Why do you work? Are you just in it for the money, or do you have a greater purpose? Popular wisdom says your answer depends on what your job is. But psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale University finds it may have more to do with how we think about our work.
Across a diverse array of jobs — from secretaries to custodians to computer programmers — Wrzesniewski finds people are about equally split in whether they say they have a "job," a "career" or a "calling." This week on Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks with Wrzesniewski about how we find meaning and purpose at work.
The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Lucy Perkins. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
Hi, Shankar here. If you tuned in last week, you'll know that we just launched a six-week series called You 2.0. It's a deep exploration of how we think about our lives, how we approach both the big decisions and the daily grind. Today's episode, from March 2016, is about dream jobs - how we think about work and how we can find joy in the more mundane aspects of our jobs. We hope you enjoy it.
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JOHN MCGINLEY: (As Bob Slydell) If you would, would you walk us through a typical day for you?
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today, we're talking about finding meaning in our work.
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RON LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) I generally come in at least 15 minutes late. I use the side door. That way Lumbergh can't see me (laughter). And after that, I just sort of space out for about an hour (unintelligible).
MCGINLEY: (As Bob Slydell, unintelligible) Space out?
LIVINGSTON: (As Peter Gibbons) Yeah, I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I'm working.
VEDANTAM: This clip from the movie "Office Space" describes what work feels like to many people, not the stuff of poetry. But now imagine something that feels more than just a job, something that feels like a calling.
AMY WRZESNIEWSKI: What we learned is people who see their work as a calling are significantly more satisfied with their jobs. They're significantly more satisfied with their lives. They're more engaged in what it is that they're doing and tend to be better performers, regardless of what the work is.
VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, a conversation with Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. Amy studies work and something that she calls job crafting. Job crafting can help you make the job that you have right now more meaningful and more satisfying. Amy Wrzesniewski, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.
WRZESNIEWSKI: Thanks so much for having me.
VEDANTAM: I was reading one of your papers recently, and I was struck by an excerpt that you had at the top. One came from a corporate securities lawyer, and one came from a taxidermist. And I was struck by what the two of them said. Can you tell me what they said?
WRZESNIEWSKI: Sure. So the corporate securities lawyer was bemoaning the fact that his job, as he saw it, was - I think his words were, deal with the devil, that he did the job not because he liked it but because it allowed him to stay geographically in an area that worked for his family and so on. And in contrast, the taxidermist was talking about the way in which the kind of work he did sometimes moved people to tears when they came and picked up the pieces that he had created for them and how for him the feeling of satisfaction that comes from work that has that kind of impact is one of the biggest things in his life.
VEDANTAM: I have the paper in front of me. The taxidermist said, I did a duck for a guy the other day, and when he came and picked it up, he almost started crying because it looked so nice. He was just so happy, and that made me feel good that he thought I'd done a good job. Self-satisfaction is a big deal in any job. It's a big deal in life. And I was so moved by that comment because, of course, if you just looked at those two jobs side by side, you might assume that the corporate securities lawyer with the high-profile fancy job is the person who's actually happier at work, but that's not often the case.
WRZESNIEWSKI: That's not often the case. And in fact, a good amount of the research that I've done has tried to look at how the experiences that people have in their work, in the ways in which they talk about it and come to think about its place in their lives vary so much across the entire spectrum in ways that research hasn't necessarily recognized.
VEDANTAM: When you went into a hospital some years ago and you looked at the people working as the cleaning staff at the hospital, you discovered something very interesting. You found that they did not all think of their jobs the same way.
WRZESNIEWSKI: That's true. And our first clue about this was not necessarily in how they talked about the ways that they thought about the job but in how it was that they described the tasks of their job. So on the one hand, we had this group of hospital cleaning staff members who described the work as being not very high-skill and another group who described it in very different terms and said this was highly skilled work, where it would be very difficult to bring others in and have them take over the job. And in looking to see what were the differences between these two groups of cleaners, we had no differences in the kind of shift that they worked, their tenure in the organization, the kind of units they worked on and so on. Instead, what was different was what they described as being the kinds of things that they did during the daily course of the work. So in the first group, the cleaners who described the work as being not particularly high-skilled, they very much hued to the job description. And the job description, while extensive, doesn't involve a lot of interaction, in fact, any interaction with patients, visitors, nurses, doctors and so on.
