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Meaning at work is important in the best of times. For businesses, it’s a key ingredient for growth. Personally, it’s always helped me focus my energy.
But right now meaning has taken on, well, a whole new meaning.
Anxiety over the coronavirus, concerns around the economy, loss of workplace rituals and more have destabilized the world of work, not to mention the world at large. Establishing your “why” on the job is arguably more important than ever.
Of course, with so many people out of work right now, questioning whether your work brings you meaning can feel like a luxury. But delving into these questions can help in making sense of your current situation and finding the next opportunity.
There’s no one way to define “meaning.” For some people, it’s rooted in giving back to the community. For others, it’s a matter of personal fulfillment or noble purpose. With some, it’s about money. But as I’ve scaled multiple companies from startups to global players, I’ve found three questions especially useful in helping me and my team reflect on the significance of our work:
Impact: Are you having a multiplying effect?
Impact is one of those buzzwords. While it means something different for everyone, at root it comes down to something fairly simple for me. Are your actions having a multiplying effect — on the business, on other people, on the world? Are you empowering individuals and groups to do more than they could without you? Maybe you’re a front-line worker and your impact is immediately clear. But impact can also be found at unexpected times and in overlooked places.
We make AI-powered robots for warehouse fulfillment — super cool, but maybe not the most earth-changing work at first glance. But when our robots went online recently inside one distribution center, the employees there actually gave a standing ovation. I’ll never forget that — they were that relieved and excited to have additional support and help during a time of increased volume due to the pandemic. In a flash, I saw that my work really mattered and was rippling out in so many ways.
You might be thinking, “What about sales and profitability and hitting customer quotas? Isn’t that what impact is all about?” Trust me, I’m a big KPIs guy and wear my MBA credentials with pride. But to me, impact is deeper than achieving quarterly goals. You can’t always put a number on it, and that’s OK.
Learning: Are you smarter than yesterday?
College, advanced degrees, training, diplomas — those kinds of learning are obviously important for building a career. But when it comes to finding meaning at work, the kind of learning I’m talking about is a little more immediate. To paraphrase Charles Munger, it’s asking if you’re a little wiser at day’s end than you were at the beginning.
We’re curious animals by nature. Learning something new is invigorating. Going through the same routine, day after day, just isn’t. There’s a virtuous cycle in play here, too — the more you learn, the more engaged you are in your career, boosting individual skills and fulfillment and building business competitiveness.
Recently, for example, our CEO and chief scientist discussed the science behind how AI- and robotics-driven warehouse systems actually work. It turns out that automating feet — what many robots do — is relatively simple. But mastering hands is the tricky part. The digital coordination that enables a robot to pick up a tomato without crushing it, for example, is the real Holy Grail.
I have a business background. Listening to this technical presentation, surrounded by a roomful of robotics PhDs, was the definition of learning something new to me. And it made me that much more committed and engaged to the work I do.
Joy: Do you catch yourself having fun?
Work isn’t always fun. “That’s why they call it work,” my dad would say. I think companies that portray jobs as one continuous foosball game/happy hour are either good at marketing or fooling themselves. But moments of joy — not just satisfaction, but real joy — are absolutely critical.
Months ago when I joined the team, our go-to-market group was five people. Now that number has grown exponentially. On a recent Zoom call, it suddenly struck me how far the team had come. There was joy for me in that moment. That meeting, even though we may have been talking about customer prospect lists or revenue targets, was truly fun.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the work-hard/party-hard type of “fun.” Rather, it’s a feeling of delight and optimism around your job. And while its forms may vary, the research on the value of fun doesn’t: it’s key to employee health, creativity, productivity and engagement.
In my experience, having fun is usually the natural outgrowth of answering “yes” to the first two questions. When you can truly see you’re having an impact, when you feel you’ve mastered something new, work can become fun.
Using these questions in the real world
To be clear, I don’t believe you have to answer yes to all three of these questions all of the time (though that would be great). But if you can’t answer yes to most of the questions, most of the time, finding real meaning in your work can be a struggle.
I remember when that happened to me in a previous role. At heart, I’m a startup builder, and we had built an incredible company. But that growth stage was coming to a close. The genuine fun was missing, which affected my ability to make an impact and grow.
What do you do in those situations? Sometimes it’s about switching up the nature of a role — moving to different projects, engaging with different colleagues. And sometimes, you just have to be honest with yourself. To find meaning again, I needed to leave.
Ultimately, one antidote to the uncertainty in the world right now can be assessing the value you’re bringing to your company, colleagues, customers, community and yourself. 2020 has invited us all to do some deeper soul searching and demand more from our work — for all the challenges this year has brought, that’s one unexpected upside.
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