"When it came to work, baby boomers wanted something more than steady paychecks, predictable promotions and the gold watch. Many wanted their work to be above all, meaningful," wrote Daniel McGinn in a recent Newsweek article. (June 19, 2006)
This sounds like a noble goal. But it can also be a trap. It can lead to inappropriate expectations of what job should provide. Not only does this put pressure on management and coworkers, but it may lead to extreme dissatisfaction. No job, however important, can provide our lives with all the meaning we need and seek.
This attitude can raise the bar so high that no job is ever good enough. I've seen very idealistic people squander their lives as they search for the perfect job opportunity or the optimal cause. I've see non-profits seriously understaffed as our baby boomer seeks that world-changing event. We should all be devotees of the Nike philosophy.
We spend too much time analyzing -- Is it good enough? Is it meaningful enough? Am I overqualified? Underqualified? Will it make me happy? (It's a job not a religious tenet.) -- and not enough time doing. Maybe holding a crack baby won't bring world peace but it will certainly improve one child's life. Maybe checking out groceries doesn't seem to fit the bill (even where unemployment is the alternative) but I know that the drudgery of grocery shopping is alleviated by her kind words.
Any job can be meaningful. Because it's not what you do, but how you do it.
The Torah tells us the story of Chanoch, a simple shoemaker who took great care with every stitch. For his conscientious attention to his work, for his ethical behavior in pursuance of a mundane occupation, Chanoch merited Heavenly notice and reward. This was a gift to him -- and to us.
Any job can be meaningful. Because it's not what you do, but how you do it. If the dry cleaner greets you with a cheerful hello, if the car mechanic is honest and quick, if the bank teller treats you like a person, they are infusing their job with meaning. If a craftsman cares about his product, if top quality materials are used and time and attention lavished, then they are elevating the mundane.
If a plumber connects all the pipes with care and precision (if you know one who can, please give me his number!), not trying to cut corners, his efforts acquire a spiritual component. If a stockbroker is zealous on behalf of his clients and follows all the ethics rules of his profession, then he too has found a way to make his job more than just work.
And if the paycheck supports spouses, children, elderly parents, charitable organizations, this retroactively infuses the work with meaning.
You don't have to save lives to make a difference and find job satisfaction. You don't have to save lives to volunteer for a non-profit. You have to follow the Nike wisdom and Just Do It.