The Search for Daily Meaning

The Search for Daily Meaning

Leadership Reflections

In 1974 I read a book that changed my life. It was Stud Terkel’s Working. After reading Working, I decided that improving the workplace was where I wanted to focus my career.

For three years Terkel—a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, oral historian, and talk show host—interviewed over 125 ordinary people about their day-to-day experience at work. He gathered stories from a waitress, farmer, farm worker, steelworker, receptionist, editor, teacher, actor, garbage man, football coach, policeman, lawyer, librarian, taxi driver, sports agent, film critic, consultant, and just about any occupation you can think of. Terkel collected the edited transcripts of his interviews into a powerful and revealing book about the workplace. It’s a profoundly moving portrait of both the injury and the joy that work brings to our lives, and this is the book to read if you really want to get an unfiltered view of what people think about their work. It’s as relevant today—if not more relevant—than when it was written.

In the introduction to Working, Terkel wrote:
This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. 

Not very inspiring, I know, but wait. He also said this:
It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday to Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.

It’s this second part that I chose to pursue; the part about the search for daily meaning, as well as daily bread.

Yet, 45 years after Terkel wrote those lines, people are still searching for meaning. And the yearning for it is growing. For example in reporting on a 2016 study of Millennials, Gallup wrote that “Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck—they want a purpose. For millennials, work must have meaning. They want to work for organizations with a mission and a purpose.”

BetterUp Labs reports similar results from a broader study across a wide range of workplaces and demographics: “Today’s workers expect employers to provide meaningful, purpose-driven work.” Even so, according to Gallup, only 29 percent of Millennials report they are engaged at work. And, BetterUp reports that “On average, employees say their work is about half as meaningful as it could be.”

This is a crying shame. It is also a waste of human potential. As both Gallup and BetterUp report, people who find more meaning in their work and workplace are more engaged, more productive and healthier. Barry and I find exactly the same thing in our research, and we talk about it in The Leadership Challenge. We know that when leaders more frequently “speak with genuine conviction about the higher meaning and purpose of work” (one of the items on the LPI® constituents are more engaged.

While the interest in meaning and purpose has grown in recent years, finding meaning is a universal desire. All generations want to make a difference. As we’ve written before, in the most recent edition of The Leadership Challenge, people “want to know that they have done something on this earth, that there’s a purpose to their existence.”

A significant part of our business is increasing the capacity of leaders to make work and the workplace more meaningful. Whether it’s facilitating their exploration of personal and shared values, coaching them on how to enlist others in a common vision, or enabling them to engage in close and positive relationships, collectively we can make a difference in how leaders make a difference through a focus on meaning and purpose.

The final interview that Terkel shares in Working is from a fireman. At the end of his story, the fireman says, “I can look back and say, ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.’ It shows something I did on this earth.”

This year, let’s make sure that the leaders with whom we work (and their constituents) are better able to look back and say, “I did something on this earth.” If we can do that, then we can also say that we did something that has increased the meaning and purpose of our work.


Jim Kouzes
is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Cited by The Wall Street Journal as one of the twelve best executive educators in the U.S., he was also the recipient of the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by Trust Across America. Together with Barry Posner, he is author of over 30 books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the most recent Stop Selling & Start Leading (with additional co-author Deb Calvert), fully-revised and updated sixth edition of the international bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, and Learning Leadership, selected by Strategy+Business as one of the 2016 Best Business Books of Year.

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