428: No Job Can Give You Meaning and Other Intriguing Insights into Work with Ellen Ruppel Shell

By April 19, 2019Podcasts



Ellen Ruppel Shell says: "Making meaning from our work is very much a do-it-yourself proposition."

Writer Ellen Ruppel Shell shares thoughtful perspectives on work and its future in a time of radical change.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why no employer can give you meaning
  2. What people actually want in a job
  3. How and why to engage in job crafting

About Ellen

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a correspondent for The Atlantic, and co-directs the graduate program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, The Smithsonian, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, O, Scientific American, andScience.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ellen Ruppel Shell Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis  
Ellen, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’m really looking forward to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Well, I’m excited to chat with you for numerous reasons, and one of them is you have such an impressive writing career in terms of, well, all of the cool places to write, you’ve written pretty much. But, so I wanted to hear what was one or two or three of your all-time favorite pieces and why?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
I’ve always liked writing for the Atlantic, which was my home for some time— which is, for those of you listeners who don’t know what it is, it’s a magazine. It used to come out of Boston, now it comes out of Washington. And my favorite pieces for them usually involved issues of science and technology.

And I recall one in particular I enjoyed writing, which was based in Kosrae, Micronesia, if you can believe that. It’s a remote island, took a very long time, almost two days to get there, going by way of Hawaii and Guam, and then a puddle hopper to the small island. And I was reporting a piece about the fact that the folks on Kosrae, Micronesia show so… such a propensity toward obesity, okay?

That at the entire island— I don’t want to say everyone on the island, but the majority of people on the island are quite overweight. And I went there to write a piece about the biological basis of behavior, and an example I was using was obesity. And so, it was a very interesting place to report and a very interesting piece to write. And I went ahead and did a book on that topic.

So, that was a really fun and interesting story, but I’ve done other interesting pieces. You know, I did the first many years ago… I did the Flight Into the Ozone Hole and went down to put— the name is Chile, the southernmost city on the planet, and reported from there about this historic play to find out what was causing the ozone hole, which was an amazing experience, because the scientists there actually found the smoking gun. So that was a pretty cool project.

I’ve been to Africa to report on malaria there. And I just had such a fortunate, you know… I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to write fascinating things, and people have been very generous in helping me out. So it’s hard to pinpoint what I enjoy doing most.

I have to say, the most challenging thing I’ve ever done is this book that we’re about to talk about, The Job and the Future of Work. That was really challenging.

What I enjoyed, again, about doing it, was being able to talk to people all over the country — and even in various countries around the world — about an issue that, I think presses very hard on most of our minds these days. So that was also a terrific experience.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I’m excited to dig into it. And so, why don’t we just go right for the gold right away? Tell me — you said this is difficult — what was perhaps the most surprising and fascinating thing you discovered when digging in and doing the work to research this book?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, you know, I’ll tell you why it was difficult. And in fact, I’ll tell you, frankly, that for a long time, I tried to avoid writing this book.

But I decided I really couldn’t avoid it, to answer your question about what was most surprising, I’d say in recording the book. Well, I went to Finland, and there I learned about the wife carrying championships, okay? Which by the way, Finland holds the world championship record. And wife carrying up, I’d say that was the most surprising thing. And I actually— if you can go and look on YouTube and watch this, it’s astonishing. It’s a national sport. That is you run— a tall man runs with small wives on their backs up through obstacle courses, and it’s quite an event. So the most surprising thing was that, I’d say, okay?

But if these are the topics at hand that, you know, work and its future in a time of radical change, as the title indicates, I’d say that one of the most interesting things I discovered was that no employer can gift us with meaningful work, okay? I mean, the idea that an employer or a job can gift us with meaning is a myth, and that making meaning from our work is very much a do-it-yourself proposition.

And that gave me a lot of food for thought, you know? What does that mean? How does one make meaning of one’s work? Why is it that an employer cannot make meaning for us? What are the various factors involved? And how do each of us make meaning in our own way? I mean, how does this work?

