Crappy To Happy: Love What You Do

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Cassandra Dunn on how to find meaning in your work

30 Aug 2019 | Cherry Cai

Not everyone loves their jobs, and sometimes, it's not feasible to find something new in the near future. This extract from Crappy to Happy: Love What You Do by Cassandra Dunn sheds some light on how you can make your current working more meaningful to you even if it isn't exactly where you want to be.

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We all have a basic need to know that our life has meaning and value. In fact, sometimes it feels like finding meaning is the ultimate life goal.

It’s been well documented that doing meaningful work is one of the central foundations of a fulfilling life. Whether you find meaning through your paid work, or by volunteering, raising children or coaching the local sports team, the sense that you are making a positive contribution is fundamental to your happiness and wellbeing.

According to Professor Michael Steger, who has devoted his academic career to researching what makes our lives meaningful, there are various ways we derive a sense of purpose from the work we do. There is the meaning and significance of the actual role you perform; there is the degree to which your work contributes to your sense of your life being meaningful; and there is the sense that the work you do contributes to a greater good.

Most of us have no trouble getting excited about the prospect of doing meaningful work. What a dream to be able to use your particular strengths and skillset to do work that aligns with your core values and makes a positive difference to an individual, organisation or society. But for every person who achieves that dream, many more have become disillusioned about their own prospects for finding or creating meaning in their work.

If you’ve ever worked on a project that you felt would make no real contribution to an outcome of value, you will know how quickly you become bored, frustrated and disengaged. I’ve been there! Similarly, if you find yourself in a workplace whose values feel misaligned with your own, or in a job that offers little opportunity for you to make a real difference, it’s easy to feel disheartened. Don’t give up hope, though. There are many ways to cultivate more meaning, regardless of where you find yourself right now.

For work to be meaningful, it will align with your values, have a positive social impact, give you a sense of accomplishment and provide an opportunity for personal growth or advancement.


There are a few ways you can go about finding more meaning in what you do: you can change what you do, you can change how you go about doing it, or, at an absolute minimum, you can change the way you think about it.

Whether you feel that your work is meaningful or not can be highly subjective. Certainly your sense of purpose and value will be increased if you know for sure that what you do is having a direct positive impact. But if that positive impact is not so immediately visible, often the sense that you are doing something meaningful comes from you and your own attitude or perspective. There is a little parable you might have heard that highlights this point perfectly.

A travelling nomad happened upon a group of stonemasons chipping granite from large blocks. The first stonemason seemed less than thrilled with the job. When the passerby asked what he was doing, the man responded, ‘I’m hammering a stupid lump of rock. What does it look like I’m doing?’

The second stonemason seemed slightly more engaged in the process. When he was asked the same question, he answered, ‘Well, I’m shaping this particular rock so that it fits with those others. They will be used to build a wall.’

The third worker appeared to be deeply engaged with the work he was doing. He would chip his rock with painstaking attention, occasionally standing back to examine his work. When he was asked what he was doing, he seemed irritated by the interruption, so absorbed was he in the task at hand. He stopped, turned his gaze upwards towards the sky and proudly announced, ‘I’m building a cathedral!’

“You can change what you do you can change how you go about doing it, or, at an absolute minimum, you can change the way you think about it.”

This is the perfect example of three people doing the same thing but having very different ideas about its purpose. Attitude really can change everything. And if you feel a bit like the first or even the second stonemason, struggling to find the real value in the work you do, it’s so important to step back and see if you can find a different perspective. For most people, the sense of purpose and meaning that they gain from their work is more valuable than salary or any other benefits.

No-one, regardless of whether you are working, studying, parenting or volunteering, should ever be using the word ‘just’ in front of their job title. There is no such thing as just a stay-at-home parent or just a receptionist or just a cleaner. Perhaps we could make it our shared mission to eliminate the word ‘just’ from our vocabulary when referring to the important work we all do.


Back in 2001, as part of a project looking at how employees shape their experience of the work they do, researchers interviewed cleaning staff in a large metropolitan hospital. It’s hard to imagine anything less glamorous than cleaning up after sick people. Tasks involved changing soiled bed linen and cleaning toilets. Notably, none of the tasks listed in the official job description involved interacting with other people. But what the researchers discovered was that the most satisfied workers were those who took it upon themselves to interact with patients and provide help and support to visitors.

For example, some of them reported that they took time during their shifts to chat with patients who were frightened or lonely, and made their stay more comfortable with small gestures such as bringing them water or tissues. They also helped visitors find their way around the hospital. Those cleaners whose main focus was on supporting the patients and their families, and who structured their own tasks in a way that put the needs of patients first, expressed that they found a great sense of meaning and purpose in their jobs.

When I first learned about that study, I was reminded of an essay I once read by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she described a trip home on a crowded New York City bus on a wet, windy evening. She recalled the passengers being cold, tired and irritated. The bus driver, sensing the mood of his passengers, made an unexpected announcement. He invited the passengers to leave their troubles with him before they got off at their stop, so they didn’t take their frustrations home with them. The mood on the bus lightened and, true to his word, as he pulled up at the next stop and passengers filed past him on their way out the door, he held out his hand, palm facing upwards. Each passenger made a gesture to indicate that they were dropping something into his hand before they headed home, and I have no doubt they felt lighter as they did.

Whether the bus driver was bored with driving the same route day in and day out, or whether he felt unappreciated by the sullen, pushy passengers he had to deal with, he could have found more meaning simply by focusing his attention on the service he was providing by getting people home to their families. But he stepped up the meaning-making in a big way by not only being a reliable steward for his passengers, but also taking it upon himself to make a small, positive contribution to their lives.

Similarly, if the hospital cleaners felt their work was in any way demeaning, they could have focused on the important role they played in the hospital’s charter to promote health and healing. Their job is crucial to maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness and hygiene in an environment where people’s lives literally depend on it. But again, they went one step further by building in opportunities for connection with patients on a personal level, using their role to make a positive difference to each individual they came into contact with.

In both of these examples, the people doing the work didn’t need to change their jobs to find meaning. They just found ways to broaden the boundaries of their duties in order to add meaning to their existing jobs.

crappy to happy book cover smallAll text extracted from Crappy To Happy: Love What You Do by Cassandra Dunn
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