How Can You Make What You Do Meaningful?


Monday, 9.28pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning. – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky is blunt about what happens if you are forced to do work without meaning – in the end you go mad.

But even when you have a choice how do you know that you’re doing meaningful work?

The reason I ask such a question is because of little examples that have come up in recent months.

The most recent was a trip to a well known fast food chain.

When you use their automated order placing machine it gives you a shortcut to a commonly placed order.

When you select that and mistakenly realise that it’s a large rather than regular option the interface has been designed to keep you moving forward.

What I would like to do is cancel the order and start again.

The interface choices aren’t designed to do that – they’re designed to get you to complete the order.

Now I’m sure a very well-qualified person has A/B tested that interface to death – and realised that by a simple optimisation of the words used in the menu choices on what is effectively a landing page they can close more customers who give in and just place the order.

There’s undoubtedly a statistically significant increase in orders through the use of an intentionally confusing screen.

But, is that ethical?

Is that good for the customer?

And is that meaningful work by that designer or programmer?

There are a few other such examples bothering me – including how ethical it is to manipulate people and how open you should be in your dealings with others.

Some people come down very strongly on the side of rights and morals while others are more comfortable with stretching the interpretation of morality and right to suit their pursuit of profit.

And it’s not an easy thing to take a position because logically both positions are justifiable.

Both positions have historically resulted in great good and great evil, after all.

However, if you leave the philosophy to one side and accept that there is no general answer.

What matters is what you want to do – and is there a framework that can help with that?

I found an interesting one, shown in the picture above, in a paper by Lips-Wiersma and Wright.

Their research suggests that meaning doesn’t come from just one place – instead it flows from multiple sources.

Let’s start with the job of just being yourself.

If you aren’t comfortable with who you are, with what you’re doing then you’re not going to be happy.

Many people have experienced the dissatisfaction that comes from being pressured into a high-paying career but hating every day they go to work.

And then there is the job of being with others – your family, work, friends.

Is that going well or could you do better?

When it comes to what you do day after day are you focused on yourself?

Do you climb the corporate ladder, step-by-step, always kissing up and kicking down?

Or is your job to hold the ladder and help others get on – to serve others?

Clearly, if one’s life is situated entirely in any one of the quadrants then unhappiness will generally follow.

The trick, this model suggests, is to find balance.

Balance between finding inner peace and healthy relationships.

Balance between making yourself money and being of service to humanity.

I think if that food chain asked the question at the end of its ordering process “How easy was it to order what you wanted today?” they might drop a few points on the conversion ratio but increase their customer’s happiness a little.

And maybe even make their entire operation a little more meaningful.

Small steps for large organisations – ones they should know they need to take.


Karthik Suresh

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