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The Power of Meaningful Work

by Robert Gordon

Posted: 12 Dec 2016

Three workers [were] breaking up rocks. When the first was asked what he was doing, he replied, 'Making little ones out of big ones'; the second said, 'Making a living'; and the third, 'Building a cathedral'.[1]

It's surprisingly easy to overlook the importance of work. Throughout much of our lives we don't really consider what it means to us - it's just something that we do. On some days we're excited to get stuck in, on others we groan about why we have to do it at all. It pays the bills, introduces us to new friends (sometimes enemies) and helps us provide for ourselves and those dear to us. When we do stop to consider more deeply why we work, it can often be accompanied with a great deal of anxiety. What do I really want to do with my life? Am I living up to my potential? What's next and how do I find it?

These kinds of questions revolve around meaning and identity. They centre upon notions of purpose and creativity, of what it truly means to be successful. There are also closely related concerns about working towards common goals, helping others and the nature of community. Most people don't want to merely be a cog in someone else's machine; we yearn for self-empowerment and are most fulfilled when we find a way to do so in collaboration with other people. Think of the contrast between repetitive factory work under harsh conditions compared to more innovative companies that promote flexible working, allow employees to voice their ideas and concerns, and consider carefully their role in the wider world. The latter is filled with life and connectivity, the former dehumanising and detached from creative input.

Discovering a deeper sense of purpose and meaning in our work brings with it not only personal fulfilment, but productivity and organisational loyalty. A Gallup Poll in 2013 found that only 13% of employees worldwide were engaged at work - a shocking figure when you consider the implications. One of our Associates recently took a look at how we can approach our work differently and there is a growing body of research that clearly shows the benefits of a more engaged workforce - to employees and employers alike - whilst also helping define just what it is that makes work meaningful. Purpose comes from activities that have personal meaning whilst being of consequence to the world beyond the self. Meaning arises from an ongoing process of self-examination about your motivations and what is most important to you. For many, these two things come together most readily when you focus your energy on the needs of others through the achievement of long-term goals. Combining all this, meaningful work could be considered a repackaging of two perennial truths: Love one another and know thyself. Easy to learn, but can take a lifetime to master.

It's important to note that this doesn't need to be attached to what are seen as traditionally meaningful sectors - such as charity work or health care - but is more dependent on the perspective that the individual brings to whatever it is they are doing. Almost any profession can be pursued with purpose and meaning and to do so is to embrace the power to form new ways of life inherent within each of us as human beings. A capacity that rests at the core of all human endeavour and achievement, yet one that we often presume we don't have the ability to access within ourselves. By rediscovering the power of meaningful work we can become more effective agents of transformation within the world around us.

I would argue that this is primarily because our work is the mechanism through which we interact with the power dynamics of society writ large. Not just in the sense that the institutional structures of our world exert their influence on how we use our time and energy, but also because we are the agents of structural power on a daily basis. Through our work, both as individuals and groups, we influence the momentum of society and help forge the vision of what it will become. Having a passionate and meaningful relationship to work connects our professional efforts with the social construction of new and collective ways of being. The future is created on the foundations of the present, which are built upon the efforts of the past, so we have a moral obligation to enter into this chain of creation consciously and faithfully. As Pope John Paul II laid out in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (Section 25), it is through "the knowledge that by means of work man shares in the work of creation [that] constitutes the most profound motive for undertaking it."

Meaningful work is often powerful because it redirects the impulse of activity towards others - working against the internalising motivators of our increasingly atomised and self-serving lifestyles. By seeing the core of meaningful work as being other-focused, our productivity is directed towards those around us in a form of mutual support that ultimately benefits us all as individuals as well as collectively. This goes against the notion that many people fall back upon when considering how their careers are meaningful - which is to ensure the wellbeing of their immediate family. Whilst providing for our own families is certainly an honourable and worthwhile pursuit, if it becomes the sole purpose of our working lives then we are limiting the potential benefit that society could receive through our efforts. We are also setting ourselves up with a logic that can lead to a mercenary approach devoid of loyalty or true commitment to the common good.

Restoring work with meaning and purpose returns a more colourful, passionate and fulfilling set of relationships from which to develop a deeper understanding of our lives and role in society. It renews the artistry in our professions and moves them away from a mechanistic and dehumanising approach to activity. It can help us to, as Rowan Williams has stated as vital to human survival, "affirm the solidity of 'intermediate' communities that are neither private nor state-franchised (professional guilds, trade unions, religious associations, volunteer organisations and activist citizens' networks)". It challenges an often hierarchical status quo and builds a greater sense of partnership, one that uplifts through community rather than gains status through control.

The power of meaningful work comes in large part from this ability to redefine the authority with which we lead our lives and direct our passions. By working towards a greater vision of what we can achieve together it allows us to unburden any feelings of powerlessness that the day-to-day realities of our working lives can sometimes bring. Of course, taking such an approach does not guarantee that our actions will always be aligned with the common good - if only it were that easy. However, it is important to note that the common good is not a fixed subject but rather a process entered upon with good faith and a commitment to understanding the needs and experiences of others. As I have heard said at a workshop run by Good Works - you don't need a definition of the common good in order to behave as if it exists. You do your best, make a difference (small or large) and the common good is made more manifest while each cycle brings further clarity about your own motivations and reasons for being.

There are many different ways to explore what is meaningful to us. What is most important is that we take the time to actually do so. The process of discerning what is important to you is one that needs to take place on an ongoing basis and can often be a difficult journey to undertake. Each of us will come to different conclusions, but it's highly rewarding to make even a small change on how we approach our working lives and see the immediate influence that can have on our workplaces. This requires both the courage to lead and the humility to serve. In the closing event for our series on meaningful work held in partnership with the London School of Economics, Prof. Nava Ashraf reminded us that "work in the spirit of service could be the highest form of worship, and that in fact it could be devotion." Find some time to consider what it means for your work to be a devotional act and you may be pleasantly surprised by the journey it takes you on.

We often overlook the importance of work in our lives. By doing so we forget that it can be the point at which we integrate our personal, civic and spiritual selves into one complete and powerful whole. Enabling us to not only find a deep sense of fulfilment, but also more fully participate in the chain of creation that we have been graced with as human beings. Through discovering meaningful work we build not just individual character, but strong and resilient communities. Allowing us to stand up to structural injustices and build better alternatives through which we can uplift the dignity of our fellow global citizens. In the inspiring words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."


This article follows a series on Meaningful Work held in partnership between St Paul's Institute and the LSE Faith Centre, LSE Careers and LSE Life.  Watch our two videos on 'What is Meaningful Work?' and 'Our Working Lives: Facing the Future of Work' for more.


[1] Ryan, J. J., 1977, 'Humanistic work: Its philosophical and cultural implications', in W. J. Heisler & J. W. Houck (Eds.) A Matter of Dignity: Inquiries into the Humanization of Work (pp. 11-22), University of Notre Dame Press.


About this author

Robert Gordon was the Manager of St Paul's Institute from 2009 - 2017.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.