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I’m primarily a visual learner, which means podcasts haven’t been commonly queued up on my iPhone. However, I’ve also been walking the dog a lot lately, and while the Goldendoodle is cute as heck, he’s not much of a conversationalist. So, I recently tuned into a podcast on NPR called Hidden Brain. The episode I checked out (Dream Jobs) dealt with how people experience their jobs, and what gives some of us the ability to thrive in our jobs while others spiritually perish.
Most of us over the age of twenty-five know there is no such thing as the perfect job. There are jobs that are better matches for us, jobs that pay better, jobs that have better schedules, jobs we enjoy, and jobs we simply can’t stomach. But from the purely objective perspective, perfection in a job doesn’t exist.
And one of the reasons why this perfection is never realized is that the vast majority of us come at jobs from a flawed point of view. We think if we can somehow match our strengths and knowledge to those required by a job, find something with the income we desire, or the schedule our children need, then we will be happy, satisfied — fulfilled by our job.
But that kind of fulfilment doesn’t come from the job itself, but rather the way in which we use the job to further our own greater purpose.
Purpose is something many of us only think about when we’re sick or old, or sitting in church. It’s the reason we exist, the thing that makes us want to get up in the morning, or go out in the cold. It’s more complicated than merely loving our families, or donating to the local animal shelter. Purpose is the biggest picture view of what you’re here to do. And as the Dream Jobs podcast reveals, fulfilling our purpose can make even the most mundane job into a dream job.
When I started writing fiction six years ago I did it primarily to see if I could. I wanted to know if I was able to do what the writers I admired so much did. I wanted to know if my ability to write included an imagination adequate for writing fiction.
Once I’d been published, I was hooked. Because not only had I proven I could do it, others (publishers, reviewers, readers) said I could as well. Then I began selling books and getting checks. My new thoughts were, “I can do this, AND I can earn money from it.” It seemed like a dream. Write stories I loved, earn money, receive praise, still be able to pick my kids up from school at three pm.
The problem was, I never once thought about whether writing fiction integrated with my own greater purpose. It was fun, it paid something, and I got to work at home. Boxes checked, case closed.
But as Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University describes, the people who are the most satisfied with their jobs, those who actually seem to have found their dream jobs, aren’t checking off boxes on a list, they’re “crafting” their jobs to fulfill their own greater life purpose.
Wrzesniewki’s studies found that the type of job had very little to do with how people felt about their work. What made the difference was when people went beyond the official expectations and duties to take on those tasks that helped them do something more, something that fed into their personal values and purpose. The hospital maintenance worker who takes the time to sing a song to a comatose patient, or the accountant who guest lectures at the local community college for free. Those tasks aren’t in their job descriptions, but help them achieve greater purpose — to bring comfort to those who are suffering, to further education for those who can’t afford higher education. When we look for ways to use our jobs to pursue our greater purpose, whatever that might be, we gain a level of satisfaction that can’t be found in salary or promotions or flexible schedules.
This concept of “job crafting,” the idea of making a job into something that serves more than what it’s intended, is the secret ingredient many of us didn’t even know we needed. And according to the research, it can make almost any job a “dream job.” We all know happiness in life isn’t found in money or awards or even time, and what Wrzesniewki’s research shows is that isn’t how you find happiness in jobs either. The things that are rarely in our job descriptions and definitely aren’t related to compensation are probably the things that will give our jobs the most meaning and the greatest rewards. But only we can find those things, only we can craft our work world so that it fulfills a greater purpose for each of us personally.
Writing fiction can be a rush, and I love the idea that my books give respite to readers who might need to escape the day-to-day of their lives, but until recently I hadn’t thought much about how it fit into my greater life purpose. It’s caused me to stop and examine what I do and how I do it over and over now. Each element of my job that I took for granted is now being put under the microscope. I’m coming to realize my career as a writer has had very little to do with my personal higher purpose. So, I’m left to try to craft my writing into something more, something greater. I’m calling it worldchanging, and it’s become the foundation for an entirely new and much broader career. I’m redefining my purpose and my work each day, crafting a new niche, looking at things in a whole new way.
Research like Wrzesniewki’s might completely overhaul the way we view work and our role in jobs. And at a moment in our culture when young people are moving away from traditional careers and the types of jobs that built the twentieth century economy, it might be the perfect time to look at our jobs and our lives and find a deeper meaning for both. Yes, jobs put food on the table, but like food itself, there’s no reason a job can’t fill your soul as well as your belly.