In the opening scene from the movie About Schmidt, Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, is staring at a clock on the wall of his office, counting down the minutes until his final day at work will be over and his retirement will begin. He has spent his career working as an actuary for an insurance company, where he rose to the position of assistant vice-president.
At the end of his last day, Schmidt sits in the midst of his boxed belongings, watching the clock, waiting until 5:00 p.m. when the workday and his career will be over.
At a retirement dinner that evening a long-time colleague toasts him, telling Schmidt he should feel “rich” to have devoted his life to something so meaningful. The look on Schmidt’s face says he’s not so sure. He once dreamed of having his own business, but instead chose the security of a steady paycheck.
A universal longing
Shortly after Schmidt’s retirement, his wife dies. The sudden changes—retirement, the loss of his wife of over 40 years—leave Schmidt wondering even more about the meaning of his life.
“I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things,” he writes to Ndugu, a six-year-old Tanzanian orphan he sponsors in response to a television advertisement. “And I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?”
Our culture would have us believe life is about competition. It’s a quest for more — more than we have now and more than others have. But as Nicholson’s character expresses so well, it’s contribution we long for, a sense that we’re making a difference with our lives.
The paths to meaningful work
I used to think there were just two types of jobs in the world: meaningful jobs and all the rest. Meaningful jobs were ones in which the work itself helped people or solved some of the world’s great problems. Any other type of work was just a job. I now see it differently.
Some do get the chance to heal people, eradicate diseases, or do other jobs that most would agree are inherently meaningful. However, there are many types of work where great meaning can be found.
For some people, the satisfaction of providing for their family makes their work meaningful. For others, their relationships with co-workers give their work meaning.
For others, meaning comes from how they use the fruits of their labor. For example, I know a corporate attorney who lives far beneath her means in order to contribute significant time and money to a ministry that keeps kids out of gangs and helps homeless people get a new start.
For some couples, their joint decision to have one parent stay home to focus on their kids adds meaning to both of their lives.
Maybe meaning is an inside job
When we struggle to find meaning in our work, one possible cause is that we think meaning is something our work should bring to us instead of us bringing meaning to our work.
In his book, “Authentic Happiness,” Psychologist Martin Seligman tells the story of a hospital orderly who meticulously selected pictures for the walls of a room where a close friend of Seligman’s lay unconscious. The orderly explained, “I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in, but when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away.”
This orderly viewed his work as integral to the healing of patients, whereas another might think of his work as menial and meaningless. The first orderly saw his job as a calling; the second simply as a source of income. The tasks are the same, but the perspective is completely different.
How do you view your work? Is the work you do inherently meaningful? Or, is your job a means to some other meaningful end?
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