Meaning, purpose and action

Why does work sometimes seem like hard work, and at other times, not like work at all? Watching the Bonus Material on any movie DVD, one begins to suspect that the current fascination with film stars might not be about lifestyle as much as about workways. Their jobs seem like fun. Who hasn’t been captivated by the sense of camaraderie, purpose and creative achievement of working on a film project? Of course, there are the stories of endless hours of standing around while some technician figures out exactly how to bounce the light off Scarlett Johansson’s nose. So how is it, then, that everyone, from the director right down to the third assistant driver, seems to be fully on board and motivated right to the end?

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s intentions are clearly to lift everybody’s sights a little higher; to touch the deep desire in every individual to reach beyond the ho-hum ordinariness of life. But while it’s easy to see how a director might transform her deeply felt “yearnings” into a visionary film project, does it inspire the third assistant driver in the same way? And if we’re all out yearning for seas vast and endless, does that mean there’s no one to gather wood, as it were? What, then, motivates the third assistant driver to leap out of bed every morning?

The relationship between work and meaning has kept people busy for centuries, from Industrial Revolution philosophers and economists Adam Smith (touting efficiency) and Karl Marx (fighting the alienation of divided labour) right down to Henry Ford (more efficiency, but this time with a sense of service) who would state that “There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.” But, again: can a worker attaching brakes to cars in Cowley find a sense of accomplishment in a Mini rolling off the lot in, say, Manchester or London? Does a sense of service really give purpose to his actions? Is it motivating enough to know that someone narrowly skidding to a halt in Hammersmith will be grateful he did a good job?

Perhaps. But as contemporary behavioural economist Dan Ariely points out in his TEDx talk, "What makes us feel good about our work", we’ve shifted from an Industrialized Economy in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries to a Knowledge Economy in the 21st. As we do so, our motivations change along with how we construct meaning. Today when asked what they want to do, university students are still likely to answer “I want to do something meaningful with my life.” While many engage in volunteer activities, especially if their desire to bask on Brazilian beaches can dovetail with a stint constructing houses outside of Rio de Janeiro, they often come back with an even stronger desire to see meaning in their work. More than ever, people seem to want clearer and closer connections between what they do every day and the outcomes they share with the world around them.

In many ways, pre-Industrial Revolution models in which individuals were more wholly invested in what they were producing and integrated into the society around them seem to be making a comeback. For instance, Google, planted squarely in the Knowledge Economy, states that its worker benefits are “…designed to take care of the whole you and keep you healthy, whether physically, emotionally, financially or socially.” Many companies also realize that by creating spaces and opportunities for workers to share and collaborate, by improving their work environment, and by making work and office seem more akin to play and home, they are narrowing the gap between bed and desk. They’re also tapping into the individual’s deep yearning to be more than a nameless cog in a churning wheel.

So, maybe it’s not so much that every single individual needs to be inspired to fulfil a personal vision, but that each person wants to contribute to work that is meaningful. In this scheme of things, then, it doesn’t matter if you direct a film or chauffeur the director, as long as you feel the project you are contributing to through your effort has a purpose. It’s when that connection between meaning and purpose disappears that action begins to slow down. Called in to discover the reasons for the lacklustre performance of a team of engineers who previously worked on the Apollo space project, hiring strategist Lou Adler was surprised to find that their new project was nearly identical, in terms of daily work, to putting a man on the moon. Why, then, were they so unenthusiastic? The lack of a greater purpose, Adler found, “impacted the quality of their work, their motivation, and their team skills.” They simply couldn’t get fired up about aiming ballistic missiles in the same way.

Simply compensating employees financially for their efforts isn’t enough, either. Researchers have found that when extra monetary compensation is poised against greater job fulfilment, employees will often seek more fulfilling jobs. It’s when individual action is seen to directly contribute to a greater purpose, and when employees feel their efforts as individuals are recognised, that they are likelier to find fulfilment. In short: for them, meaning, purpose, and action meet in achievement. Thus, the director of the next big cinema release doesn’t need to know the name of her third assistant driver. Indeed, they may never have occasion to meet. But if they do, his ability to share in her vision of the “vast and endless sea” rests on her recognition of the small but crucial part he plays in making that vision a reality. She might begin by asking what he finds meaningful in making movies.

Frederic Marc