Reality Check: Making Your Meaning

Sir Christopher Wren, architect and cathedral-designer, is associated with a story of three bricklayers. A cathedral was under construction, and three bricklayers were asked, “What are you doing?”

The guy who was crouched over answered, “I’m working.”

The guy who was half-standing answered, “I’m building a wall.”

The guy who was standing tall, working hard and fast, answered, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Which of those three bricklayers would you imagine was the happiest at his work?

Which of the three bricklayers do you think was the most productive?

I wasn’t there (it was the 1670s, after all) but in one version of this tale, the most productive of the bricklayers is said to be the cathedral builder. Based on my observations of workers some centuries later, I’m confident that the cathedral builder was also the happiest.

Notice that all three workers had the same boss. They were in the same environment. To the casual observer, they would all appear to be doing the same work.

The difference among them was in their perception of their work—how they viewed the meaning of what they were doing.

Fast forward a few centuries and we can still find people who feel unhappy, unfulfilled, purposeless. And while dissatisfaction is not limited to the workplace, workplaces do provide good examples.

George works at a factory job. But he’s always felt that he was made for more important work, something better and more meaningful. As he sets off each day, lunchbox in hand, he grumbles about the dullness of his work. There’s no opportunity for creativity. There’s no greater purpose. He’s just making widgets.

When he arrives, George hunches over his machinery and barely looks up as people pass by. He’s just putting in the hours, doing his time, earning his paycheque. Meaning and purpose are out there somewhere, and someday he is going to find them. Out there, though, not here.

Ginette works at the same factory job. She also feels that she was made for important, meaningful work. She sees how useful the widgets are that she makes; how they contribute to the wellbeing of her customers and to society. Still, she knows that she could contribute more.

So when Ginette arrives at work, she looks at what she is doing and thinks, “I wonder if there’s a better way to do this.” Every activity presents an opportunity for creativity and innovation.

Meaning goes with the person, rather than with the work. If you struggle with finding meaningful work, here’s a possibility: remember the bricklayers and look for the meaning in the work you are already doing.

For example, are you roofing houses? Or providing shelter? Are you making tires? Or contributing to mobility for humanity? Are you waiting tables? Or bringing nourishment and joy? Are you toiling in a daycare? Or inspiring a new generation? Picking up garbage? Or refreshing the planet? Planting a flowerbed? Or crafting a beautiful, tranquil space? Looking after your grandkids? Or creating a legacy?

All kinds of work have meaning and add value. You don’t have to work in an “environmental” profession to be an environmentalist. You don’t have to work in a “helping” profession to help. You don’t have to work in a “creative” profession to create.

Whatever you are doing, you can do it with meaning, should you choose to do so. Do you find meaning in your work?

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