Teresa Amabile is a psychologist at Harvard Business School. I heard her speak today, and she made the obvious-but-true point that making progress on meaningful work is one key to productivity and happiness at work. (See her TEDTalk). That started me thinking on what constitutes meaningful work for me. I’d love to hear about what makes meaningful work for you!
Meaningfulness for me can come from what I make: a story or a performance, as compared to a dryer document like a report or an outline. Meaningfulness can come from how I make it: by creating, inventing, or synthesizing, rather than listing or analyzing. Meaningfulness can come from who I make it with: a report done with friends is infinitely more fun than one done alone.
Meaningfulness for me combines what I call dry joy and wet joy. Dry joy includes feelings of thankfulness and gratitude, the intellectual sense of “I’m happy to be in this community doing in this work moving in this direction.” Dry joy is an intellectual feeling of rightness. Wet joy is in-the -moment jubilation, the emotional IM from your amygdala saying: “I’m happy!” Find exactly the right word for your character, envision the arc of your plot, and this is what you feel.
Writing and performing are two of the most meaningful activities for me. When I performed with world folk ensemble Northern Harmony, audience members clapped and smiled after our concerts (most of them, at least), and ran up to us afterwards to say “Thank you” in French, German, and Swedish. When I sang in college, an audience member once told us “I felt a tsunami of emotion.” It’s this constant feed-back and emotional connection that can make performing so powerful. Writing is meaningful for me because I think most readers appreciate being in the hands of a good writer. Stunning sentences make us stare at the ceiling. And remember how we devoured books as kids!
I think about meaning in relation to potential summer job opportunities in environmental mediation and creative business consulting. Environmental mediation could be meaningful for me because I am “helping the environment” or “helping people solve problems”. But this so abstract! I would need to a see a stream that is now clean, salmon that now run free, or people who now talk to each other to see the meaning in this work.
I’m not sure if business consulting could be meaningful. In fact, it could be destructive of meaning and corruptive of morals, not to put too fine a point on it. But could a creative process make consulting meaningful? Could a team of smart people? Could a call from a company CEO saying, “This changed my life?” Could the mere act of getting feedback on work – any work – make it meaningful because feedback enables growth and progress? Is that enough to transform a business consultant into more than a knee-jerk enabler of capitalism? I don’t know.
Question: The folks at the Good Work project have done a lot of work on meaningful work . What makes work meaningful for you?