Updated: Jan 28
I am on a quest to investigate what it means to find purpose and meaning in your work regardless of what your job is. With this in mind, I have interviewed several people who, for me, embody exactly that.
At the age of 22, I joined the agri brokerage and analytical company that my parents jointly set up in 1990. Although I had some work experience prior to that, this marked, in my mind, my entry into the corporate world. I worked there until the business was sold in 2012.
Working with your family is no easy feat (actually, working with anyone is no easy feat!) but my parents set for me a model of what I consider today to be what it means to find purpose and meaning in your work.
Each of my parents are very different individuals (one is French and the other English for starters!) and over the years I saw them navigate disagreements, conflicts, struggles and share great victories. It is no surprise that, today, I work with my brother in one of my businesses and with my husband in the other (if you missed my post on my 2 companies you can read it here).
With several decades of hindsight onto their work life, I have asked each of my parents (separately) what it meant - and still means - for them to find purpose in your work.
This week I interviewed my dad.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a semi-retired ex-commodity trader and market analyst who now writes books and blogs about the commodity trading business. I have been married for 34 years (to the same wonderful person); I am father to four successful, happy and independent children and grandfather to an adorable baby boy.
What do you look for in your work?
When I first began my career, I was looking for international travel and overseas postings. I imagined myself living in New York, being chauffeured to work, smoking a big cigar! I was looking for excitement and challenge. Little did I know that cigars would make me feel sick or that I would find New York overwhelming!
On leaving university, I had the choice of working for a bank or a commodity trading company. I imagined that the commodity trading world would be more exciting than a bank. My mother had often told me stories about her parents and grandparents. Her father had made and lost a fortune in (at that time) rubber in Brazil. Her grandfather had owned a cargo sailing ship that used to carry cargo along the South American coast from Manaus to Buenos Aires.
I knew that my grandfather ended up penniless, living in a one-bedroom flat above a shop, and I expected that I would too. But I still took the commodity trading job!
Incidentally, my best friend at university took the bank job that I turned down. When the bank went public, he became a millionaire, and he retired at the age of 40. I am still (sort of working) at the age of 64. I am not living in a one bedroom flat over a shop, but I would probably be just as happy.
In your experience, what is essential in the workplace for people to be valued and honoured?
As I gradually grew too old to be a trader or broker, I increasingly concentrated on market analysis, selling it to market participants. I imagined that research would be different from trading because it would involve more teamwork, but I was wrong. Commodity trading is also all about collaboration and social interaction; everything is.
Different team members have different strengths, characters and ways of working. The role of a leader is to build up a diverse team and get it to work together. Five people are not five times more productive than individuals working on their own: they are fifty times more productive.
We are all social animals. As I get older, I increasingly realise the importance of social interaction: not just your close family and friends, but also the wider circle – the person that works in the bakery or serves in the cafeteria, the taxi or bus driver etc.
Being part of a team – and being recognised for your contribution to it – can give a personal meaning in their work. It doesn’t matter whether the team is working on installing a new IT system or providing food in a refugee camp. You can get satisfaction from both, as long as the team is working well together and achieving its objectives.
The words ‘achieving its objectives’ are essential. If your goal is to solve ‘world hunger’, then you may become dissatisfied and cynical when you fail to do so. Your objectives have to be achievable.
They also have to be realistic. I would have loved to have been an Olympic athlete, but I was never particularly gifted at sports, nor did I have the willpower to put in all the necessary training. I would have loved to have been a bestselling author, but the same applies.
I believe in the old saying that happiness equals achievement minus expectations: H = A – E. But then I would also add ‘social interaction’.
What does it mean, for you, to find meaning in your work? How do you reconcile having a “meaningful” life and your work?
There are many people far more intelligent than I am who have searched for the meaning of life, but they failed to find it. Some people find meaning in religion, and I am jealous of them for it. I have no idea what we are all doing on this planet, and I do not know what ‘meaning’ if any, we can attach to it.
Having a meaningful life for me has nothing to do with the type of work you do. You can be a CEO, an artist, an aid worker, a teacher, a municipal cleaner – it doesn’t matter. Your work does not define who you are. Your behaviour defines who you are.
Finding meaning and happiness in life is about sticking to what I call ‘core principles’ in terms of honesty and decency. More than that, it is about being kind and compassionate to those around you, not just your inner circle of friends and family, but the wider world. Think of that politician you hate (no, not that one – think of another one). Aren’t they just trying to do the best they can in an impossible situation? Be compassionate in your judgements!
What is success for you?
Success for me is being honest, decent, kind and compassionate.
What has your work enabled you to do that is meaningful to you?
1/ Income: To provide a living for my family.
2/ Social interaction: To find friendship and comradeship with everyone I worked with.
3/ Status: To be appreciated and valued for the work that I have done.
What advice would you give to someone who is in a job where they do not feel valued or to someone who wants to contribute and have a meaningful life but is not able to experience this through their work?
I think the best advice I could give is to communicate more with those in your work environment. If you feel unappreciated, you should try to express your feelings to your team members and superiors.
But – and this is important – you only get out of something what you put into it. If you do not feel valued within a team, it may be because you are not providing the value that your team members are expecting from you. Look to see how you can become more valuable. It may not necessarily mean working harder or longer; it may mean working more intelligently or (again) communicating better with your fellow workers to find out exactly what they want from you. Once you have done that you can either reduce their expectations or adapt your work to meet those expectations. The thing that makes them happy is the same thing that makes you happy: H = A – E
Only consider changing jobs if the others around you are not decent, honest, kind and compassionate enough to understand your concerns and work with you to make you a valued team member.
If you change jobs, look for one where you can use your skills and experience to add genuine value to the team (or your clients) – and where the people are decent, honest, kind and compassionate.
But remember, if you don’t like anything around you, the key is not always to change it. More often, the key is to change your attitude to it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Never compare yourself to others. Unless you are Jeff Bezos, there will always be someone richer and more successful than you. Don’t be jealous of them. Admire and congratulate them on their achievements. There will always be people who are less fortunate than you. Never disdain them. Be compassionate and help them in any way you can.
Not only do you have to be kind and compassionate to others, you also have to be kind and compassionate to yourself. As humans, we are all flawed. We all do things of which we are not proud and say things we regret. Do not punish yourself for your errors. Learn from them. Learn not to repeat them. And work to do better in the future.
Next time, I will interview my mum.
Is finding purpose in your work something that is important to you?
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