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Are You A Janitor Or A Healer?

Two articles were published recently on the state of modern work. The first article was titled, “Wealthy, Successful and Miserable.” It was written by Charles Duhigg and was published in The New York Times Magazine. The second was titled “Workism is Making Americans Miserable.” It was written by Derek Thompson and published in The Atlantic.

Duhigg tells of his attendance at the 15th reunion of his Harvard Business School class. It came as a bit of a shock to learn how unhappy so many of his former classmates were in their professional lives. In fact, many were just downright miserable. He says that for so many their work was unfulfilling, tedious, and in some cases just plain bad. He spoke to one of his classmates who made $1.2 million a year and yet hated going to work.

In his research, Duhigg found that workers want to feel as if their labor is meaningful, that you are making the world better. In interviewing Barry Schwartz, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he says

“You can be a salesperson or a toll collector, but if you see your goal as solving people’s problems, then each day presents 100 opportunities to improve someone’s life, and your satisfaction increases dramatically.”

In Thompson’s article in The Atlantic, he has a different take on modern work. He says:

“The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.

The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

When this happens, you end up with the unintended consequences of the fear of failure, worrying what people think of you, and this great need to impress and prove to the world you are successful. It causes us to become consumed with impression management, always seeking to manage your outer public world that everyone sees.

This too can lead to misery as you lose sight of the work itself and its purpose. Thompson believes that we must persuade our young people that income and status are not nearly as important as finding purpose in our work.

Dorothy Sayers observed that during World War II many people in the military found themselves doing work that was vastly more satisfying than their ordinary careers. Why?

“For the first time in their lives, they found themselves doing something, not for the pay” – army pay was miserable – “and not for the status” – everyone was just thrown in together – “but for the sake of getting something done for us all.”

One of the best examples of how purpose and meaning influences job satisfaction is found in a study that is mentioned by Duhigg. It was published in 2001:

“Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale and Jane Dutton, now a distinguished emeritus professor at the University of Michigan — wanted to figure out why particular janitors at a large hospital were so much more enthusiastic than others. So they began conducting interviews and found that, by design and habit, some members of the janitorial staff saw their jobs not as just tidying up but as a form of healing. One woman, for instance, mopped rooms inside a brain-injury unit where many residents were comatose. The woman’s duties were basic: change bedpans, pick up trash. But she also sometimes took the initiative to swap around the pictures on the walls, because she believed a subtle stimulation change in the unconscious patients’ environment might speed their recovery. She talked to other convalescents about their lives. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” she told the researchers. “That is not really part of my job description, but I like putting on a show for them.” She would dance around, tell jokes to families sitting vigil at bedsides, try to cheer up or distract everyone from the pain and uncertainty that otherwise surrounded them. In a 2003 study led by the researchers, another custodian described cleaning the same room two times in order to ease the mind of a stressed-out father.”

To some, the moral might seem obvious: If you see your job as healing the sick, rather than just swabbing up messes, you’re likely to have a deeper sense of purpose whenever you grab the mop. But what’s remarkable is how few workplaces seem to have internalized this simple lesson. “There are so many jobs where people feel like what they do is relatively meaningless,” Wrzesniewski says. “Even for well-paid positions, or jobs where you assume workers feel a sense of meaning, people feel like what they’re doing doesn’t matter.”

I leave you with one of my favorite stories about work and perspective:

One of the world’s great architects was a man by the name of Christopher Wren. He designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which was built between 1675 and 1710. During construction, everything was tirelessly performed by hundreds of workers since there were no machines or equipment to assist with their work.

One day, Wren was examining the job site, where the workers trudged away at their laborious task. There was nothing enjoyable about it.

Suddenly, Wren noticed an older man who was mixing cement in a mortar box. The man seemed to enjoy his work, wearing a smile on his face. As he watched this man mix the mortar, he finally asked him:

“Mister, what are you doing?” The man replied, “Sir, I am building a great cathedral to the glory of God.”

I am sure that most of the men working on the cathedral saw their work as drudgery and considered it as nothing more than a way to make a living. However, this older man had a completely different experience because of his perspective.

Wren saw himself engaged in a noble task of great significance, and it changed everything.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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