What does ‘meaningful’ mean, anyway?

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

I recently finished a book called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, the same guy who wrote The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Outliers is all about how opportunity, circumstance and (sometimes) dumb luck is all that separates the extraordinary few from the ordinary many. He takes the successes of such people as Bill Gates and The Beatles and looks at why and how they became what they are today. It’s not because they were ordained or chosen or any more special than you or I, Gladwell argues. But… I won’t ruin the book for you because I highly recommend it.

In any case, in the fifth chapter “The Three Lessons of Joe Flom,” Gladwell brought to my attention something I had never noticed before. He says:

When Borgenicht came home at night to his children, he may have been tired and poor and overwhelmed, but he was alive. He was his own boss. He was responsible for his own decisions and direction. His work was complex: it engaged his mind and imagination. And in his work, there was a relationship between effort and reward: the longer he and Regina stayed up at night sewing aprons, the more money they made the next day on the streets.

Those three things — autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward — are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us.

Autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward. Why hadn’t that ever occurred to me before?

As of right now, my job affords me only one of those qualities: complexity. And even that happens sparingly, if at all.

Gladwell goes on:

Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful. Being a teacher is meaningful. Being a physician is meaningful. So is being an entrepreneur…

When you put it like that, it’s not hard to see why so many people hate their jobs.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that not every teacher skips to work, excited for what the day will bring. But their job means something. At the end of the day they choose their lessons and they decide the best way to teach it. Their jobs are challenging because they must find the best way to educate all of their students so they can be as ready as possible to move on to the next grade. And the connection between effort and reward can be seen when the students are tested and prove to have learned something. Their job has all the criteria.

I also know that we can’t all be teachers and physicians and entrepreneurs. So how do the rest of us find meaningful work in our nine to fives? What kind of autonomy does a cubicle worker have? Where is the complexity in an entry-level job? And how do you find a connection between effort and reward in a desk job that pays you the same whether you work hard or hardly work?

I mean, now that I know what real meaningful work is… it seems like there aren’t a whole lot of nine to fives that fit that bill. And that just seems… well… mean!

Here is what I know: I know that in order to be truly happy, I will need to pursue a career that has the three qualities of meaningful work. I know that I will need to take a more entrepreneurial approach to thinking, as scary as that may be. And I know that this new career may not afford me the luxury of a nine to five, monday through friday lifestyle.

But if the work is meaningful to me, work won’t feel like work anyway.

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