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.
After interviewing my father last week, this week I asked my mother what it means, for her, to find meaning and purpose in her work.
My parents co-founded an agri brokerage and analytical business in 1990. While my father was the face of the company, my mother played a discreet but key role as a financial officer. My mother was so discreet about it, in fact, that for years I didn’t really know what she did. This was further complicated, in my mind, by the fact that she took on many charitable positions in various organisations on top of her business. I joined the family organisation at the age of 22 and discovered that, even from the inside, my mother was a discreet, quiet but powerful voice within the organisation.
Can you tell us a little about yourself
When I was 18 years old I wanted to be independent from my parents and there was no university curriculum I was interested in. Since I had benefited from the introduction of computing classes in French schools in the mid-sixties, at 18 I knew that computing was something that I found easy. So I started a career in computing. It was an unusual profession, especially for a woman.
My first career choice fulfilled 3 important wishes for me at the time: 1) I was doing something I was good at, 2) it was unusual and 3) it was an international profession that paid well.
Twelve years later I met my husband, moved back to France and had my first child. I still wanted to work, but points 2) and 3) described earlier were no longer important. I wanted to use my competence, but I also wanted time for my family. I started to work on the finance/admin of the new business my husband and I set up together. I was happy because I felt competent, I had control of my work time and my status was not just being a mother.
By my forties I felt I had the dream job: I worked with my husband in our own company and built a professional as well as a personal complicity with him. I still controlled my work time, which increased as my 4 children were growing up. Just like when I was 18, I was fulfilled because I felt competent and worked in an international environment.
My job was quite routine but the lack of challenge was compensated by traveling, meeting stimulating clients and my involvement in the development strategies and decisions making of the company.
During my fifties my implication in our company took a turn as we decided to expand. We hired more people and our business developed. With my children becoming independent, I replaced my family time with personal activities rather than increasing my work time.
During that decade I enjoyed the stability of my work but was confronted with internal conflicts with partners and employees that took me more energy and time than my usual job. We did settle our differences, but the induced stress affected my motivation, so it was an easy decision to sell our company when the opportunity occurred.
After the sale of our company, I could have continued working another decade. But, by then, I felt I had achieved all my professional goals and opted for an early retirement.
What do you look for in your work?
Looking back, at 18 it was important for me to feel competent, to work in a novel environment and earn a good salary. At 30, it was important for me to have a status and work that allowed me to raise my 4 children. At 40, what counted was to work in an exciting environment with stimulating encounters and travels.
In your experience, what is important in the workplace for people to be valued and honoured?
It is important to do your job well, to be reliable and to fit within the team.
What does it mean, for you, to find meaning in your work? How do you reconcile having a “meaningful” life and your work?
Meaning in my work is to do my job well within a reasonable timeframe: I want to end my work day with the feeling I have done what was expected of me but still have the energy and peace of mind for my personal and family life.
What is success for you?
Success, for me, is to be a pleasant person for all those around, being able to provide for your family and to be recognised as competent and reliable.
What has your work enabled you to do that is meaningful to you?
My work gave me the independence I wanted, the respect of others, a place in society, an example for my children, opportunities to meet stimulating people and to discover the world.
Can you share some of the most meaningful experiences that happened to you in your work?
I recall on several occasions helping out a colleague on a project and doing work that was “below my job description.” I showed him that status and humility are compatible and that, as a colleague, I was not a competitor. I remember gaining huge respect in the team as a result.
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?
Employees often underestimate the cost and energy of recruitment. An employer will always do his best to keep a valued employee, and seeing an employee go is a kind of failure. I would advise him/her to speak to her hierarchy with honesty after having established clearly a list of pros and cons of the job in question.
I would also advise to figure out what you really want. As they say, “Be careful what you wish for, it might come true!”
Anything else you’d like to add?
Work was always an important part of my life, but never an all encompassing goal. Just like my mother, it was important for me to “give back” but I wanted to do so outside the constraints of the work environment. For over 12 years I worked as a volunteer, in addition to my work inside my company. This was only possible because I was able to do my work within a timeframe that left me with enough energy and time to do other things. My time volunteering took me outside my comfort zone and allowed me to meet people I would never have come across otherwise. It was not only humbling, it also inspired me inside my work sphere too.
Is finding purpose in your work something that is important to you?
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