Are you laying bricks, erecting a wall, or building a cathedral? How you frame the meaning of your job directly affects your motivation and power in the workplace. In this week’s podcast, I’ll help you think through the chain of effects that will enable you bring your best self to work each and every day.
You’ve probably heard that old story about a man who approached three masons in succession and asked them each what they were doing. The first grumbled a reply: “You see that pile of bricks over there? I’m cutting each brick down to size, and then laying them, one by one, all day in the hot sun.” The second mason said simply, “I’m working with these two guys to build a wall, and we should be done in a week or so.” The man approached the third mason. He seemed to be totally engaged in his work and when asked what he was doing, paused, smiled broadly, looked up to the sky and responded, “I’m building a cathedral to the glory of G-d.” It’s an apocryphal story, of course, that has been used by motivational speakers, probably since the days we were building cathedrals, to illustrate that how we connect to the ultimate purpose of our work affects our individual motivation and engagement.
What brought this story to mind for me was a conversation I had with one of my coaching clients. Like many, this client is dealing with the challenge of what to do next in the professional aspects of their life. Our focus in this work is to try to understand the effects they create among the people they directly or indirectly touch with what they do, and which of these effects they find most energizing. The intention then would be to find or create a new work situation in which they could best enable those effects. And that’s a tough thing to get your head around.
We’ve been trained by countless workplaces to focus our attention on goals, objectives, projects, and timelines, core competencies and to add up years of experience. We pay little attention to whether what we do and what we’ve done—whether these goals, objectives, competencies, and so on actually matter to anyone, and especially to anyone who really matters, like real people with real lives.
In the coaching conversation, I asked my client what she specifically did, and then asked, so what? To whom did it matter? What was the effect of you doing those particular tasks? And then, why did having those effects matter to the next people down the chain. And so on, and so on… until we reached a real effect on a real life. Suddenly, her work had true meaning for her over and above the organization’s abstract mission statement. By understanding the actual downstream effects that most energize my client and connecting these to their core values we’re then able to take the next step. That is, to seek out a new way and perhaps a new place for my client to apply their considerable skills, talents, new-found passion for the work itself, and yes, even those core competencies. In other words, to bring and be their best self.
Now, if you do this exercise for yourself – and I definitely would encourage you to do so – and you find that the effects that you’re creating downstream don’t actually align with your core values, or if your management seem to go out of their way to render your work meaningless and without purpose or real value, then it may well be time to have a serious rethink of your workplace role in the larger context of living as your best self.