You don’t have to be curing cancer

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Charles Duhigg — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Power of Habit — went to Harvard Business School and found that most of his classmates were pretty miserable 15 years later:

What I found was that my classmates were hardly unique in their dissatisfaction; even in a boom economy, a surprising portion of Americans are professionally miserable right now. In the mid-1980s, roughly 61 percent of workers told pollsters they were satisfied with their jobs. Since then, that number has declined substantially, hovering around half; the low point was in 2010, when only 43 percent of workers were satisfied, according to data collected by the Conference Board, a nonprofit research organization. The rest said they were unhappy, or at best neutral, about how they spent the bulk of their days. Even among professionals given to lofty self-images, like those in medicine and law, other studies have noted a rise in discontent. Why? Based on my own conversations with classmates and the research I began reviewing, the answer comes down to oppressive hours, political infighting, increased competition sparked by globalization, an “always-on culture” bred by the internet — but also something that’s hard for these professionals to put their finger on, an underlying sense that their work isn’t worth the grueling effort they’re putting into it.

This wave of dissatisfaction is especially perverse because corporations now have access to decades of scientific research about how to make jobs better. “We have so much evidence about what people need,” says Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (and a contributing opinion writer at The Times). Basic financial security, of course, is critical — as is a sense that your job won’t disappear unexpectedly. What’s interesting, however, is that once you can provide financially for yourself and your family, according to studies, additional salary and benefits don’t reliably contribute to worker satisfaction. Much more important are things like whether a job provides a sense of autonomy — the ability to control your time and the authority to act on your unique expertise. People want to work alongside others whom they respect (and, optimally, enjoy spending time with) and who seem to respect them in return.

And finally, workers want to feel that their labors are meaningful. “You don’t have to be curing cancer,” says Barry Schwartz, a visiting professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley. We want to feel that we’re making the world better, even if it’s as small a matter as helping a shopper find the right product at the grocery store. “You can be a salesperson, or a toll collector, but if you see your goal as solving people’s problems, then each day presents 100 opportunities to improve someone’s life, and your satisfaction increases dramatically,” Schwartz says.

One of the more significant examples of how meaningfulness influences job satisfaction comes from a study published in 2001. Two researchers — Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale and Jane Dutton, now a distinguished emeritus professor at the University of Michigan — wanted to figure out why particular janitors at a large hospital were so much more enthusiastic than others. So they began conducting interviews and found that, by design and habit, some members of the janitorial staff saw their jobs not as just tidying up but as a form of healing. One woman, for instance, mopped rooms inside a brain-injury unit where many residents were comatose. The woman’s duties were basic: change bedpans, pick up trash. But she also sometimes took the initiative to swap around the pictures on the walls, because she believed a subtle stimulation change in the unconscious patients’ environment might speed their recovery. She talked to other convalescents about their lives. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” she told the researchers. “That is not really part of my job description, but I like putting on a show for them.” She would dance around, tell jokes to families sitting vigil at bedsides, try to cheer up or distract everyone from the pain and uncertainty that otherwise surrounded them. In a 2003 study led by the researchers, another custodian described cleaning the same room two times in order to ease the mind of a stressed-out father.

To some, the moral might seem obvious: If you see your job as healing the sick, rather than just swabbing up messes, you’re likely to have a deeper sense of purpose whenever you grab the mop. But what’s remarkable is how few workplaces seem to have internalized this simple lesson.


  1. L. C. Rees says:

    It’s an open question whether neoliberalism is more about economic liberty or jerk empowerment. If it’s more about jerk empowerment, then free markets beware. We’ll see the rise of those that think free markets are too important to be left to the jerks.

  2. Kirk says:

    The smart guy always thinks he should be in charge–An issue that is behind 90% of our current set of problems right now. The flip side to that is that the smart guy is almost always the wrong guy to put in charge, because he has nearly always gotten by in life by being smart, not wise. This results in the spectacular cock-ups we see everywhere the technocrats get put in charge of anything really widespread.

    It’s too bad nobody figured out a way to enumerate factors like humility and wisdom, right next to the qualities we test for in all the formal intelligence tests. That line from Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum’s character: ““Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should…”? That’s a line that ought to be tattooed on the forehead of every single university graduate before they’re allowed to pick up their diplomas.

  3. Alistair says:

    “The smart guy always thinks he should be in charge–An issue that is behind 90% of our current set of problems right now. The flip side to that is that the smart guy is almost always the wrong guy to put in charge, because he has nearly always gotten by in life by being smart, not wise”

    I completely agree. The Technocrats have screwed it up very badly (and shown an alarming but unsurprising tendency to feather their own nests). Wisdom is being a damn sight less sure of oneself.

    Though I wonder if the problem isn’t actually with the “educated” rather than the “smart”.

  4. David Foster says:

    “Much more important are things like whether a job provides a sense of autonomy — the ability to control your time and the authority to act on your unique expertise.”

