How to Craft a More Meaningful Career

When people ask me for an example of someone whose work inspires me, I always start with Maggie Garza.

I first met Maggie after my wife Amy gave birth to our third son, when Maggie was assigned to our hospital room. Maggie was not a doctor or a nurse; she was a member of the custodial staff.  She left immaculate cleanliness in her wake, but it seemed to us that Maggie’s primary job was to dote on our new baby, openly share in our joy, and express genuine empathy when talking with Amy about her lingering pain from childbirth.

Her cheer was infectious, and she had a way of making us feel like her visit to our room was the single most important event of her day. She obviously had a passion for her job, despite the fact that housekeeping is near the bottom of the prestige hierarchy at the hospital, as it is within most any organization.

Can a housekeeping job be a meaningful career?

“For me it is,” said Maggie without hesitation. “I believe God put me here for a reason.”

Ask Maggie for her job description, and she’ll tell you: emptying the trash, cleaning and restocking the sink area, wiping down surfaces, and so forth. Ask her to simply describe what she does, though, and you get a different answer. She cleans, sure—and does so well. But she also checks in with patients, assesses their needs, expresses concern and care, and assists them where she can. She talks with them, gets to know them, and helps them feel more at ease.

Other hospital staff members notice this.  Sometimes pediatric nurses call Maggie into a room to help soothe a frightened child or calm a patient who is acting out. For her, the job is about much more than cleaning rooms. It’s about keeping hurting people comfortable, relaxed, cared for, satisfied.

“I like to converse with people, see what they need, and see how I can help them,” she said. “It makes them feel good. It makes me feel good, too.”

What makes Maggie so inspiring? She recognizes that she can play an active, intentional role in shaping her work into something that aligns well with what matters most to her. This way of approaching work is called job crafting, a concept formally introduced by management professors Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton.

Stated most simply, job crafting refers to those things that workers to do elicit a stronger sense of purpose, meaning, engagement, resilience, and thriving from their jobs. In crafting their work, people like Maggie change their work tasks, branch out into alternative work activities, build stronger relationships on the job, and re-envision the very purpose of what they do all day. These strategies ultimately lead to changes in the design of a job, the social environment, or the job-crafter’s perspective—and research so far seems to suggest that it works.  Scholars have found that workers across a variety of occupations (e.g., managers, teachers, salespersons) who implement job crafting strategies become more engaged, satisfied, and productive at work.

Job crafting offers a highly accessible set of strategies that potentially anyone can put into practice, regardless of the type of job in which they find themselves. Do you want to give job crafting a try? Start by believing that your job is not set in stone but is malleable enough to be changed through your own efforts. Then prepare yourself to be persistent and patient, seeking small wins that will accumulate and result in bigger changes in time. Once you have this mindset, try the following activity, adapted from a book I co-authored with Dr. Ryan Duffy, Make Your Job a Calling.

meaningful work chart

Outline your Job Tasks
First, take inventory of the tasks for which you are responsible in your current job. Under each of these columns, create lists of the various tasks you are required to carry out in a typical workday, organized according to the level of time and energy they require. In the Low column, list five or six of those little things that don’t take much effort; in the High column, list the major tasks that require a considerable amount of effort; and list the in-between tasks in the Medium column. For example, if you are an elementary school teacher, you might list “arranging desks and chairs” in the Low column, “developing a lesson plan” in the High column, and “teaching a lesson” in the Medium column.

When you finish, take a moment to evaluate the chart. Does this look like your typical workday?

Outline your Gifts
Now reflect on your gifts. Think of your gifts very broadly, starting with your motives, passions, and strengths. Under the motives column, create a list of five or so specific things you need in a job in order to be satisfied—things like financial security, supportive relationships, or making a difference. In the passions column, write down a list of things you really enjoy in your work—things like fixing things well, creating beauty, mentoring others, or being persuasive. Finally, under the strengths column, list your strongest personality traits that make you uniquely you—things like extroversion, openness to new experiences, or conscientiousness.

Integrate Tasks with Your Gifts

  1. Transfer and reorganize your tasks. Your goal is now to combine your job tasks with your gifts in a way that reflects how you most want to express your values, interests and personality on the job. To accomplish this, transfer the tasks from your Current Job columns to the New and Improved columns, but this time put them in the column that reflects how much time and energy you wish you were devoting to each task. Strive to be both ambitious and realistic as you do this. For example, for an elementary school teacher, if talking with parents about their children was in the Low column before, and you would like to make it a bigger part of your job going forward, write it in the Medium or even High column this time.
  2. Identify themes. While reorganizing your tasks to reflect your preferences, you will probably notice some themes emerging. Notice clusters of tasks that illustrate those themes, and give each a name. For example, classroom instruction and tutoring students one-on-one might be grouped under a “Directly Helping Students Learn” theme; creating classroom displays and writing lesson plans might reflect a “Creating a Good Learning Environment” theme.
  3. Add your gifts. Focus now on the themes that emerged from your task list. Identify the values, interests and personality traits that are expressed in those themes, and write them near each other in the New and Improved columns. For example, your relationship values, social interests, and extroversion trait might be expressed in the theme “Directly Helping Students Learn,” and your autonomy value, artistic interests and openness to experience trait might be expressed in the “Creating a Good Learning Environment” theme.

When you complete this process, you have a visual representation of what your job could become. Ideally, this visual representation represents a transformation of your current job into something that fits you better, and is more meaningful and satisfying as a result.

Take Action!
The final stage is to make plans for making your hypothetical New and Improved job more of a reality. What are some realistic approaches for crafting your job in ways that bring it into closer alignment with your gifts? Perhaps you can start by talking with your employer about how you might better meet the job demands by crafting your position in ways that play to your strengths. Then map out a timeline for making those changes, one at a time.

After identifying these ways to craft your job, try an experiment: Make a commitment to engage at least one small step toward crafting your job per day for a week. Pay attention to changes that result, and write about these in a daily diary. After a week, look back at your experiences. What difference did it make to engage in job crafting?

Don’t be discouraged if change is slow. Experts in job crafting suggest that small steps are the best way to start, because small successes will accumulate and become larger successes. As you make progress over time, you’ll feel encouraged to take slightly larger calculated risks later. Ultimately, you may find that you need to make some changes not only to your job, but to what you can offer as well, perhaps by updating your skills or obtaining new training. Opportunities such as taking online courses or enrolling in a degree program may be a great way to enhance what you bring to the workplace.

The bottom line is that aligning your tasks with your gifts will, in time, turn the job you have into more of the job you want.

What steps can you take to craft a more meaningful career? Do they involve getting more education? Finding a mentor? Changing your daily routine? Let us know your plan in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “How to Craft a More Meaningful Career”

    1. You’re right, Karen, that organizations have a responsibility for recognizing the value of their employees and compensating them accordingly. I don’t know Maggie has been encouraged by coworkers to pursue other opportunities within the hospital, such as translator. I asked her about that, but at the time she was clear that she really loved her job as custodian and wanted to stay in that role. In the essay, I’m most interested in exploring how people can get more out of their job, whatever their circumstances. That certainly doesn’t mean employers don’t have a moral responsibility to treat their employees fairly–clearly they do. Regardless, there are usually things we can do to make our current situation more meaningful.

  1. My sister-in-law shared this with me, and I can happily say, for the most part, I did this in my 29 year teaching career (I just retired)! I was able to explore my interests within my job and had tremendous job satisfaction. I would have stayed longer if it weren’t for the really long hours (I directed the school’s plays and advised the newspaper) and the paper grading!

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