Find Meaning in a Job Well Done

For most of us, work is a fact of life. Whether your paycheck helps care for a family, a home, tuition, or simply what you need to stay alive, we spend a large percentage of our waking hours doing some kind of work.

According to recent research, most of us also have conflicting feelings about our work. Over 84 percent of men and 77 percent of women say that, even if they had enough money to get by without working, they would continue to work because of the satisfaction it provides. But when these same people were asked if they would rather be doing something else at that moment, by far the largest number of "yes" answers came from those who were at work at the time.

Studies of adolescents indicate that ambivalence about work develops early. High school students report viewing their schoolwork and part-time jobs as being important for the future, and say that they get positive self-esteem from their accomplishments. But most prefer to spend their time doing less important things that don't require concentration—even though they don’t provide the same payoff in terms of self-esteem or future benefits.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. Who doesn’t know that it’s more fun to do something pleasant, rather than something tedious that needs to be done? Or that successfully finishing something helps you feel good about yourself? Life is about choices. You can’t have it all, can you?

Maybe not. But here's the real question: Is there a way to make the necessary-but-unpleasant things-we-have-to-do more enjoyable? If you discover how to do that, you’ve really hit the jackpot in terms of building the foundation for a satisfying and rewarding lifestyle.

There are different theories about this, ranging from the "living in the moment" philosophy of Buddhism to the "quest for excellence" that’s popular in both business and human potential circles. But translating these theories into real-life strategies can be challenging.

One way to make it more concrete is to look at the realm of athletics, where play and work often come together naturally in interesting and instructive ways. Here’s an example from my own recent experience.

A few months ago, I became unmotivated to do my normal exercise routine. This came as a shock, because I’ve enjoyed exercising ever since I got back into it several years and many pounds ago—in fact, I’ve even been pretty compulsive about it at times. But all of a sudden, it was getting harder and harder to talk myself into going to the gym, and even when I did, I didn't like it much. I tried all the things I always tell others—switching up my routine, challenging myself, trying new exercises. (If you want to see something funny, watch a guy my age and size trying to keep up with the spandex crowd in the 9 a.m. Spinning class.) I even put on a few pounds thanks to reduced exercise—usually enough to scare me back onto the stairclimber, no matter how bored I am. But not this time.

Then an old friend came to town for a short visit. While we were out walking around, she noticed one of our local mountains and asked if there were any hiking trails on it. We checked around and found that there were, and against my better judgment, I agreed to go with her on a hike the next day. The trail guide said it was only a 1,300 foot rise in elevation over 1.25 miles, and no technical climbing skills were needed. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than 45 minutes on the stairclimber, which told me I climbed 200 floors.

Climbing that mountain the next day resembled the stairclimber about as much as skydiving resembles sliding down a slide. The first half wasn’t too bad—just simple uphill walking on a marked trail that was steep enough elevate my heart rate into the 80 percent range, but otherwise straightforward. But then the nice, wide trail disappeared, and the rest of the trip involved scrambling up long, steep gullies filled with boulders that were definitely not arranged like stepping stones. It took me a full hour of very heavy breathing to make it up that last half mile, and the trip back down took even longer. I think I got passed by everyone else on the mountain that day—twice by some people, including a family with twin girls who jumped from boulder to boulder and passed me as if I was standing still (which I often was, afraid to move unless there was something to hold onto).

By the time we got back down to the bottom, I was a complete mental and physical wreck—sore everywhere, too many scrapes to count, and muscles in knots from the tension of climbing and feeling certain that I'd fall off the mountain at any moment.

Despite that, I couldn’t wait until the next day that I could come back and do it again. I knew I had found my new favorite exercise.

In case you’re wondering, I am not a masochist or a compulsive exerciser. After thinking about it for a few weeks, this new activity appeals to me because:
  • It requires focused attention. I can't navigate those boulders without paying very close and constant attention to what I'm doing—finding the easiest path, figuring out where to put my feet, what I can hold onto, and so on. If I let my mind wander the way it does on the stairclimber, very bad things could happen.
  • It utilizes a combination of skills and abilities. Making it up and down the mountain required just as much—even more—endurance than an hour on the stairclimber. But it also required balance, coordination, planning, using muscles in various combinations, and especially, self-awareness. Feeling too tired or weak to continue when I'm halfway up a mountain is not a good situation, so it’s necessary to listen to all the signals my body is sending about how much more I can handle. I can’t just turn the mountain off and head for the showers when I reach my limit.
  • It allows for personal creativity and control. Finding my own path, choosing my own speed, discovering my own strengths and limitations and then challenging them—these things give hiking a much different "feel" than the stairclimber and make it more satisfying than even the best gym workout.
All three of these characteristics—quality of attention, use of multiple skills and talents, and personal creativity and control—are involved in finding satisfaction and meaning in any kind of work. Doing work the same way you’ve done it a million times before is going to be less stimulating, less meaningful, and less rewarding than it could be.

You might assume that this has more to do with the nature of your work than how you are approaching your work. I certainly thought (at first) that hiking up a mountain instead of a stairclimber made all the difference in my experience. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my attitude and approach accounted for much of the difference.

I’m not trying to suggest that everything you do can (or should) be as challenging, interesting, or rewarding as your first attempt to hike a difficult mountain. There are only so many ways you can fill out the same form over and over, do the laundry, or explain to people why they shouldn’t eat too few calories. But you can focus on aspects of your work that have meaning. Why are you filling out that form, and what difference might it make to someone else if you finish it today instead of a couple of days from now? How happy and special will your kids feel when they find their favorite clothes clean and ready to wear again? What does the person on the receiving end of your words really need to hear, and how can you say that in a helpful way?

If you want to make the things you need to do as satisfying as the things you like to do, find ways to personalize your efforts so that you are paying close attention to what you’re doing, using as many of your skills and abilities (including imagination) as you can, taking control of your own attitude, and being as creative as possible. The better you get at this, the more every action you take will contribute to your own satisfaction and happiness.