Work Culture

Finding the “why” in work


Published on February 28, 2020

On September 30, 2018, professional mountaineers and life partners Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson stood on top of Lhotse, Everest’s neighbor and the fourth highest mountain in the world.

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Hiking 27,940 feet into the dizzyingly thin air had taken serious commitment—29 days of commitment. The snow coating the Himalayan summit was waist-deep and shedding off a rocky point at the top of the mountain. Then there was the perilous exposure, narrowly missed avalanches, and a pitch so steep they could have fallen backwards into the icy sea thousands of feet below. 

Yet one of the world’s most coveted ski lines now stood below them. No one had ever skied this couloir. In fact, it was considered one of the last great untouched ski lines in the world, and for good reason. An obvious ski line in a highly trafficked region of the Himalayas, the Lhotse couloir has scared away even the bravest and most competent big mountain skiers for decades. At least 12 attempts had been made before. Each party turned back. 

What drove this duo to accomplish the seemingly impossible? For Morrison, flirting with death provides solace after tasting death all too fully. In March 2011, Morrison’s wife, a seasoned pilot, was flying home to Tahoe from LA with their two children, ages 5 and 6. The plane flew into an ice storm and crashed. No one survived. 

“Climbing mountains is a large part of what’s allowed me to go on,” Morrison says. “The mountains have kept me alive, and they keep me going.”

A profession of risk management has liberated Morrison to live. “I wanted to focus on what was beautiful, special, and full of life,” he says. “That’s what Lhotse was for me.”

For Nelson, leaving her own two children behind on these trips riddles her with guilt. She went through a painful divorce several years ago. But her children also serve as a primary motivator. “I want my kids to not just see me as their mom but also as a passionate person,” Nelson said. “Their mom, plus.”

While Morrison and Nelson’s vocations are extreme, examining this end of the spectrum sheds light on a universal truth: Finding purpose in work is essential for both job performance and satisfaction. You’re not going to make it up the mountain if you don’t know why you’re trying.

Lack of purpose is a problem

We don’t have to dive too deep into the annals of nihilism to recognize that purpose is essential to life. Given we spend nearly a quarter of our lives at work, we yearn for purpose in our jobs, too.

“Purpose is so powerful that it can keep you motivated—alive even—in the darkest of circumstances,” says Emily Eliza Moyer, a career & leadership coach. “It’s not about fleeting moments of joy or following passion. It’s not really even about modern-day definitions of happiness. Purpose can be quite challenging, in fact. What it does, however, is motivate you to keep going, to charge forward, to persist with resilience from your deepest source of strength.”

The problem is less than a third of full-time American workers are engaged at work. This is destructive on both a personal and company-wide level. While nearly all—89%—of employers believe people leave for more money, only 12% actually do.

While many of us work in jobs that we don’t find purposeful, we do have the power to do something about that.

While many of us work in jobs that we don’t find purposeful, we do have the power to do something about that.

What is your passion?

The first step in finding meaning in your work is to identify and organize what you are passionate about. Maybe that’s a hobby. Or maybe you derive meaning through family or religion. “Make a list of the biggest sources of meaning in your life,” says organizational psychologist Adam Grant, and then ask yourself a one-word question about each: Why?

Grant conducts this exercise to get to the heart of what people truly care about in an activity. He continues: “When I ask that next question, eventually they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s just important to me. It’s just who I am.’ And at that point you’ve reached what psychologists would call a ‘core value.’” 

Core values don’t help you achieve something else—they’re just intrinsically significant to you. There are two ways you can wield these core values to make work more meaningful.

The first is by connecting the parts of your job that you don’t find meaningful to a core value. “For example, answering emails can seem trivial,” Grant says. “But when I remember that it’s connected to one of my core values—responsiveness—it takes on a new meaning. Instead of focusing on the boring aspects of replying, my attention shifts to the meaningful act of helping.”

Job crafting

The other trick involves weaving your core values into your job. There’s even a psychological term for doing this: job crafting. Psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton coined the term in their research. In a Yale School of Management Study, Wrzesniewski spoke with custodial staff at a hospital about their low-skilled, low-paid jobs to find what strategies they employ to find satisfaction. Job crafting was the result. It doesn’t entail changing your work. Rather, job crafting means carefully crafting how you think about your work. 

In the study, one group acted how you would expect. Workers talked about how their jobs were not highly skilled, how they did not enjoy them, and how they only stuck with them for the benefits. These people described their jobs in the same language as the official job description. In contrast, the second group described the same exact jobs in completely different terms. These janitors viewed their work as highly skilled. They used “rich relational terms” to describe their interactions with patients and visitors. And many workers talked about going above and beyond to learn about the patients whose rooms they cleaned, in some cases figuring out which cleaning chemicals irritated patients the least. “It was not just that they were taking the same job and feeling better about it, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and whistling,” researchers reported. “It was that they were doing a different job.”

This second, happier group did not see themselves as custodial workers at all. When asked what their jobs were, some answered, “I’m an ambassador for the hospital.” One person even said, “I’m a healer. I create sterile spaces in the hospital. My role here is to do everything I can to promote the healing of the patients.” One worker described forming such a strong bond with patients that she writes letters to some of them after they leave the hospital. Another worker noticed which patients received few or no visitors and would return to their rooms to spend more time with them. A janitor assigned to cleaning the rooms of patients in comas moved the paintings around the rooms in hopes the change in scenery might spark their brains back into action. 

