Finding meaning in work

This morning I was reading Amy Wrzesniewski, a Professor of Organizational behavior at Yale School of Management, whose research is focused on how people construct meaning of their work. She looks especially at contexts where this work is challenging to describe, or difficult to see (i.e. virtual work). I think this is apt for those of us who have careers that involve professional expression of thinking in abstraction.

That we have been trained to think in quite abstract ways as linguists may at first seem to be a hindrance when we are working to discover the connections between this things that we know we are good at doing, and know that we really enjoy doing, and the professional expression of these knowledge, skills and abilities.  But as it turns out, that we have been trained to think abstractly is a tremendous boon in this respect: the process of navigating a career will take every bit of our training as researchers, analysts, and pattern-finders.

For me, linguistics is fundamentally about recognizing the ways that patterns express themselves. And the patterns that I am most interested in chasing down these days are how our shared training in things like morphology, syntax, semantics, phonology show up in very different ways in very different kinds of work down the road.

My data set are career-oriented linguists.

This is why I always ask of my interviewees for the “professional paths in Linguistics section” of career linguist things like “how do your skills and training in linguistics show up in your work?”

I don’t have all of my findings yet, because the research is still in progress, but crucially, this constitutes a reframing. It’s not about “what can you do with a degree in linguistics?” its about “what do you want to do, and let’s think about how linguistics can take you there”

One very creative application of Amy Wrzesniewski’s work is described in Shawn Achor’s book, the Happiness Advantage. Instead of job descriptions, he has his clients write descriptions of job meaning. For every task that they perform on the job, he asks them to think about how that contributes to something that they find meaning in.  This might take a few steps, or “and because of that’s”.

So let’s take for example, something that might seem like drudgery like data entry for tracking expenditures.

  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This process helps us to better understand how much money we spend
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This process helps us to see how much money we have left
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This helps us to think about how we want to spend the money we have left
  • Where’s the meaning in that?
  • This helps us to do the work of <insert your understanding here of the broader impact and purpose of your job/organization / field/sector?>

As he describes, this is not about false affirmation, or papering over real problems or trying to Stuart Smiley your way through your job. This is about consciously deciding to remember why we care about what we care about.

For those of us who have been trained in linguistics – such deliberate tracing of the links back to our training helps us to connect with meaning in reminding ourselves: “what makes me be good at this?” And helping us to better understand our strengths helps us to better use them. When we make the conscious effort to remind ourselves and why we care about the things that we care about, it can help us find the energy to do the aspects of the work that might be less than thrilling, or to work to recreate our jobs so that the tasks change, or work to create a career that involves a job change.

Getting to where you are going next begins with knowing where you are.  Such navigation is essential for job-seekers and job-havers alike as we are all ALWAYS traveling on a path and needing to decide “what comes next?”

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