Work provides more than paycheckOf all the paid jobs I have ever held, the one that was most immediately satisfying to me was waitressing, back in high school and college.
By: Betsy Hart, The Dickinson Press
Of all the paid jobs I have ever held, the one that was most immediately satisfying to me was waitressing, back in high school and college.
I’m not kidding. Now, it was not the most thrilling. That would describe working in the press office in the Reagan White House almost right out of college. (Please don’t pause to do any math here.) And it wasn’t the most challenging. I like to think that applies to what I do now with my weekly column, where I at least hope I am having an influence.
But satisfying in real time? Waitressing. Yes, I was good at it — I can still handle plates like a pro and multitask at dinner like you wouldn’t believe. But what I really loved was directly connecting with people, and doing everything I could to make sure they had a great experience. The immediate, tangible satisfaction of the smile, the thank-you, taming the “bear” customer no one else could, knowing I had made their meal or night out special by giving great service. I mean it when I say it was at once gratifying to my soul.
I mean, let’s face it. Back in my Reagan days, the Soviets weren’t exactly waiting on my latest press release before making any big decisions.
Plus, I made a ton of money in tips!
Anyway, I thought of this when I saw a sign that hangs in the nurse’s office at my son’s high school: Part of it reads, “When Work Ends, Life Begins.”
I know — it’s just another vacuous cultural message bombarding my kids. But this one really bugs me. The idea that somehow work is something of little value except for providing a paycheck, that it’s to get “through” so one can do something that is actually meaningful, is so empty.
It’s no surprise, then, that today we parents go to great length to encourage our children to find work for which they are well-suited and for which they have a passion and so on. And that’s fine. But what about also building into our children values that will help them be well suited to their work even if it’s not — even if it’s never — their dream job?
Michael Steger is an assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University. He is conducting research on what makes work meaningful, and his blog on the subject for Psychology Today is fascinating.
In one recent piece, he recounts this well-known story:
“Three men are found smashing boulders with iron hammers. When asked what they are doing, the first man says, ‘Breaking big rocks into little rocks.’ The second man says, ‘Feeding my family.’ The third man says, ‘Building a cathedral.’”
The latter saw the bigger, more satisfying picture, and so he found meaning in his work.
OK, but what if in our work we are not contributing to something grand? What if we are not in a lab helping a cancer researcher, which anyone might find rewarding? Well, it might look like this testimonial, from Steger’s research:
“I am a production analyst. The part of my job that is most meaningful to me is that I take large — confusing amounts of data and produce reports that allow my co-workers to make sound business decisions. I like that I help make sense of what we are doing.“
Building into our children this view of work, that they can almost always see themselves as part of doing something significant and helpful to others even if it’s not grand or all about me, goes against our cultural grain in so many ways. But Steger’s research shows that such workers tend to be happier and more satisfied with work.
And no, when that kind of workday is over, life doesn’t suddenly begin. But it seems to me that is when it can.
— Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting our Kids — and What to do About It.” E-mail her at