One of my mom’s favorite stories to tell us as children was the tale of the traveler and the three bricklayers.
In the story, the traveler meets the bricklayers, who are hard at work, and asks them what they’re doing.
The first man responds, “I’m laying bricks.”
The second man responds, “I’m building a church.”
The third man responds, enthusiastically, “I’m building a cathedral!”
Despite each of the bricklayers having the exact same job, their subjective experience varied significantly.
There’s a great takeaway from this parable. When we can see how what we’re doing fits into the whole—when we’re aware that each metaphorical “brick” we’re laying is contributing to something greater—we feel happiness and fulfillment.
And just like that enthusiastic bricklayer, we too can actively seek to find meaning in our work. The “why” behind what we’re doing isn’t always obvious or inherent, but it’s there, trust me.
A recent survey of over 2,000 American professionals across 26 industries found that employees experience more satisfaction at work when their jobs feel meaningful. The same survey found that raises and promotions are more common among employees who find their work meaningful; these workers also tend to be harder working and more productive.
These findings leave little room for doubt that actively finding purpose in our work every day is the single best thing we can do for our careers. But knowing this and actually applying it are two different things. That’s why we need to learn to exercise a little something I like to call the “meaningfulness habit.”
How to Embrace the Meaningfulness Habit at Work
It works like this: Any time you’re starting a new task, take a moment to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What meaning can I give to this task?”
In High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way, author Brendon Burchard shares a similar practice called “Release Tension, Set Intention.” This involves embracing the transitions we experience throughout the day—going from eating to working, writing to attending a meeting, making a phone call to sending emails—as opportunities to release any tension we may be harboring and set an intention before going into a new task or environment.
Building on this habit, if we take a moment at each transition throughout the day to ask ourselves why we’re doing something before we do it, we can inject more meaning into the task at hand and make ourselves more motivated to complete it. This meaning could be something significant, such as furthering a cause you believe in or helping others in some way, or it could be something small, such as peace of mind or development toward a personal goal.
Not every task needs to be connected to world peace—it just needs to give you some positive feeling, identifiable with perhaps a slight smile, a sense of satisfaction, or a heightened ability to focus.
In some cases, like when you’re working on a particularly dull, repetitive task, the meaning you find may just be to keep your boss happy so you can keep your job and continue to support your partner or kids. And that’s OK!
Here are some other examples:
- Why am I going to give this presentation? To help get more support for this project I believe in.
- Why am I going to clean up my inbox? To reduce my stress levels and feel lighter before I go home.
- Why am I going to fill out this spreadsheet? To keep track of our records so our team functions efficiently.
- Why am going to attend this meeting? To support the people I work with and offer help where I can.
Even if we’re not tangibly building something—like the bricklayers—there can still be meaning behind it. It may be a stepping stone to something greater; it may be an opportunity to be an example to others; it may be a creative outlet; it may be a way to support our retirement. No reason is a bad one.
(If you’re still struggling, try reading this article on finding meaning in a meaningless job and this one on caring about more than just your title.)
Ultimately, whatever we’re doing, there’s a reason why (otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it). Which is good news because that means there’s always meaning (and happiness) to be found.