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Sherry Moss

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Why We Work: Finding Meaning In Your Job

Posted: 02/02/11 04:01 PM ET

My first exposure to the concept of meaningful work was when "Working," a book by Studs Terkel, was assigned to me in 1985 by the professor in my Human Resources course. Terkel had interviewed 133 workers of every variety and recorded their thoughts. Not being a big reader at the time, I nevertheless read it with gusto -- taking in every story with deep fascination. The summer before, I had accidentally found my calling when I took my first Organizational Behavior class. I realized then that I had always been interested in the world of Work. From as early as I can remember, I wanted a job. I wanted to earn money and would do just about anything to get it. I was also fascinated with what working people did. I went to work with my Dad and was always given a "project" for which I could earn some money from the petty cash box.

A few years later, I myself taught an Organization Behavior class for the first time as a young doctoral student. I read passages from "Working" to my class, hoping it would incite discussion about the meaning of work and whether people were happy with their jobs.

It was only after I reread the book recently that I remembered the pessimistic tone of the introductory chapter and of most of the interviews documented therein. I began to wonder if people at the time of the original interviews (the early 1970s) were really that miserable or if Terkel somehow cast his own dark interpretation on each subject as he or she was interviewed. Did the majority of these workers truly not find any joy or satisfaction in their working lives? Did they really find no meaning in the activity which took up most of their waking hours? I found that idea incredibly depressing.

In my 20 years as a university professor (mostly teaching young MBA students), I've thought deeply about the lives for which my colleagues and I were preparing our students. I find myself wondering what it would be like to work at various organizations, doing various jobs. Mostly, I wonder whether the people in my life find any meaning in what they do.

But what exactly is meant by "the meaning of work"? I didn't know, so that's what I set out to understand. I highlighted many passages and took copious notes on Terkel's interviewees. Even though I'm sure Terkel was trying to document the misery and dissatisfaction of the workplace, there were a number of interviews with workers who described joy and meaning. I was able to formulate a list of ways that people find meaning in their work, such as seeing a tangible outcome from one's work (e.g. the bricklayer), status/prestige (e.g. the stewardess and the mailman) and importance to society (e.g. the garbage man). While I felt I had gotten a start in identifying the various sources of meaning, it was clear that I had not reached the saturation point. My findings were limited by the types of employees interviewed, the historical context and the questions asked by Terkel.

Next, I chose a more modern and less negative book of interviews of working people -- "Gig." "Gig" was written in 2000 and was a more neutral attempt to document the sentiments of working people. Reading "Gig" supplied me with evidence to support my original sources of meaning derived from "Working," but also revealed many more sources: a sense of calling (e.g. medicine woman), helping others (e.g. diet center owner, plastic surgeon, florist) and total identification with the organization and its mission (e.g. EPA worker). A total of 19 different sources of meaning were revealed through this process. Others uncovered:

  • Work as a source of fun/energy
  • Complete belief in the product/service one represents
  • Work to support family
  • Work as a sense of duty/obligation
  • Work as basic human dignity
  • Challenge and accomplishment
  • Winning
  • Developing Others
  • Instrumental -- work now to play later
  • Work with the pure goal of making money and becoming rich
  • To set a good example for one's children
  • For independence, control or autonomy
  • To have meaningful relationships with coworkers or others with whom one works


Examples of each source filled the pages of "Gig" and "Working" and gave me hope that there are many ways for people to find meaning at work, even in jobs I would have thought were undesirable in some way.

So, my next venture is to write my own book, with interviews conducted by me -- asking all kinds of workers about the meaning they find in their work. I would like to document the positive side of work and help individuals find meaning in what they do. I also want to help organizations find sources of meaning for their employees.

If you find meaning in your work, please respond to this post and tell me about it! If your work is totally devoid of meaning, I'd like to know about that, too. Either way, consider sharing your thoughts with me and the world. You can identify yourself or be anonymous. You can choose whether to identify your organization. But please, tell me a little bit about the kind of work you do, your title and whether or not your work is meaningful to you. If you'd like to contact me directly because you think you'd be a good interviewee for my book, please email me at mosss@wfu.edu. I can't wait to hear from you!