Wrzesniewski and Dutton realized their workers were turning what could’ve been dull and demeaning work into work they found valuable. They were repositioning how they viewed the work they’d been assigned. In other words, they were “job crafting.” These psychologists believe this practice can bring happiness and satisfaction to all types of jobs. Even mountaineers like Morrison and Nelson can be considered expert job crafters. Through one lens, they climb, ski, and hike mountains for a living. Through another, they are pioneers of the human frontier, breaking barriers of what’s possible. 

In fact, we can all reframe our work to make it more meaningful. Wrzesniewski and her coworkers have conducted more studies to prove this point. Their research suggests that no matter your disposition, you can actively work to elevate your job into something closer to your values. They created a “Job Crafting Exercise” to help workers recognize how they can transform the functions of their job in a way that aligns with their passions and strengths. 

Like dating, the key with a job is to find something that clicks—and then improve it. While some people are inclined to jump at the first job opportunity available, others suffer from a sense of infinite possibility. They need the absolute perfect match, a perspective that can crush us. No job is perfect. “You should find one that’s terrific,” Wrzesniewski says, “and figure out how to make it even better.”

Striving to make your job better does not mean aiming to do whatever you want at the office. In addition to reframing your mentality, Grant suggests that you pitch your boss a satisfying side project that will take up about 10% of your time. 

"Answering emails can seem trivial,” Grant says. “But when I remember that it’s connected to one of my core values—responsiveness—it takes on a new meaning."

Find your friends

We can cultivate meaning in work itself, and we can find meaning in the ritual of going to work by building a community. Think Jim and Pam from The Office. Both seem to genuinely relish coming into work every day. And it’s not because Jim enjoys talking paper weights, sizes, and price points, or because Pam loves answering the phones. “Seriously, if you left here,” Pam says to Jim, “I would blow my brains out.” Cultivating their friendship is Jim and Pam’s purpose at work. 

But building a full-on work marriage isn’t necessary either. Grant suggests bringing together a group of colleagues for a communal activity that feels meaningful. For example, start a book club. “I saw that happen in multiple organizations where people said, ‘You know what’s really meaningful to me about my job is helping other people to learn. But I don’t get to do that very often, and if I could gather a group of people who all wanted to learn together, I would feel like I’m contributing something to their lives,’” says Grant. It’s a fun way to add a serving of extra meaning to your work. 

In fact, a Gallup poll shows that employees who have best friends at work are seven times more likely to be highly engaged at work than those who don’t. The water cooler isn’t the only place to spark these bonds. According to psychologist and author Wendy Ulrich, leaders can facilitate healthy relationships by inviting coworkers to get to know each other through team lunches and offsites and by celebrating personal wins both in and outside of work. She also says leaders can notice people acting kindly and validate those actions by thanking them. Lastly, leaders can coach people in relational skills, such as listening, showing interest in others, and apologizing sincerely. Learning and practicing these types of skills both help people enjoy the company of others and make them more likable.

Ulrich says people who learn to create and maintain work friendships receive more than just friends at work. They’re less likely to experience stress at home. They’re more effective with customers. And the organization benefits from better communication.

Leading to purpose

There is an old fable about how people feel differently about the meaning of their work if they believe they are building a cathedral to God rather than simply working as bricklayers. Leaders play an important role in transforming employees into cathedral-builders.

“When we ask workshop participants to identify leaders who shaped their lives, everyone can quickly name someone,” David Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan and the other co-author of The Why of Work said. “These leaders generally model the principles of abundance in their personal lives and work to instill them in others.” Ulrich continues that leaders who are meaning-makers understand how their good intentions need to manifest in good behaviors. Their personal values need to transcend to their actions on a day-to-day basis. And they understand that their job as a leader goes beyond being authentic themselves. Their job also involves cultivating that authenticity in others. 

Leaders are meaning makers. We find meaning when we see a connection between what we value and what we’re doing. Unlike with Morrison and Nelson, this connection isn’t always obvious. Leaders are primed to articulate that connection by illustrating the values of a company and how they resonate with them. This includes telling stories of how your company improves people’s lives. Stories about human impact are hugely motivating to employees.

The power of purpose

Whether it’s through job crafting, making friends, following the leader, or directly linking your passions to your work, we can find a why for any path. Even Morrison and Nelson, whose job is their passion, sometimes question what they’re doing. Does this career make her a bad mother? A good one? “I don’t know,” Nelson asked Sports Illustrated about her career. “I tell myself a lot that the risks I take and the places I go are eventually good for my kids, and that they’re learning about their mom as an individual, too, as a person seeing that I have a passion and I’m in tune with that in living a life.”

Morrison knows he’s using achievement as therapy. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. “To a large degree, the mountains saved my life,” he said. “They created a space for me to thrive and find happiness and feel alive and feel like I have something I can accomplish.” 

Less extreme than traversing Lhotse, one study at Cornell tasked students with climbing a steep hill on campus known as The Slope. Students who were asked to reflect on their larger purpose before climbing the Slope estimated that the hill was less steep and took less effort than students asked to think about a short-term goal. Applying these findings to the workplace, we learn that incorporating a greater sense of purpose into work enhances our ability to accurately assess the difficulty of a task. In other words, purpose makes us better at our jobs. 

Employing purpose-driven workers benefits companies, too. A Corporate Leadership Council study examining 50,000 employees around the world found that the most committed employees perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave the organization. And engagement translates into company-wide success. Organizations with engaged employees make two and a half times as much in revenue as rival companies with low-engagement levels. 

Ultimately, we control how we perceive reality—and we can work to change that narrative, too.

“You have to take risks if you want to learn anything about yourself,” Nelson says. “You have to expand those self-imposed walls we put around ourselves. That’s what’s interesting to me about the human species. That’s how we create something and have new ideas—by being passionate about something. You don’t have to climb Lhotse to do that.”