The civil engineer leans against his desk. “Want to know the best part of my work?” he asks. I, the only other person in his office, nod vigorously enough for a crowd.
The engineer pulls his khaki pants over his sizable belly and walks past his MIT diploma to a pinned-up blueprint of his current project. He places his nicotine-stained index finger on a small symbol that, to me, resembles a letter from a foreign alphabet. I ask the engineer, also known as dad, “What is it?”
My father manages a team of road engineers for the Venezuelan Ministry of Transportation. His current charge is to eliminate chronic traffic created by the Caracas international airport which sits on a narrow strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and a formidable mountain donning a skirt of illegal slums at its base. His finger rests on the “best part” of the resulting plan.
“Dad, what is it?” I screech. He moves his finger to his lips and, suppressing a smile, whispers, “Shhh. It’s something wonderful that we snuck in without asking for permission!”
Now I’m desperate to know what the unauthorized and best part of the project is. My six-year-old brain thinks the symbol might be an ice-cream parlor or horse stable. With any luck, Dad will take me and my four siblings to his newly constructed road project to eat ice cream atop white horses!
I plead again. “Daaaad, what is it?” He clears his throat with dramatic flair. “Ahummm, it’s a foot bridge to the beach!”
“Oh! When can we cross the bridge?” I ask.
“Oh sweetie, the bridge is not for us.” Dad explains that the bridge gives families who live in the adjacent slum walking access to the beach. Because it’s daunting and dangerous to cross eight lanes of speeding vehicles, most of these destitute residents haven’t wet their feet in the blue water they see from home.
“Imagine families who have never frolicked in the sand or splashed in the waves doing just that!” exclaims my beaming dad. I think he expects me to clap. Instead, I pout and cross my arms. No ice cream, horses or bridge for me.
By his long pause, I know my father is about to say something he wants me to remember. “My precious little sky,” his favorite name for me, “When you grow up, do you want to love your work as much as I do?” He waits for my weak nod before saying what, years later, I would recognize as the best career advice I ever received.
“Listen beyond the clamor of your wants for the whisper of the world’s needs.”
In the four decades since the above conversation, many researchers have studied the role of purpose at work. Their conclusion? Dad was right. By modifying his work to make a contribution to a social cause, what is now known as “job purposing,” my dad made his job more motivating and fulfilling.
Want to love your job? Seek work-related ways you can contribute to a social cause. Could you support a co-worker who was just diagnosed with diabetes? Might you offer your work team the opportunity to become trained as emergency first responders? Could you invite an environmental nonprofit to give a presentation on working sustainably at the next team-building event? For more job purposing ideas, see “Six small acts that ignite purpose at work.”
Above all, keep listening for the whisper of the world’s needs. It will reveal ways to job purpose.