Frequently, I hear people talking about the need to make work fun. It’s hard not to agree; however, the reality is that most jobs bring a variety of tensions – deadlines, problems big and small, and issues that challenge us both cognitively and emotionally. Since fun at work may be an elusive mirage for most of us, I’d like to propose a more realistic and healthy goal for 2013: attempt to find meaning in the work you do and use your talents regularly.
What is meaningful work?
Defining meaningful work is an entirely personal journey and one that could take years to figure out. Ten years ago, when I first started teaching a college class, I was less than thrilled by the ratio of work to pay, terrified by the students, and not entirely confident about my abilities as an instructor. In short, the job was low paying, anxiety producing, and difficult. It certainly was not fun. I stuck with it because I had faith that as I became more familiar with my responsibilities, I would not need to put in as many hours grading every paper; I’d establish a healthy rapport with my students; my uncertainty would abate, and my skills would grow.
Today, many semesters later, I sincerely confess to my students in our first meeting that I love teaching and am passionate about the topic of organizational behavior. I find my teaching job meaningful for a variety of reasons – it connects me to people who want to learn, it allows me to further my own development, and it links me to higher education – something I value greatly. It took me many years to find meaning, and a certain level of fun, in this job because I had to change, not the job. Over time, I became more knowledgeable and therefore more confident. I worried less about what my students thought of my expertise and more about how I could better illustrate various concepts and theories related to our topics. The meaningfulness of the work was there all along, but my insecurities and inexperience had prevented me from recognizing it.
My mindset about my work had a direct impact on how meaningful it was to me – and research shows this to be the case – one’s mindset can impact one’s experience. When I focused on the negatives, I had a more difficult time seeing the meaningfulness of teaching. Connecting my personal goals and values to my work, developing my skills, and improving my mindset transformed a stressful and un-fun job into a job that brings meaning and pleasure to my professional life.
What Are Your Talents?
The second piece of my advice relates to using your talents – or natural skills – on a regular basis. Research indicates that when individuals are able to use their talents regularly, their energy to accomplish tasks and productivity increases, while their stress decreases. Gallup, Inc., the well-known and much respected pollster and consulting firm, has spent more than fifty years studying human talents, although they prefer to use the term “strengths.” More than 8.2 million people have taken Gallup’s Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment — which tests for 34 specific, unique strengths — since its inception in 1998.
When I took the Clinton StrengthsFinder assessment for the first time, I had low expectations. Given my love for self-assessments, I felt I had very little new information to learn about myself. The assessment was accomplished with the thought that it would merely underscore what I already knew about myself. Wrong.
The Clifton StrengthFinder results have truly revolutionized my self-concept – but in a good way. I was dumbfounded to learn that my greatest strength was competition. There are at least two reasons for my great surprise. First, I had previously disassociated myself with competitive types – it’s not about winning, I told myself. Second, I had only negative stereotypes associated with competition: annoyingly competitive business people, ultra-competitive athletes who spent their time reliving their glory days or lining up the next tennis match were what came to mind when I read competition.
Reading the information that Gallup provided on each of the 34 strengths, and more importantly the five strengths related to my assessment, allowed me to learn what competition really meant. Now, I am able to embrace the piece of me that needs competition and can seek out opportunities to flex my competitive muscle. Knowing and, more importantly, using my strengths every day have given me a greater sense of fulfillment at work and at home.
If what we mean by having fun at work is really that we had a great day at work, then this is my personal recipe: find the meaning in your work and tap into your strengths at work as frequently possible. Fun at work may not be a mirage after all.