Living Your Own Life Agenda: Career
This is the third blog in a series aimed to help you develop a stronger life agenda. We will use the domains defined in the life wheel. Each blog in the series will focus on one domain with prompts and exercises to help you learn more about shaping your agenda for that domain.
You either walk inside your story and own it
or you stand outside your story
and hustle for your worthiness.
– Brené Brown
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, author Ernest Becker states, “The essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic.” In our lives, we experience things on two levels—at the level of animal and the level of symbol and meaning.
For example, when we have Thanksgiving dinner, we are partly eating to survive. That’s the animal part of the dinner. However, do bears have Thanksgiving dinner? No. And even more exclusive to human beings: we also eat for meaning. The same is true in our professions. We work partly for survival, but that can’t be all. We must also work for meaning.
Where Does Meaning Come From?
The parable of the three stonecutters helps us understand that meaning is different for everyone. One day, a person goes into a town square in Europe where three stonecutters were at work building a cathedral. The person goes up to the first stonecutter and asks what he is doing. The first stonecutter responds, “I’m cutting stones.” The person then goes up to the second stonecutter and asks the same question. The second stonecutter responds, “I’m providing for my family.” Finally, the person asks the same question of the third stonecutter, who responds, “I’m building a cathedral!”
The person found it interesting that while all three stonecutters were doing the same thing, the meaning they attribute to the work was different. We tend to think of jobs as having their inherent meaning, but this is not the case. The meaning of any particular job is defined by the person doing the job. We are responsible for creating meaning in our job.
Why Does Meaning Matter?
In modern career language, the three stonecutters expressed the meaning of their work at three levels:
- Task orientation – I’m cutting stones.
- Career orientation – I’m providing for my family.
- Calling orientation – I’m building a cathedral!
In studies about career meaning, findings indicate that those with a calling orientation were the most satisfied in their careers. They were promoted faster and even enjoyed better health. Similarly, those with a career orientation outperformed those with a task orientation in areas of satisfaction and promotion.
In our careers, we may not always be able to control the tasks that we do in our job. However, we do have control over the meaning we create for the job. There were many instances in my own career where I encountered significant setbacks and obstacles. In those situations, I asked myself, “What is this difficult experience meant to teach me?” By viewing difficulties as learning opportunities, I could approach the challenge more effectively. This is an example of how to craft meaning no matter what the outer situation.
Crafting Meaning and Purpose
We are experiencing deep challenges these days around our careers. There are many demands on us, and we are reflecting on how we will respond. When it comes to the role of work in our lives, we find that we must become clearer in our intentions and boundaries. We are, in short, called upon to craft our jobs. There is a growing body of practical research in the area of job crafting. I recommend the scholarly works of Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski.
One of the core concepts in job crafting is to define the meaning of our job. The prompt we would like for you to consider is this: What is the highest purpose for the work that I do?
As you consider this question, you will take responsibility for framing your career. This is something that only you can do for yourself. As you take time to create the meaning and purpose of your career, you can find the ideas and courage to weather inevitable challenges and build your own cathedral.
Next time, we will explore the social domain of the life wheel. How can you make the most of the time you spend with others? Navigating social demands post-pandemic is a challenge. We’ll share some ideas for setting your social agenda.
Tony Tsai, MBA
Tony Tsai is the director of Leadership and Career Development for University of Utah Health and co-director of the University Coaching and Advancement Network (U-CAN). Tsai helps people connect to the meaning and authentic purpose in their careers through innovative, practical programming and coaching. In previous roles, he led strategic transformation efforts in medical education. He formerly served as head of career advising at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and as an officer in the U.S. Army. Tsai received an MBA from Columbia Business School.