We all have an innate desire to feel like we’re contributing to something meaningful. But sometimes, work can feel a bit like Groundhog Day! One way to stop feeling this way is to reflect on the value of your job and how it fits into the bigger picture. Simon Sinek calls this knowing your ‘why’. And once you know your why it makes it a whole lot easier to get in there and get things done.
Having a sense of the greater purpose of our efforts at work can sustain and inspire us when things are going well, but equally act as a powerful source of motivation to keep going when we encounter obstacles or difficulties or when we experience stress or overwhelm.
Research consistently shows that you feel happier in your job when you believe what you do has a purpose beyond paying the bills. Usually, a sense of meaning at work comes from knowing that what you do contributes to someone else in a positive way. Which means we’re a bit ahead of the game given our job! It’s quite hard to have a day when you don’t teach at least one student something new or help them out in some way.
The difference between ‘what’ and ‘why’
While we all know what we do, it’s more challenging to articulate why we do what we do. Teaching is what we do, and that’s the same for all of us, but why we do it, that’s different for each and every member of the school community.
Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at the Yale School of Management, investigated why some hospital cleaners reported much higher job satisfaction than others, even though they did the same work for the same pay. She discovered that the cleaners who saw their job as part of helping patients heal or helping their families feel better while visiting, reported much higher levels of job satisfaction than those who talked about the tasks they had to complete daily, such as scrubbing floors or collecting rubbish. This illustrates how we all have the choice to create meaning and value in our work and that the ‘why’ is so much more important than the ‘what’.
Try this – find your why
What do you do at work that benefits other people?
Don’t judge yourself as you write. There are no right or wrong answers. Do try to think about all the things you do as a teacher and how each one, even the little things and even the things you don’t like doing (maybe writing reports?) might benefit others.
If you’re having trouble, reframe it: Imagine asking a student or parent to describe how your work helps them / their child. What would they say? Write it down.
Think about the best days you’ve had at work. Write down what made those days so great. Often, within your answers you will discover moments of meaning.
Based on what you’ve written, complete this sentence: “My job is meaningful to me because…”
This is your ‘why’ statement. Keep it where you can see it often during the day and feel free to refine it over time.
Live your ‘why’
Being connected to your purpose is also core to the Chinese concept of happiness. In The Atlas of Happiness, Helen Russell shares the ancient concept of xingfu, or ‘the state of being happy’. Xingfu, much like positive psychology, takes a long view on happiness – it’s about more than moments of joy. Xingfu is about living a life that is sufficient, sustainable and has meaning. What matters is your overall level of satisfaction with life, and that comes, in part, from knowing your why. So when you’re thinking about about what you want from teaching as a career, focus not so much on the ‘things’ you want, but on how being part of the profession contributes to you having and living the life you want.
If you’ve completed this exercise over the half term, when you come back to school, confident of your why, try a little experiment. Do you feel happier? Do tasks seem like less of a chore? Are you getting more done? Share your journey in the Happy Teachers Happy Schools virtual staffroom on Facebook.
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”