Meaningful Work

In his book, “Outliers, The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell defines meaningful work as work that has

  • complexity
  • autonomy
  • a connection between effort and reward

I agree, and I think I’d take it further. More than just complexity, it needs a degree of difficulty that is a ‘stretch’ for the worker (if I remember correctly, this comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”). This ‘stretch’ will, of course, be constantly changing, because what begins as a ‘stretch’ eventually, through practice, becomes quite easy. When you rode a bicycle for the first time, it was really hard! And pretty soon, it became so second nature that you almost didn’t notice you were doing it. Of course, if the stretch is too great, you get frustrated, because there is no reward for all that effort.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘autonomy‘ as being self-governing or functioning independently of other parts. Obviously, the level of autonomy varies from the relatively low level of the assembly line worker to the relatively high ones of the solopreneur or research scientist. Those with the lowest level of autonomy, that is, the lowest amount of control over their work, tend to have adverse health outcomes because of it. I suspect that above some minimum level, however, different people prefer different levels of autonomy.

The connection between effort and reward is a bit murkier, however. What sorts of rewards? Monetary? Benefits? Appreciation? Status? And what happens when the relationship between effort and reward changes for the worse, i.e. more work, less reward? I know I’ve had several small business owners remark to me that “I’m working harder for less” in the last few months — and it’s true for me, as well.

So what do you do if that connection between effort and reward isn’t what it used to be? Here are a few ideas about where to look for that improved connection between work and reward (in no particular order):

  • Realize that things have shifted — permanently. You can call it the economy, but it’s really larger than that. The industrial model (more or bigger is always better, regimentation) has broken down. The earth can’t support it, for one thing. Factory farming (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) is poisoning the earth, from toxic fertilizers to seeds that are controlled by one company to poisonous vats of excrement. Fossil fuel, which is what allowed our industrial culture to flourish, is causing global warming — and is running out. (That may be a good thing, in the long run, but it’s destabilizing in the short run.) Treating people like numbers for health care doesn’t work, either. We are moving to appreciating each person’s unique make up.
  • Looking backwards isn’t likely to help. The earth supported many fewer people before the industrial revolution than it does now. The speed of the internet, and the connections it makes, are genuinely new, and not likely to go away.
  • The speed of processing has outstripped human rational thinking. We all need to process faster — and the fastest human processing is intuition. So begin working with yours so that you learn to trust it. (And call me if you’d like some help there — either in private sessions or in classes.)
  • People do still have needs — food, clothing, shelter, health, safety, connection/belonging, and self-actualization — but you may want to consider how your talents, skills and resources can be useful lower down on Maslow’s hierarchy. Anything that helps with health (human or the earth’s) or efficiency, i.e. doing more with less, is probably a good idea.
  • At some level, you agreed to be here, on Earth, at this interesting/critical time. So part of you knows that, and knows what you came here to do — and it may well not be what you think. Listen to your own heart — it knows.
  • Count your blessings regularly. That will both point you in the right direction and keep your spirits up.
  • Group effort and sharing are key to this. There’s an old problem, referred to as the commons problem. If a community has a finite amount of grazing area available to it, what’s best for an individual herd owner is to have as many cows as possible. But if everyone does this, there are too many cows, they’re all sickly, the land gets overgrazed and in the long run, won’t support very many cows at all. What’s best for the community is for them to agree on the number of cows that’s best for the community and how they’re going to apportion that number. (Apparently, they actually did this with the fish in the waters off Iceland — mentioned incidentally in Michael Lewis’ wonderful article about Iceland’s financial meltdown.)

It’s an incomplete list, and I’m working the murkiness like everyone else. Co-housing, anyone? Want to to add to the list?

Hollis Polk is a personal coach (, who has been helping people create lives they love for 15 years, using neurolinguistic & hypnotherapy techniques, decision science, clairvoyance & the common sense learned in 20+ years of business. She is an NLP Master Practitioner, hypnotherapist & has a BSE in engineering from Princeton & a Harvard MBA. She is also a successful real estate broker, investor & business owner.