VEDANTAM: Presumably, they were just swabbing floors, dusting, mopping, doing cleaning crew type stuff.
WRZESNIEWSKI: Exactly. And in the second group, they had also talked about all of these kinds of things but in addition talked about the kinds of things that they did on a regular basis for and with nurses, doctors, patients and patients' visitors. And we checked this multiple times, but this was not something that they were being asked to do. Often these kinds of things were going beyond the notice of those who supervised them in the hospital in which they worked. But for the cleaners who engaged in this, we ended up calling this job crafting. They were crafting the boundaries of their jobs in ways that we think made the work for them more meaningful, was something that they very much undertook on their own.
VEDANTAM: If I remember correctly, some of the people who found their work especially difficult were, in fact, doing work that might be argued to be against the rules.
WRZESNIEWSKI: Yes, so some of the things that the cleaning staff members in this part of our sample described doing involved figuring out when would it be safe, for example, to give a patient a drink of water if they requested one or when was it safe to help a patient to move or things like this, which moves into the realm of patient care and could very well get them into trouble. But the cleaning staff members we studied had developed systems of figuring out, when was it safe to do these things? When was it OK to do these things versus when would it be necessary to go and get a member of the medical staff?
VEDANTAM: You found one woman in particular who did something really interesting when it came to patients who were in a coma. Tell me what she did.
WRZESNIEWSKI: So this particular staff member worked in a - essentially a long-term rehabilitation floor, where patients were unconscious or comatose and hopefully would be emerging from those states. One of the things that she described doing was taking down the framed art prints. Most patient rooms have some kind of print or another. And she would take those down on a regular basis and rearrange them and rehang them. And when we asked her if this was part of her job or part of the duties that she was given in her job description, she answered that it was not, which was quite striking. And in asking more deeply about, well, why do this, talked about the hope that even though patients were not necessarily aware of their surroundings, maybe some shift in the environment in which they were recuperating could spark something in them and speed their trajectory of healing.
VEDANTAM: In some ways, she was behaving like we would behave toward a family member. You are trying to anticipate the needs of the person even before they're expressed. You're not following the letter of the law. You are actually trying to do everything you possibly can to ensure an outcome for someone you care about.
WRZESNIEWSKI: Absolutely. And we saw a lot of evidence of this in our data, so cleaning staff members who talked about getting in the room sort of aiming their face sort of skyward to look at the ceilings of the hospital rooms to see if there were things that were up there that we might not notice but would bother the patients if the patients had to look at them all day long so that they could take care of any dirt or sort of issues up on the ceiling. And we also heard a lot from the cleaning staff members about looking at each patient and, in many cases, patients' families as though, well, this could be my father or my mother or my brother or sister, and how would I care for them?
VEDANTAM: So there's two ways to look at these people who are doing things that are outside of their job description. You could call it, at one level, you know, a form of insubordination. They're basically...
VEDANTAM: ...Not following the rules at all. And you could say these are troublemakers, and we want to make sure that we have as few of them as possible on the staff. But you can also see them as people who are going the extra mile and really internalizing the larger mission of the hospital and not just the descriptions of their jobs. What did you find in terms of the outcomes of having workers who were the one kind or the other?
WRZESNIEWSKI: Well, in this particular context, we were only gathering data about what it was that the hospital cleaning staff members said they were doing and then what was that related to with respect to their experience on the job. We can only speculate as to what the outcomes were likely to be, but I would expect, for example, that particularly in a medical context that it's hard to imagine that this wouldn't have had some kind of positive effect because a lot of things that the hospital cleaning staff members were talking about had to do with, you know, in the course of their cleaning work noticing who hadn't had a visitor in several shifts, who looked like they might be on the verge of tears, who seemed like they really needed to talk so that they could finish with their work and double back to spend time with those patients or with those patients' family members. And it's hard to imagine that that kind of work doesn't have a positive impact in a context like that.
