One AWEsome step towards purposeful work

One AWEsome step towards purposeful work


We modern people aren’t quite right

Are you willing to mess with your job to make a meaningful difference, or to job purpose, as this practice is called? Are you clueless as to how? If you answered yes twice, this post is for you.

Before I share an awesome way to help you see job purposing possibilities all around you, let me correct a misconception. Struggling to come up with a job purposing idea doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. Well, actually, it does. But it’s nothing that isn’t wrong with most of us 21st-century Westerners.

Here’s our problem: We are unknowingly maimed because modern society has ostracized our Inner Givers, that part of us interested in contributing to others without expecting anything in return.

The Inner-Giver roles enjoyed by 8,000 generations of our forbearers have largely disappeared over the last few dozen. Instead of running abreast with our cousins to turn the wild woolly mammoth into a tribal feast, we roam alone in supermarkets to feed only our closest kin. Instead of raising a barn with our neighbors, we hire a firm. Instead of taking care of each other’s toddlers, we deposit them in centers. Self-sufficiency has merits, but it strips our Inner Givers of places to act.

Sure, our Inner Givers episodically pick up trash at an annual road cleanup or rescue a neighbor needing a jump start. However, occasional charity cannot satisfy our evolutionary need to serve any more than a few meals a year can satisfy our need for nutrients.

What about serving our families? We’re endlessly giving them attention, rides, shelter and cooked meals. Doesn’t that keep our Inner Givers engaged? Yes, but not broadly enough. For us to flourish, our Inner Givers need a societal role.

Early humans survived because individuals continually aided others across the entire tribe, not just those they mated and procreated. This might explain why the litany of professional and personal benefits that accrue from a vibrant Inner Giver presented in a prior post– including lower incidence of job dissatisfaction, anxiety, stroke and Alzheimer’s – don’t appear to materialize by serving our nuclear families.

Emotionally connecting, or empathizing, with those relatively distant from us is our natural inheritance. Yet, by no fault of our own, most of us leave this innate trait largely untapped. With our Inner Givers exiled from our lives, we cannot see ways to assist our colleagues, customers or to otherwise do good at work. Our fundamental difficulty with job purposing is that our Inner Giver is absent.


An AWEsome fix

Want to restore the empathic competency that is your human legacy? Head to the woods.

Sound like hippy nonsense? It’s actually a conclusion reached by respectable scientists doing solid research.[1] Specifically, four psychologists established that standing in a grove of eucalyptus trees unleashed empathy. Individuals who looked at the towering trees were more likely to help someone in need than the control group. Really? What could possibly explain this?

Awe. Paradoxically, awe makes us feel small and insignificant and, thus, enrolls us in mightier aspirations.

Let me explain. Awe involves transcending our usual scope of attention to one that is more vast or complex. The stars awe because they are grandiose compared to the Lexus that we spent the evening coveting. Empathy works on a similarly vast scale. It materializes when we shift our concern from self to others, be it our work team or the globe. By elevating our attention from selfish concerns to something larger than ourselves, awe makes room for our otherwise banished Inner Giver.

Feeling awe doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. For me, listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D or Douglas Morton’s Winter Nocturne elicits awe. Within a few measures, a feeling of warmth and elation ignites. By the last measure, the colleague who typically triggers homicidal thoughts is suddenly a quaint character in a wondrous world. I become a less petty version of myself within 10 minutes. Think this is too speedy to be plausible? It took only one minute of tree-gawking to produce the aforementioned empathy-boosting awe. If anything, I hang on to my small concerns longer than others!

What awes you? A view of a city skyline from a corner of your building? A photograph you took last summer? Watching your infant daughter sleep? If you’re thinking nothing does, you haven’t searched long enough. Awesomeness exists in every crease and corner of creation. Researchers have found that something as mundane as a slow-motion clip of colored drops of water falling into milk induces awe.[1] For real.

There are innumerable ways the world will awe you if you’re willing to give it 10 minutes of non-multi-tasking attention. Find one. Now do it every day for 21 days.

If the academic research is any indication, your awe practice will awaken your Inner Giver. You will suddenly notice a plethora of opportunities for good, including at your stodgy workplace. You’ll realize that you can offer the pregnant security guard the stroller in your garage; that you can bring joy to your team by having an appreciation lunch; or that you can make your new product more environmentally sustainable. You will have grown into someone who can make work matter and the world better, who can job purpose.


[1] Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Piff, Paul K., Dietze, Pia, Feinberg, Matthew, Stancato, Daniel M., Keltner, Dacher. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 108(6), Jun 2015, 883-899

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6 Responses

  1. My “awe” is the beach. I find calm and peacefulness, and something bigger than myself. Like those Eucalyptus trees, it helps me keep my own cares in perspective, realize how lucky I am, and contemplate how I can help make others feel more of that. Thanks for the thoughtful article, Bea!

    1. Great example, Jill. As someone who gawks at the waves often (both from a surfboard and land), I totally get it! Hope your year is filled with plenty of beach time.

  2. I recently sat down for a dinner date out with my wife. The waiter came to take our order. As soon as I told him that I wanted the mushroom risotto, he proclaimed ‘awesome!’. ‘No’, I admonished him – ‘my choice of risotto is not awesome in the least. Seeing a baby being born, seeing the northern lights – those are awesome things. My ordering risotto is not awesome’.

    Bea – thank you for reminding us of the value of true awe!

    1. I agree Yoram! I’m also perturbed by the decline in stature of the word awesome. Although there is one Italian cafe that offers a roasted vegetable risotto… (just kidding).

  3. Bea – kudos to you for making me pause for “less than five minutes” on a Tuesday morning to reflect a bit. You hooked me, but this is helpful context anytime, any day.

    1. Thanks Ryan. Glad the post was a positive contribution!

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