How Can A Monotonous Job Be Meaningful? | St. Louis Public Radio

How Can A Monotonous Job Be Meaningful?

Originally published on April 20, 2018 9:54 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Meaning Of Work.

About Barry Schwartz's TED Talk

Psychologist Barry Schwartz says our current thinking about work focuses too much on paychecks and too little on all the ways we find fulfillment — even in jobs many might consider mundane.

About Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz has been a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College for over 40 years. He's the author of several books, including The Paradox of Choice, in which he argues the abundance of choice in today's western world is actually making us miserable.

His latest book, Why We Work, a TED Books original, dispels the myth that we primarily work to get a paycheck.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, we're exploring ideas about the meaning of work and whether work is something we do because we love it or because we have no choice.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: There's a kind of attitude you sometimes see - a kind of us and them attitude.

RAZ: This is psychologist Barry Schwartz.

SCHWARTZ: There is the elite, who want all this fulfillment from work, and then there's everybody else that just wants a paycheck. And we should organize work on the assumption that most people don't care what they do as long as they're paid for it. And I think this is a completely false picture. It matters to people doing these jobs, too.

RAZ: And it matters, Barry Schwartz says, because humans have this innate need to feel valued, to feel like what they do means something, even when those jobs might not be the ones people necessarily want. Here's Barry Schwartz on the TED stage.


SCHWARTZ: Why do we work? Now, I know, of course, we have to make a living, but nobody in this room thinks that that's the answer to the question why do we work? So we wouldn't work if we didn't get paid, but that's not why we do what we do. And in general, I think we think that material rewards are a pretty bad reason for doing the work that we do. When we say of somebody that he's in it for the money, we are not just being descriptive.


SCHWARTZ: Now, I think this is totally obvious. But the very obviousness of it raises what is, for me, an incredibly profound question. If this is so obvious, why is it that for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the work they do has none of the characteristics that get us up and out of bed and off toward the office every morning? How is it that we allow the majority of people on the planet to do work that is monotonous, meaningless and soul-deadening?

RAZ: Now, the thing about work, says Barry, is that it wasn't always like this.

SCHWARTZ: People didn't think, in antiquity, about whether work was fulfilling. People were craftsmen or farmers. The work they did was simply a part of their life and not divorced from it psychologically, not divorced from it physically.

RAZ: No one was wondering if their work was meaningful. They were just busy living their lives, functioning in the role that they played in the community.

SCHWARTZ: It was varied from one day to the next. It presented challenges that you couldn't anticipate. You needed to use your ingenuity. You needed to be flexible. You needed to learn from your experience. That was sort of intrinsic to the character of the work that people did.

RAZ: But for most people, work became something different when factories started to become the places where most of them earned a living, places where they were given a very specific task.

SCHWARTZ: And did the same mindless thing over and over again, hour after hour, day after day. The kind of engagement and challenge and opportunity to learn was eliminated. And then, when the only reason you have to work is for a livelihood, now people start yearning for something more. So I think the reason people want fulfillment in work now is that the factory system did such a good job of taking fulfillment out of work for 200 years.


SCHWARTZ: One of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith, was convinced that human beings were, by their very natures, lazy and wouldn't do anything unless you made it worth it their while. And the way you made it worth their while was by incentivizing, by giving them rewards. That was the only reason anyone ever did anything. So we created a factory system consistent with that false view of human nature. But once that system of production was in place, there was really no other way for people to operate except in a way that was consistent with Adam Smith's vision. False ideas can create a circumstance that ends up making them true.

RAZ: I mean, so Adam Smith was wrong. I mean, people don't just work for money.

SCHWARTZ: That's correct, and he knew it. He says, in the classic "The Wealth Of Nations," he says the man whose life is spent in a few simple operations naturally loses the habit of mental exertion and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be. Now, the words I want you to pay attention to here is generally becomes. That is - this is not the way people are before they enter the assembly line. It's what the assembly line turns them into. So in this passage, he's essentially contradicting what he said in other places in the book. which is that people are basically lazy and they don't want to think and they don't want to expend effort. No, no, no, you put them in a factory and that's what they become.

RAZ: Enjoying your work, in other words, is about context, even if you have a job that could seem boring or meaningless because how you think about that job and how that work is valued, that could be the thing that really matters. So take, for example, janitors. There was a group of researchers at Yale who interviewed janitors at a hospital about their work - you know, vacuuming carpets and cleaning toilets and waxing floors and emptying trash cans. And what the researchers found was that these hospital janitors were doing much, much more than what was expected of them.


SCHWARTZ: They encountered Mike (ph), who told them about how we stopped mopping the floor because Mr. Jones (ph) was out of his bed, getting a little exercise, trying to build up his strength, walking slowly up and down the hall. And Charlene (ph) told them about how she ignored her supervisor's admonition and didn't vacuum the visitors' lounge because there were some family members who were there all day, every day, who, at this moment, happened to be taking a nap. And then there was Luke (ph), who washed the floor in a comatose young man's room twice because the man's father, who had been keeping a vigil for six months, didn't see Luke do it the first time and his father was angry. And behavior like this from janitors, from technicians, from nurses, and if we're lucky every now and then, from doctors, doesn't just make people feel a little better. It actually improves the quality of patient care and enables hospitals to run well.

RAZ: So they were doing things that made them feel valued.

SCHWARTZ: Well, it's a feeling that you're valued and it's - more than that, it's a kind of objective awareness that you actually are doing something that is valuable. The hospital janitors who got real fulfillment out of their work, what they thought they were doing was not just mopping floors and emptying trash baskets. They thought they were making an essential contribution to the functioning of a deeply meaningful and significant social institution. The people in the hospital are there to cure disease and ease suffering. And their job was to play an absolutely essential role in that project. And so they were as much committed to the, what Aristotle would've called the telos of the organization, the proper purpose of the organization, as the heart surgeons were.

RAZ: But not every janitor can choose to work in a hospital.

SCHWARTZ: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely. But I think you can create work environments where it takes a sort of a Herculean effort for people to construe their work as meaningful and important. And you can create workplaces where it's easy. People need discretion in what they do. They need autonomy in what they do. They need to feel respected by their coworkers and respected by their supervisors. People need to feel like they can learn.

All those things gets them engaged in the task. And most important, people want meaning in what they do. And the meaning comes, often, from the role that their work or their organization's work plays in improving the lives of members of their society, of their community. Now, surely there are some enterprises that are not noble, but I think if you really see yourself as serving the community in any retail store you're operating in, in any call center you're operating in, I think you can find nobility in what you do.

RAZ: Psychologist Barry Schwartz. He has a new TED book out. It's called "Why We Work." You can see more of his talks at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.