VEDANTAM: I want to talk about what these different kinds of initiative mean for the workers, but I want to just spend one second again looking at it from the point of view of the patient, which is that I think all of us, in some ways, have been in the shoes of those patients. May not be, you know, patients in a coma at the hospital, but we've been students in a class or, you know, going to the DMV to get a driver's license. And all of us have routinely encountered people who are there just doing their jobs and there because they really find some deeper meaning in their jobs. I remember a chemistry teacher that I had in high school. I wasn't particularly fond of chemistry, but the teacher was so inspired by the fact that chemistry was just the coolest subject in the universe that he communicated some of that excitement and enthusiasm to me. And I knew that he wasn't just doing a job teaching me chemistry. This was something he desperately and deeply wanted to do. And I feel like all of us have these experiences, and when we come in contact with these people, we feel like we are now in touch with the higher purpose of what this organization is supposed to be about.
WRZESNIEWSKI: I think that's very well put, very well said, and I completely agree. And in fact, the line of research I was involved in that led to this study originally started with exactly this question. How do people who are doing exactly the same job in the same organization come to see that work in such radically different terms, where some of them see it, as you put it, as just a job versus seeing the work perhaps more as a career and then finally people for whom that exact same work is something more akin to a calling? And these differences have always fascinated me, where they come from, what the implications are for the individuals who do the work and for the organizations that they're a part of.
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VEDANTAM: In the second half of my conversation with Amy, we talk about what you can do to feel more engaged at work. Stay with us.
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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today, I'm talking with Amy Wrzesniewski about how we can find meaning in work. I asked Amy what she'd found about people who think of their work as a calling.
WRZESNIEWSKI: What we learned is people who see their work as a calling are significantly more satisfied with their jobs. They're significantly more satisfied with their lives. They work more hours. They miss fewer days of work. They're more engaged in what it is that they're doing.
VEDANTAM: So when we look at these two different kinds of people in the workplace, and I think what we often say is, this person just happened to find the organization that suits him or her, that it's just happenstance and luck that people find their calling. What I find really interesting and intriguing about your work is that you suggest that there might actually be a more deliberate process involved so that more of us can find our work to be a calling.
WRZESNIEWSKI: It's a wonderful contrast that you draw here because I do think that there are two different schools of thought in play around callings, and one is that it's out there. You have to find it. It's a matter of moving into the right role or the right position in the right organization and so on, and then suddenly, this will be unlocked, and your work will be this sort of joyful end in and of itself, which is very different from a view that I've come to, which is that can certainly happen, where people can stumble into something and realize, this is what I would do even if I hit the lottery versus how is it that I can craft the boundaries of this job and the way that I think about its role sort of in the world in such a way that I can come to experience it perhaps as something that is meaningful in a way that potentially a calling could be?
VEDANTAM: One of the interesting things that happened recently is that we had this major Powerball lottery (laugher) that a lot of people got excited about. And our CEO at NPR bought everyone in the company lottery tickets, and so we spent a day speculating what it would be like to, you know, win $200 million. But what I found most interesting was that we asked several people, would you quit your job if you won this money? And I found it very revealing what people's answers were. So some people unhesitatingly said, of course I'd quit my job. Why in the world would I keep working if I had $200 million in the bank? And other people had exactly the opposite response, which was sort of complete bewilderment. Why in the world would I quit my job when I'm doing something that I really enjoy doing? And I think it speaks exactly to what you're saying here, the people who are working because the work is an end in itself and the people who are working because the work is a means to an end.
WRZESNIEWSKI: I think that seeing that divide and seeing that for even in the same exact job that the work can mean such different things to different people, doing that work often with the same level of education, same level of pay and so on is fascinating to me. And I think, you know, given the choice, I think what we're seeing now is many people as they grow up and it's time to, you know, come to think about what they want to do in their work are yearning for something that will feel a bit more like a job that you wouldn't necessarily want to quit if you hit the lottery. But I think that that's - depending on your theory of how these things work, if you think it's a magical unicorn out there that you just have to find, I think that that can be quite anxiety provoking for people.
VEDANTAM: So if finding one of these great jobs is not one of these magical things that happens - or it is a magical thing that can happen, but it's also something that can be crafted, as you suggest - what's the way to do it?
WRZESNIEWSKI: Well, I mean, I think that part of what is involved is thinking about what kinds of things do people feel they very much enjoy and that they think are important in the world, whether those are tasks that have to get done because they help the world function in a way that is a real benefit to society or to other people, to see how and where might you start to do things to make that work your own in a way that could feel even more fulfilling.
