HOW TO USE POSSIBILITY THINKING TO FIND MEANING IN YOUR WORK

POSSIBILITY

As I’ve discussed in previous work, your mindset and belief about both your work and your ability will have a powerful influence over your performance.  We now have reputable scientific evidence to back up this idea.

One interesting study looked at a group of 112 accountants who were early in their careers.  It was found that those within the group that had a sincere belief that they could accomplish what they set out to do were the ones who later scored the best job performance ratings from their supervisors at a ten-month review.  Interestingly, their faith in their own ability was a more powerful predictor of performance than their actual level of previous training or skill.

Even more compelling is the fact that our beliefs in our abilities are not static, and we can actually alter them.  A 1999 Harvard study looked at a group of Asian women who were given similar math exams on separate instances.  The initial time, they were primed to focus on the fact that they were women (stereotypically worse at math than men).  The second time, they were instructed to focus on the idea that they were Asians (generally thought to be math whizzes when compared to other ethnic groups).  The outcome was that their scores were much higher the second time, despite no change in either IQ or difficulty of questions!  The only difference was that in the second exam scenario they believed in their ability to perform well.

There is a key and actionable takeaway from these findings.  Anytime you’re dealing with a challenging situation, increase your level of performance immediately by placing focused attention on all of the skills you have (rather than those you lack) and all the reasons you’re more likely to succeed than fail.  Years of research support this approach.

In addition, powerful work from Stanford University’s Carol Dweck points out the importance of believing not only in your abilities, but in your ability to improve those abilities.  The differentiation she makes is between that of a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset”.  Those with a “fixed mindset” believe their natural aptitude for certain skills is completely predetermined, while those with a “growth mindset” believe they can enhance their basic qualities through practice and effort.  The idea of a “growth mindset” is not dismissive of innate capabilities, but it is rather focused on the acknowledgement that everyone can enhance and improve through specific practices and experiences.  All of Dweck’s research points to the reality that motivation is the key factor that pushes growth-minded individuals toward success.  It seems that the belief that there will be a positive payoff associated with our effort encourages us to dig in and work rather than giving into a helpless mentality.

PURPOSE

After years of research and countless interviews with professionals from every conceivable field, Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski has concluded that every employee views work with one of three “work orientations”.  Employees either view their day job as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.  Workers with a “Job” view each day as an inconvenience, and their paycheck as a reward.  Those with a “career”, in addition to working out of necessity, work for the opportunity to succeed and grow.  Finally, the group that views their work as a “calling” see it as fulfilling not because of external rewards, but because it contributes to a greater purpose, allows them to capitalize on their personal strengths, and brings meaning to their lives.

Interestingly, the research shows that the level of purpose or meaning an individual has in his or her work has virtually nothing to do with the actual job he holds.  Wrzesniewski’s findings show that there are physicians who see their work only as a job, and janitors who see their work as a calling!  Essentially, this shows that the propensity to view one’s work as a mission has little to do with the actual work and everything to do with one’s mindset toward the work.

HOW TO USE “JOB CRAFTING”

Organizational psychologists have developed a term called “job crafting”.  “Job crafting” involves shifting the mental approach to one’s work in order to create new possibilities for the meaning of the work.

How exactly is this accomplished?  Well, without making actual concrete changes to your normal daily activities at work, you can begin by contemplating what potential enjoyment and significance already exist in the job you’re doing.  Many examples immediately come to mind here.  Imagine two high school history teachers.  One focuses completely on the daily grind of grading papers and pushing through another week of lesson plans, while the other focuses on the life-impacting work of shaping the minds and future of his or her students.

An interesting exercise recommended by Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage, is to encourage individuals to reformat their “job description” into something called a “calling description”.  Anyone can do this, and I recommend you do it right now.  Simply think about how the individual responsibilities described on your “job description” could be expressed in a way that would make the position sound irresistible to a future applicant for your position.  Specifically, the goal here is to hone in on the meaning that can be derived from the work that’s being accomplished.

In his book, Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow, Chip Conley uses another strategy with the same goal in mind.  He tells his employees the following: “Forget about your current job title.  What would our customers call your job title if they described it by the impact you have on their lives?”  The point is this: meaning and mission are key in any endeavor to facilitate peak performance.  There’s just no way around it.

One last exercise worth considering is the following: On the left side of a piece of paper list all the day-to-day duties you are obligated to perform at your job that seem meaningless.  From there draw an arrow to the right and list what each duty will accomplish.  If the accomplishment still seems to lack significance, then ask what does this outcome lead to next? Keep drawing arrows to the right until you reach a point where you reach an outcome that has significance or purpose for you.  This will allow you to make a connection between every small thing you “must” do and the larger meaning, mission, and significance that the task serves to achieve.

Enjoy these exercises, and share your insights so others can learn and grow as well!

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