    In many businesses, there is a great deal of organizational chaos, to the point that all significant decisions have to involve endless negotiations among many internal parties. The drive for “delayering” and “empowerment” had too often resulted in environments where *no one at all* below the level of the CEO is able to take action in ways that previously would have been done at considerably lower levels of the organization.

  5. Kirk says:

    I think the problem is that we’ve decided that education and intelligence are one and the same thing, while ignoring the fact that you can educate the hell out of some very stupid people, and they’re still going to be fundamentally stupid. Although, they’ll be able to spout reams of regurgitated crap they heard in class, and will use a lot of big words to do it with.

    Actual wisdom is what we really need, along with healthy doses of humility and realism. These three attributes are in short supply among our elites.

    Case in point–Obamacare. Good Lord above… We have sixty years of distortions stemming from legislation and market manipulations in the healthcare industry, and these idiots we have thought we’d fix it with one gigantic legislative package, most of which they actually left up to the unelected bureaucrats to put into effect. Were you to put someone wise in charge, and tell them “Fix American health care…”, I can about guarantee you that that wise person would not have begun the effort with anything even remotely resembling the horrific pile of paper that was Obamacare. Instead, they’d have started small, and worked by slow, incremental changes–The same way we got into this mess in the first place. The insurance model for health care is about as stupid as you can get–After all, do you expect your auto insurance company to do your oil changes or pay for working on your brakes…?

    The massive edifices we keep constructing to “do things” just don’t ‘effing work. Look at NASA: Since Apollo, what the hell have they done? We should have had reusable single-stage-to-orbit back in the 1980s, when it first became technologically feasible. It took a full-blown lunatic like Elon Musk to make it happen, which only points out the essential insanity of relying on these mega-institutions like NASA and the rest of the US government.

    But, we keep right on building these things, expecting them to work and last. They don’t, so why the hell do we ignore the evidence and keep trying?

    My belief is that the best way to organize things is… Not to organize. Well, not past the point where you’re dealing with the problem, anyway. Instead of building massive company structures like Google and GM, what we ought to be doing is instead focusing on building the basic elements that go into those companies–The fine-scale teams that make them up.

    In the Army, I was exposed to a truism that I think extends outwards a hell of a lot further than we bother to think, and that truism is this: In the final analysis, what wins you battles and wars tactically isn’t necessarily the “big picture” crap, it’s the fine-grain stuff behind it all. One of my bosses once said something like this: “You can have the finest, most well-organized and thought-out operations order in the history of the Army, and if you’re trying to make that happen with lousy squads, you’re going to fail massively. On the other hand, if you’ve got really good squads, they’re going to pull the worst, most poorly organized and planned operations order out of the shit, and win the battle for you…”.

    Now, that’s something that probably overstates the case just a bit, but there’s a grain of truth in there about human endeavor: You can have really great “big structure” going on, but if the component parts of it are utter shiite, you’re not going to manage to accomplish much. Likewise, if your component pieces of the organization are really good at what they do, your higher-order entity can really screw the pooch and you’ll still succeed.

    Ideally, those high-functioning component organizations will ensure you don’t have a crappy plan or supporting infrastructure for them, but the fact is that there are dozens of instances I have actually lived through in both military and civilian life where those observations and truisms have held true.

    Overall, I think we’re doing it wrong. You don’t want “Empire”; what you really want is a bunch of smaller, cohesive and cooperative smaller entities that can work together and when they experience the organization life-cycle and die, you’re not going to lose everything in a “Fall of Rome” scenario.

    In other words, instead of building a great, big bureaucracy, what we need to be doing is focusing on enabling the smaller entities to self-organize and succeed. Instead of NASA, we should go back to the model used during the 1920-30s to build the aviation industry via what was then called NACA. If you go back and look, they didn’t do what NASA does, and plump down for big things like trying to build a 747 long before we were ready to, but they helped build airport infrastructure and provided seed money to various manufacturers, not trying to pick winners and losers, but letting reality take its evolutionary course.

    Big isn’t necessarily bad, but it sure as hell doesn’t have a very long lifespan of effectiveness.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    The trouble with being an employee is you’ve got a boss who defines your work’s meaning for you. You serve his vision, not yours. Whatever personal meaning you can find in that work, you usually must grab by stealth, like that janitor in the hospital ward.

    If you’re self employed, you have a choice of clients, and thus some freedom to seek work that is meaningful to you.

    But… security? That’s always an illusion. Never give up your freedom for an illusion.

  7. Walter M Ewald says:

    Having had the pleasure of taking a “Managing Organizations” class with Ms. Wrzesniewski years ago was a “see the forest through the trees experience” for all of us. She taught us how much culture influences our work quality. If we are rushed, our creativity drops. All basic human nature stuff that is unfortunately not pervasive even in the US, the best country ever to exist. We need to really listen to knowledge leaders like Wrzesniewski, Peterson and Haidt, as they put forward high-quality rock-solid concepts.

  8. Slovenian Guest says:

    If they made another “office space” movie today the protagonist would join ISIS, because it’s preferable to working a cubicle job, even for atheists!

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