VEDANTAM: You've also looked at efforts to try and change what it is the job itself is. So you get hired for a job. You're a - maybe a typist, or maybe you're a computer programmer, or you're maybe a manager. But then you can start working to expand the contours of what the job description actually is.
WRZESNIEWSKI: Yes, one of the things that's interesting that I want to point out is that it's not only about expanding what those boundaries are and taking on more and doing more. Job crafting can also involve restricting that boundary, if you will, so maybe delegating or even pulling back or dropping some of the tasks that may be defined as part of the job that, over time, people perhaps come to realize are not actually central to getting done or executing on the kinds of things that the organization feels that they ought to be responsible for.
VEDANTAM: Now, a lot of people feel like they don't have the latitude to make those changes, that I'm stuck. My manager won't allow me to modify what I'm doing. There are ways that I can see I can be more productive and more useful to the organization, but I feel constrained and hemmed in. Those are real concerns.
WRZESNIEWSKI: They absolutely are. And even in jobs where this kind of crafting is explicitly forbidden, you still see people engaging in it. And I think it usually works like this. You recognize what it is that the organization expects you to accomplish, and you see where do you have the degrees of freedom that you might take advantage of to do that in a way that may be from a process point of view or from a how-you-order-the-tasks point of view or who-you-interact-with-to-get-that-work-done point of view, how you can essentially customize that in a way that makes the experience more enjoyable, more meaningful and something that perhaps makes you feel more connected to those who you're either working with or who are the recipients and beneficiaries of your work.
VEDANTAM: I'm also fascinated by the fact that you point out that it's not just crafting your job description that can allow you to find work that's a calling, but it's also recrafting or redefining the relationships you have with other people in the workplace. Can you talk about that for a moment?
WRZESNIEWSKI: Most jobs involve some level of contact with or interdependence with other people, whether those are co-workers, whether those are clients or customers. It's often these relationships and these interdependencies with other people on the job that are the sources of the greatest joys and the greatest frustrations. And so in some sense doesn't surprise me that part of what it is that people are crafting are exactly that element, so the relationships and the interactions that are either necessary to executing the work or just come part and parcel with the doing of the job.
VEDANTAM: You also talk in your research about the idea of cognitive crafting, that besides, you know, changing the description of the job and the nature of the relationships around the job, there's also the way you think about the job, which, in many ways, is perhaps the thing you have the greatest control over. You have some ability to change what it is you're doing and how you come to think about what you're doing.
WRZESNIEWSKI: Yes, so the third form of crafting - so you can craft the tasks that comprise the job, the relationships and the interactions that are part of the job. But this third category that you name, cognitive crafting, consists of how it is that people think about what the work even is. And it turns out that there's a lot of freedom in this, if you will. To go back to the hospital cleaning staff study, one of the questions that we asked the hospital cleaning staff members we interviewed was to give us your job title here.
And some of the people in that study gave us their official technical title. Other people would say things like, I'm an ambassador or, in the most extreme case of someone sort of deviating, if you will, from describing the work the way that the organization would, said, I'm a healer. One of the things that excites us about the job crafting work is that these different ways of engaging in cognitive crafting seemed to be related to how it is that people actually then go about executing the job, right? If you have that uniform on and you're on your shift and you are thinking of yourself as a healer, that that is your responsibility and your role there, it's very different from thinking about it in terms of working through a particular task set in a day. And again, sort of where those differences come from, why some people do this, why others don't and the difference that it makes for them is something that's been endlessly fascinating for us.
VEDANTAM: Amy Wrzesniewski, thank you for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.
WRZESNIEWSKI: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.
VEDANTAM: That's Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.
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VEDANTAM: This week's episode was produced by Max Nesterak. Our team includes Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Lucy Perkins, Parth Shah and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Our unsung hero this week is Steve Nelson. Steve works on the development of new shows here at NPR. And he always has good ideas for existing shows as well. We know that when we share some audio with him and ask for feedback, he'll always have thoughtful suggestions for us. We also appreciate his sense of humor, usually delivered deadpan. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook or listen for my stories on your local public radio station. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.