Category Archives: Work

Meaningful Work

My intrepid friend Martin Couzins is often to be found out and about at various events and conferences, thinking interesting things, asking interesting questions. I spotted this on his Twitter timeline recently:

The term ‘meaningful work’ being talked about a lot at #HRSS16 ~ are lots of people doing work that isn’t?

My thought, and response to Martin was:

Meaningful to whom? Most work is coercive, make it coactive, it may generate more personal meaning.

Owen Ferguson added:

Meaning is in the eye of the beholder

To which Martin replied:

Yes, do people talk about their work in this way vs other areas of their lives? Who knows?! Does it need to be meaningful?

Back in the Middle Ages, I had a student job, working in the fruit and veg department in Sainsbury’s. At the time, shoppers bagged their produce, and brought it to a member of staff, who weighed it, sealed it and priced it, then gave it back to the shopper who would pay for the goods along with everything else, when they got to the till. I used to love this part of the job. I set the work out in my head as a series of challenges, which included having conversation with the customer (if they appeared to want to), making the seal on the bag as neat as I could (which was a struggle with the cranky old machine we used), and moving the queue along as quickly as possible.

Was this work meaningful? No. I do not believe I was put on this planet to achieve my own, self imposed nerdy customer service challenges. However the choices I made helped to pass the time, which was beneficial to me, and helped the customer get served well and quickly, which was beneficial to them. I accept that I derived satisfaction from a job well done, and my primary purpose for doing the work was to get paid so I could save up for something useful have a social life. I also remember that Graham and Steve (the department manager and assistant manager) were great fun, and did what they could to make work enjoyable. That helped at the time, and the fact that I can recall their names in an instant, after so many years, is worth noting.

Within the HR conference environment, meaning gets talked about a lot. As an example, I doodled this sketch note after attending the 2014 Meaning conference.

My attempt to capture a sense of Meaning 2014 -based on my own reflections and some tweets I spotted. I sketched this on the train on the way home.

My attempt to capture a sense of Meaning 2014 -based on my own reflections and some tweets I spotted. I sketched this on the train on the way home.

For many people, I’m not sure how much the idea of meaning relates to their day to day work. I’ve worked in lots of operational environments where the lofty concept of meaning, is frankly meaningless. I’m struggling to recall the last time a client asked me to help them ‘find meaning’ in their work, yet I am guilty at times, of helping people to seek it out. Am I asking the wrong questions of the people I work with? Look again at Owen and Martin’s comments. ‘Meaning is in the eye of the beholder’. ‘Does it [work] have to be meaningful?’.

i recall a section of Dr Ken Robinson’s book, ‘The Element : How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’, where he writes that many people do their work to sustain something more enjoyable/useful/maybe even meaningful, beyond the work they do. And that’s OK. I see that having a clear understanding of how my role fits into the bigger picture is really important. If I know:

  • Why I’m doing the task
  • what impact it has on our goal
  • and I support the goal
  • and feel I am able to cocreate it as well as contribute to it…

That is powerful. That sequence is also, in my experience, quite unusual. As a series of steps, this may not appear as seductive as a powerfully crafted, conference presentation about the search for meaning, yet in practice it may actually be much more meaningful.

I shared a draft of this post with Martin and Owen and invited them to comment. Here are their reflections – first Owen, then Martin.

“Thanks, Doug. It’s a thought provoking post and explores an area I think is particularly interesting at this point in the history of the “developed world”. To what extent could the search for meaningful work devalue satisfaction, contentment and happiness with a job? We can’t all be doctors for Médecins Sans Frontières. And sometimes meaningful work is disguised through years of abstraction. Banking used to be a noble profession that helped grease the gears of the economy and, perhaps more meaningfully, help new parents buy a new home sooner than they would have otherwise. As you can see, your post has already spurred more thought for me and I’m sure it will for others. Which is hopefully meaningful for you 🙂 “

“I really like what you have created here, Doug. I’m still not sure what meaning at/through work is. Is it about developing your sense of self as a person, making friends, making money to do other more meaningful things in life, getting personal joy from achieving things? Maybe it is all of this. But can employers make work meaningful – I don’t know? I like your thinking on this Owen and agree that this is an interesting time to be thinking about such things. I’m just thinking more on this and am enjoying the conversation and what has come out of it!”

