck, or you do meaningful work while living on rice and beans.
The reality is more nuanced, says Tom Rath, whose new book Are You Fully Charged? explores what makes people more engaged at work. “I always thought of meaning as this grand thing that happens over decades or descends from heaven,” he tells me, but it’s actual a very practical concept. Any job can be made more meaningful. “My hunch is that more than half of us are doing pretty meaningful work in the span of a given day, we’re just not connecting the dots very well.”
So how do you connect the dots to find meaning? First, ask the right question. “Inherent in the definition of meaning is that it’s doing something that improves another person’s life,” Rath says. So ask yourself, “What are the things I’m going to do today that create some kind of net benefit for another person?” A call center worker who takes someone from irate to neutral has created a net benefit for the world. A security guard who gives someone directions has, too. You don’t have to be curing cancer; solving a bug in a software program that helps family members connect better is helping the world as well. “Keep the person you’re supposed to be serving in mind,” says Rath. If you do, you’re bound to find work more meaningful.
Second, recognize that you can create meaning by having a positive impact on the people around you. People who want more meaning at work “do things that help colleagues to have better days,” says Rath. Smile at people. Ask how your colleagues are doing and then pay attention to the answer. “Asking a colleague a question and closing your own mouth and listening for a while is one of the most valuable things to do in the workplace.”
Third, work toward a shared mission. As Rath writes in his book, “Whenever possible, get your motivation from doing things that contribute to a collective good. Incentives based on group performance have been shown to boost innovation more than individual incentives,” and coming up with new ideas is a great way to add meaning to work. Plus, focusing on yourself gets boring. “Working toward a shared mission with other people will add a positive charge to each day,” writes Rath.
Finally, recognize that a life is lived in minutes and hours, and consequently a meaningful life is made up of meaningful moments. Small wins tend to matter more for our experienced happiness than the big ones. So focus on today. Any positive interaction is a plus: “Yes, this really does have tangible value that adds up over time,” says Rath. “Acknowledge the victory today so you can do it again tomorrow.”