When I was kid growing up, I saw work in a very particular way.
A lot of it stems from visiting my Dad at work, when I was 6 or 7. My dad worked in a bank. It wasn’t one of these glass-windowed banks that you see now that looks like a fast-food restaurant. It was a formal, imposing bank, with marble, and big Gothic architecture.
You had to be quiet when you went in. I was told that there were millions of dollars in these giant vaults.
People would come into the bank with a little key, and my father would have a key, and they would go into this special room. They would go in together, use their little keys, and take out these big metal drawers, right out of the wall. Then the people would take the magic drawers, into this other special room, and lock the door behind them. I don’t know what they did, but I was told that the stuff in those drawers was so valuable that they couldn’t even keep it in their own home.
I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh, this is what the world of work is like. It’s so important. These people had things to do and places to be. It’s like they’re making the world.”
Even the media back then reinforced that image. As a kid, my favorite television program was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The characters worked in a newsroom. They had to get the news out every night; this was a big job. And they liked one another; actually, they loved each other. Their work was the centerpiece of their lives, and it mattered. They were happy to be there.
At the end of every show, I remember, the MTM on the screen. I knew Mary owns this program. It was a woman owning a program. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I knew it was a big deal.
For me, the world of work was about importance, it was about ownership, and it was about doing things. These people at work were creating the world, and that was my image.
These people really cared about what they were doing.
Fast-forward 40 years. I’m on a 6:50 a.m. flight to New York City. I’m at the front of the plane. I stand up, and turn around, and I see 150 people. They look so successful, and they also look miserable.
It gives me pause. I think, “These people should be like my dad and Mary Tyler Moore, but they’re not acting that way. Was my impression wrong back then, or is there something wrong with work?
The data tells us that there is something wrong with work. Gallup’s latest numbers indicate that 55 percent of employees are disengaged.
Look at the person in the cubicle next to you. At least one of you hates your job.
The problem is that we treat this issue like a business statistic that goes on a spreadsheet, just like a 25 percent manufacturing failure rate. Employee engagement is not the real problem; it’s a symptom. The real problem is workplace meaning. Lack of meaning at work is costing us more than money. It’s robbing us of our enthusiasm for life.
If you hate your job, it’s only a matter of time before you hate your life. You don’t have to become a firefighter or a nurse to fulfill the childhood fantasy of a meaningful job; you can sell toothpaste.
The secret of meaningful work is shifting your focus from the “what” to the “who.” Instead of focusing on the output of your job, consider who benefits.
When you improve the lives of others at work, your whole life lights up.