This is the second time in recent weeks I’ve invited and sought feedback in the process of writing a post. I’m enjoying how this is currently working – it broadens my thinking, and reminds me of the importance of other perspectives too. If this subject resonates with you too – feel free to add to the mix.

More to follow…

Climb Every Mountain

Climb Every Mountain

From a distance – all these mountain peaks look the same. Steep, craggy and covered in snow. They are also similar in so far as each one represents a potential high point in my week.

As I approach and make my way across the mountain range, I discover the ascents and descents are very different. Some slope more gently than others, some are sunnier, some are gloomier, some have firm footing – on others I’m more prone to the odd slip.

Certainty and uncertainty, faster pace and slower pace. Going gently enough to be sure I can appreciate the view whilst briefly at each summit. Taking care of myself so as to give my best when needed.

I hope your mountaineering is going fantastically well this week.

Martin and Mark

A post about being in a hole, and finding a way out.

Suddenly I stop
But I know it’s too late
I’m lost in a forest
All alone – Robert Smith

The impulse is pure
Sometimes our circuits get shorted
By external interference
Signals get crossed
And the balance distorted
By internal incoherence – Neil Peart

Change is the only constant – A. Smartarse

Sometimes, work sucks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fortunate compared to many people, but sometimes, work sucks. Projects get deferred, postponed, parked and abandoned. Plans made carefully over time, can drift apart in seconds. We all now how that feels. It’s quite common for things to shift, and it’s thankfully less common for so many things to slip at once. Right now, I find myself in the middle of a lot of this stuff. A few short  weeks ago I felt like I was on solid ground, currently it feels more like quicksand. I’m not complaining – just noting this is how it is some times, and it gets me down. I’m only human.


I caught up with Martin Couzins earlier in the week. Martin is a great guy and we had a lovely, lively conversation. We spoke about all things good and bad, challenging and frustrating, uplifting and depressing. We spoke frankly and honestly. Martin is a great listener, generous in spirit and also with his time. We parted company after a little over 90 minutes, with me in a very different place to when I arrived. Thank you Martin, you are a good friend and I needed to see you more than I realised. My work doesn’t suck so bad.


As I walked to the tube station to start my journey back to the office, I passed by a guy and his dog, sitting on the pavement near Gloucester Road tube. I saw some sketches at his feet. I stopped to admire the artwork, sat on the pavement with the guy, and we started to talk. Mark is homeless, he’s been on the streets for three years. When he found himself homeless, he couldn’t bring himself to beg, and he didn’t want to start drinking, so he decided to make art instead.

Family Tree

As you can see, he’s quite the artist, though he assured me that when he started drawing three years ago, ‘it was all stick men’. I showed him some of my pictures, and he showed me more of his. Two artists (and a dog) sitting together on the pavement outside Gloucester Road tube. I gave Mark a few water colour pencils – treasured possessions of mine, time to pass them on. He offered me the picture of his which I had been admiring, I took it and insisted on paying for it. I tucked £10 under his pencil tin, and he put it away. ‘There are a lot of people on the streets who will have that away if I leave it in sight’. We talked a while longer about our art as our work, and parted company. Thank you Mark, for helping me reconnect to my work and realising, it doesn’t suck so bad.

So what?

Things go wrong all the time. When this happens, I have a tendency to keep things bottled up. This is partly because I’m an optimist first and foremost, and partly because I feel a sense of pressure to comply with a culture of ‘Everything is Awesome’, which often pervades my social networks.

The truth is, you cannot know joy without despair, happy without sad. Life is a wonderfully mixed bag, and to deny this, is unhelpful, even dangerous.

Conversations with good people are a great way to put things in perspective and move on. My day concluded with me finishing a key part of an important project. Thank you Martin and Mark.