Hunter S. Thompson, an American author and journalist, was once asked for some career advice. Thompson’s response is both poignant and perceptive. His advice also aligns precisely with what we know from our decades of research. Each of us needs to find meaning and impact from our work to realize our full potential.
In 1958, Hume Logan wrote his friend, Thompson, soliciting advice on how to find meaning with his life. Thompson’s entire letter is worth reading, but it is this paragraph that resonates with me[i].
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
Thompson turns our traditional thinking on its head. Instead of seeking a career path of which others approve or which may safely navigate Logan through life, he challenges Logan to seek a vocation that aligns to who Logan is as a person and that will allow Logan’s lifework to matter – it must be meaningful. Thompson is spot on. We all want to matter.
Yet, how can Thompson’s advice apply to someone who is already in the middle of their career? Or what if your vocational choice does not involve saving babies or educating young minds? Let me forcefully state that meaning does not have to be grandiose or well-publicized on social media. It can be simple and pure.
I know of a man who was a postal carrier his entire working life. He walked the same neighborhood streets for 40 years. In weather of all kind, he delivered important information to countless individuals and families – both good and bad. His hands held draft notices, college acceptance letters, and correspondence filled with sorrow and regret. This man was careful, unassuming, and frugal. With a small endowment that he carefully nurtured over the years, he sent many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to college. I find enormous meaning in that life – one that was largely unnoticed.
As you reflect on meaning in your work, consider these three questions:
1. Do I make life better for people?
For example, do I teach others, tend to their comfort and wellbeing, or do my products make people smile? Do I facilitate another’s success? Am I their loving caregiver? Do I make delicious food?
2. Am I making my own life or my family’s life better?
There is no shame in putting food on the table or providing stability. That type of life matters. I am reminded of man whose job it was to empty garbage cans at various locations around his small town, including the car washes. Each day he carefully combed through the dust bins underneath the vacuums looking for loose change. From this unpleasant task, he ensured his family went to Disneyland each summer, and, in those moments, he built a family and memories that transcended his lowly job title.
3. How am I helping my organization succeed?
Do not just show up at work. Make a difference! No matter what role you are serving in or how far down the ladder you may be, be a force for good. Have a positive attitude, be helpful, and do your best. If you are giving your best, you will succeed, and your contributions will matter in ways you never expected. For example, Mary Barra, CEO and Chairman at General Motors, started her career with GM as an assembly-line worker.[ii]
Some of you might answer positively to all three of my questions, but I would suggest you must have a good answer to at least one. If not, then some reflection and change is needed. In some way or fashion, you need to know and believe that your work matters. If not, then it’s just another job. I reiterate what Thompson said, a person has to be something, they have to matter. Your challenge? Find that meaning in your work.