Is Your Work “Meaningful?”

August 20, 2012 — 3 Comments

For a while I’ve had a bit of a passing interest in following some of the “startup world” as it’s called. Primarily the technology companies that dream of one day growing to scale and being bought for billions of dollars. Some of the dream team in this arena would be companies like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and even Google just to name some of them. I’ve followed blogs, listened to podcasts and even read some books by and about the famous entrepreneurs. At first it was all really fascinating and sometimes energizing to hear these fiery entrepreneurs talk about the rigors of building a growth company. Even though I’m not in the startup world I found a lot of inspiration to work hard, believe in myself and to be creative in my work.

Also, since I’m in a small company that is working hard to evolve and grow I read a good number of business books. One of the topics I like to read on is building a culture in a company and how important it is. The fierce determination and energy of the start-up world and the study of building culture is both exciting and applicable in your daily work life. (Which I find is fairly rare.)

Not only can I apply the knowledge and approaches in the office but I can often find nuggets of wisdom in being a better dad. After all, isn’t being a dad really similar being the entrepreneur/CEO of a startup?

World-Is-ChangingBut lately I’ve started to have a creeping feeling that this once scrappy and exciting arena of start-ups is starting to get, well, self-obsessed. It seems like every other blog post I read or discussion I get into the idea of doing work that “matters” comes up. If you’re going to build a company that lasts you’ve got to focus on “changing the world,” scream the new experts in startups and business literature. Go big or go home! Build a culture that helps people transcend the basic needs and find self-actualization and purpose!

“Wait,” you may think. “Isn’t that good advice? Don’t you want people trying to change the world? Daring to do bold things?”

My answer would be, “It depends.” The issue I take isn’t with the idea as much as it is the broad and exclusive application of and the assumptions these statements make. Let me state my points:

  • It seems very self-congratulatory. So often when I hear people talk of how their company is going to change the world, it comes across to me more as a marketing ploy or ego boost than an earnest passion. As if they are trying really hard to be bigger than they really are so people will buy their widget or come work for them. Are they trying to convince me or themselves? Or perhaps they just needed more hugs from daddy. 
  • “Changing the world” is almost meaningless. By definition, when I wake up every day I change the world. Every decision I make, person I interact with, circumstance I’m in, things I create/destroy, etc. is a change to the world we’re in. So what does it mean to “change the world” anyway? Personally I believe saying you’re trying to change the world is just lazy. Lazy because it’s easier to say that than it is to solve a specific problem and be o.k. that solving this problem alone isn’t giving the world an overhaul but it is no less worth doing anyway. 
  • Not all businesses need to be built to change the world to be successful. There are countless companies begun by motivated, smart people that weren’t out to do anything to the world other than make their way in it. There was an idea, a desire and a willingness to work for the dream of accomplishment on its own merit. And what do you know? Some of them actually did change the world. 
  • It assumes that people find self-actualization or purpose because of work. Now, I get that we spend most of our lives at work so we should try to do what we love. But when I hear people almost piously talking about building companies and cultures that help people feel like they have purpose, I have to wonder if they’re deluded or just plain arrogant. Sure, maybe there are organizations that are doing work that by its nature is derived from deep purpose. But most organizations are doing things that aren’t like that. I’m not saying people’s work is without purpose. I’m questioning if they find purpose because of work vs. finding purpose and then applying it to their work. And if someone did base their purpose on their work I think they are standing on a very shaky foundation. (Which, ironically, would be bad for the team they’re a part of.) 
  • It completely deludes most people. All the zealous screams for doing work that really, really matters and changes the world is closely akin to the ridiculous statement we’ve all heard people tell their kids. “You can do anything you set your mind to, honey.” The problem is that it isn’t true. You can’t do anything you set your mind to. If so, someone would be Superman by now. I really want laser vision and steel skin. Not gonna happen. Similarly, when you elevate the definition of work that “matters” to meaning it must have some legacy leaving impact that will be remembered in the books of history, you have at the same time just told 99.9% of the people listening to you that they can’t do work that matters. And make no mistake, that is the message that is coming through. Which brings me to my final point…
  • It totally demeans most of humanity. There was a time not long ago when we honored anyone who supported their family by dependably working at something that added any value to society. It didn’t matter if they were the CEO of a large company, an entrepreneur, a missionary or a janitor at the local elementary school. There was honor and dignity in diligent work. (Notice I didn’t say that all were equally rewarded or admired.) So along with my previous point, raising the definition of meaningful work to be history book worthy insults the mass majority of people who will never achieve that level of results. Not to mention it ironically dooms many of the very people pitching this idea to never achieving anything “meaningful.”

And this didn’t make the list because frankly I have no idea how to expound on it yet or if it makes sense. But a phrase came to me as I thought about this issue the other day and I haven’t been able to shake it. “If everyone is out to change the world, how can we know what the change should be since there is no one living in the world that exists now?”

Many people will likely say I’m misinterpreting or twisting what is being taught, and it may not be the well-intentioned aim of those giving this advice. But results, not intent, is the measure of value. And the results I see are people that get so caught up in trying to achieve some level of transcendence in their work that they are never able to really just be happy. I see companies that are building relatively mundane products and services burn out (or at least look ridiculous) because they stretch so hard to make their business seem like it is fundamental to the human story. Why not just build your relatively mundane company on great values, make a great living (or sell for a large amount) and let your impact not be on the world at large but on the people you get a chance to interact with? Make the lives of others richer and help them reach their goals while you build a financially prosperous company. That may not be remembered by the world but it will certainly have a long range impact.

Or what about being a dad? If I raise kids that are strong, productive and valiant men and women…have I not changed the world for the better?

Instead of telling people to change the world why don’t we talk about playing a positive, inspiring role in our communities? That may have nothing or everything to do with what they do in their work. It may not be something your company’s culture affects directly. What our company’s cultures and purposes should do is create environments where people find the camaraderie, expression and development they need to be energized from their experiences with us instead of drained. When we have a society of people that are constantly energized and are progressively finding their life’s purpose, collectively we will achieve something worthy of the history books.

I’d love to hear from any of you on this. Where am I off base? Why do we need more of the message about changing the world? What points am I missing?

Noel Coleman

Noel Coleman

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Aspiring recipient of the "Best Husband/Daddy in the World" coffee mug | Strategy & Sales Leader | Curious Person

3 responses to Is Your Work “Meaningful?”

  1. That has to be the most insightful expression I have ever read on this subject. We as a people and society have missed what changing the world is, it’s teaching our young how to be and grow so that as we impact their lives they will in turn impact those around them for the better. It’s all in if we are willing to be the good example or not and be able to learn from them also in the process. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with what you have expressed here. Thank you!

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