Finding Purpose on the Job

One person's day job is another's calling — Research suggests disposition and personality do play a huge role in how we experience our work. Here are 8 tips for building a sense of purpose by weaving everyday actions into the big picture.

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At the Yale School of Management, every MBA student takes a class on purpose at work. As Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski teaches it, this course is as beloved as it is mandatory, probably thanks to her special combination of warmth and clarity that puts anxious MBA students at ease. The question at the heart of Wrzesniewski’s research, on which the class is based, is: What makes work fulfilling? Given two people in the same position, why will one person find her work more satisfying than the other? Or, to ask a question Wrzesniewski posed in one study, when people are given the same one-paragraph summary about a working person they do not know, why would each person offer a very different interpretation of the stranger’s work? If “Mr. A’s” work is described as “basically a necessity of life, a lot like sleeping or breathing,” would you say it’s very important to him, or would you say it’s an uninspired “day job” that he doesn’t think much about? What factors account for the difference?

Given two people in the same position, why will one person find her work more satisfying than the other?

Wrzesniewski’s answers to these kinds of questions contribute to a growing heap of evidence that individual disposition and personality traits have real implications for how we experience our work. A job itself is neither awesome nor terrible, since the experience we have doing a job depends largely on what we bring to it. Most of us, she has found, see our work as a “job,” a way to make money. Some of us have a “career” and focus on advancement over time. Others understand their work as a “calling,” that is, socially valuable even if the tasks involved are not always pleasant.

It’s my view that over the course of a year or month or day, we might inhabit multiple of these mind-sets. And paying attention to this can help us realize when we are inhabiting a mind-set that is less aligned with our purpose. I don’t mean to imply that a job isn’t a purpose in itself. If a job enables us to buy food for our kids and provide a comfortable place to rest our bodies at night, we are fulfilling a purpose. Still, we can benefit from becoming aware of how we think about our work and deciding if that framework serves us.

Do you have a job, career, or calling? 

According to Wrzesniewski, people who consider their work to be a calling tend to be more satisfied with how they earn a living than those who think of their work as “just” a job. That may not be surprising, but what is surprising is that the difference in these orientations is not simply a function of the kind of work we do or the role we play within an organization. Meaning and satisfaction are not sitting up there in the executive suite, out of reach to all but the biggest cheeses, and a calling isn’t built into any one industry. Wrzesniewski has surveyed administrative associates, physicians, nurses, hospital custodial workers, librarians, computer programmers, clerical employees, and zookeepers, and when asked to describe their work, these workers used one of all three labels—job, career, or calling.

For example, in one of Wrzesniewski’s groups, she gathered administrative associates of comparable ages, incomes, and education levels. Nine said they had “jobs,” seven felt they had “careers,” and eight described their work as a “calling.” The related differences in the degree of satisfaction experienced by the workers was real and measurable. The “career” workers stayed in their positions longer than their peers with “jobs,” and those with a “calling” missed fewer days of work.

The hospital custodial workers offer another interesting example. Many people use “janitor” as shorthand for a job-job, the quintessential “shitty job” that somebody’s gotta do. When Wrzesniewski studied the orientations of hospital janitors, however, she found dramatically different outlooks among people in the exact same role. Some janitors felt they were an essential part of a patient’s recovery. They sought out ways to make their work more supportive of the patients’ healing, modifying the type and timing of their cleaning to work around patient needs and chatting with the patients in their rooms as they worked. Some of the custodians even kept in touch with patients after they were discharged. These are examples of what scholars call “extra-role behavior,” or doing things that fall outside our position’s stated duties. This skill, of finding the meaningful, doable actions that make our work purposeful, is central to customizing work and aligning it with our values.

This skill, of finding the meaningful, doable actions that make our work purposeful, is central to customizing work and aligning it with our values.

The point of these studies is not to say that janitors and others in low-pay positions should have a positive attitude. It’s that many do, and their example is something all of us can learn from. We, too, can bring purpose to our work, no matter how shitty our jobs may feel. We can start doing this immediately. We don’t have to wait for work to become meaningful, for some promotion or future career change. We don’t have to despair that it never will. We can put our hearts into the thing we’re doing right now.

Research shows that there are real, measurable benefits to having a sense of purpose at work. At HopeLab, we conducted a study of the physical and mental benefits of purpose. Steve Cole, professor of medicine, psychiatry, and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine and an expert on social genomics (the ways in which our environment and behavior impact the expression of our genes), was in charge of the study. Cole’s team found that the benefits of having a sense of purpose in the workplace included:

  • Occupational identification (how much we define ourselves in terms of the work we do);
  • A sense of kinship and community with colleagues;
  • A feeling that work is purposeful and important to society;
  • A sense of occupational importance due to value alignment;
  • A sense of purpose toward something larger than oneself; and
  • Trivial and unpleasant tasks becoming infused with larger meaning and significance.
  • This greater sense of meaning in life was associated with:
  • Greater life satisfaction;
  • Greater psychological well-being;
  • Greater positive affect;
  • Greater emotional ties with others (connection);
  • Less psychological distress;
  • Less negative affect; and
  • Fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Just as these benefits impact our day-to-day quality of life, the actions we take in support of our purpose are incremental and quotidian. Purpose encompasses our to-do list, our phone calls, our e-mails, our commutes.

Practice: Defining Your Purpose

Understanding what drives and motivates us enables us to invest in the things that help us live our purpose. When we are not certain what our purpose is, we can help define it by doing both a “top-down” and a “bottom-up” assessment. A top-down assessment is one in which you examine the big picture first. With a bottom-up assessment, then, you examine small, separate activities, observations, exchanges—in other words, the parts that make up the big picture.


  • Make a list of your top five to ten values.
  • Take inventory of your work and personal calendar. First, look at whether the way you spend your time expresses your values. For example, if giving is important to you, do you have time on your calendar to volunteer or give in other ways that matter to you? Next, make a note next to each item on your calendar, indicating if each activity gives you energy or drains you. Finally, looking at your time holistically, note how much of it is spent on activities that are additive and invigorating and how much is spent on things that sap your energy.
  • Examine what matters to you. If you’ve made note of values that apply only to a work context, expand your list to include your family, community, and spiritual belief system.
  • Ask those whom you trust what they would say you care about or what brings you energy and excitement.
  •  Identify gaps between what makes you tick and your current actions. For example, are there values that you care about deeply that you don’t spend any time enacting? What could you do differently to allocate more time or attention to the things that matter?


  • Keep a journal for a period of time; perhaps start with one week. During that time, note which activities, observations, and exchanges drain you and which ones make you feel good.
  • Set a calendar reminder to review your journal. When you do, look for patterns: can you identify insights or make generalizations about cause-effect relationships?
  • Try different exercises, such as asking a question and imagining yourself throwing a stone to receive the answer, or making a list of people you admire and marking down traits of theirs that you value.

After completing both the top-down and bottom-up assessments to identify your purpose, write down any revelations you’ve had. What has the exercise revealed? What gaps between your purpose and your actions do you want to address?

HOW WE WORK. Copyright © 2018 by Leah Weiss.
Reprinted here with permission from Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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