All that was, to me, kind of a revelation, and gave me food for thought, both as, you know, someone who works and someone who is a college professor and teaches folks who will be working or are working, but will have the whole working life in front of them. And also, as a parent, you know, what do I tell my kids? So that I’d say was the, you know, one of the more important messages is of the book on a personal level.

Pete Mockaitis  
Mm hmm. Well, that is a juicy thesis statement there. And it really is pregnant with implication when it comes to, you know, taking that responsibility. And there may even be a temptation to say, “No, no, no, no, no. Some jobs certainly are intrinsically meaningful, and mine ain’t one of them.!”

So, I love it. If you can have a little devil’s advocate, if you will, for let’s say… I’m just going to just try to imagine a job that seems to have a bunch of intrinsic meaning, okay? “I am responsible for determining how and where malaria, mosquito prevention nets, get placed, thereby, you know, saving many, many, many lives super cost effectively.” Okay, so I’ve tried to put you on the spot here.

So that’s what strikes me as intrinsically meaningful, like, “Whoa, all right, people will live and die based on my decision, and we’re helping a lot of people survive.” So… but I still would need to make my own meaning there?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Pete, that’s actually a pretty easy one.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
I must say, remember, I told you I wrote a cover story on malaria for the Atlantic years ago, and I can tell you that putting out those nets does not guarantee that he was going to use them. When I was in Africa, I found that they, in fact, didn’t; they were too hot for many people.

So the question would be that does that mean, if you discovered that people were not using your nets, that you would no longer have meaning in your job?

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s a bummer.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Yeah, so let’s take a step back. You know, you really stepped on it, in that particular case, but I hear what you’re saying. So you’re saying some jobs are intrinsically meaningful, that means no matter who does them, they’re meaningful. Well, you know, I’ll beg to differ on that. And I gave a very brief example on my book, which was my father, right?

My father was a pediatrician. And one cannot imagine someone thinking that a pediatrician wouldn’t, you know, just find his work or her work just, by its nature, meaningful. I would say my father found his work useful and worth doing, because he did save lives, and he did help kids, and he worked in the inner city, where I grew up.

And, you know, he had a job that, you know, I think all of us would think of is worthwhile. But he didn’t. What he took meaning from most was gardening. And, yeah, he found that he didn’t love people that much, he really liked plants. And his hobby was gardening; he had a rock garden. And that was something that he took great meaning from.

His job, which he did well, and he was deciduous about, was important to him. And it was a piece, you know, it was the way he made his living. But the way he expressed himself, and what he took most meaning from, was his hobby. And I think that’s true for many of us, that, you know, we are told we should make meaning of our work, or our work should be meaningful.

You know, I found evidence that companies from Walmart to Apple were telling— were recruiting people with with a message: “We will give you meaning. We will make meaning for you.” And, you know, I agree that some Walmart greeters do find their work meaningful, but then finding work meaningful because they make it so, okay? Not because these are, by nature, meaningful jobs.

And so, that’s— I think that might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s really not. And I think once we all understand that we each make meaning in our own way, and that our employer cannot gift us with this, that we have to do it in our own way, I think it’s a great relief, because some of us will not find meaning in our jobs.

We’ll want to do our jobs well, we’ll take some satisfaction in our jobs, we’ll make a living through our jobs, but we’ll make meaning in other ways. And that’s a great relief.

I think I mentioned in the book that I wrote a little essay for the Atlantic about work, and I asked readers to respond. And I got a huge, huge response to this, probably more a bigger response I’ve gotten to anything I’ve ever written. And that actually didn’t surprise me so much, because I knew this, you know, as I said before, I knew this was a topic on everyone’s mind.

But what did surprise me was how many of these people were just starting out in the working world. They were recent, typically recent college graduates, and each of these recent college graduates, almost to a person, was quite dissatisfied with their jobs. And the reason they were was because they didn’t find their jobs, quote, “meaningful.”

And so what they were doing, many of them was to work longer hours because they thought it was their failure, that these jobs should be meaningful, and they didn’t understand, you know, why they weren’t making any from them. So they work longer hours. Of course, that contributed to a vicious cycle: they became even more dissatisfied, and they were really frustrated.

So, you know, one solution to this is to look at your job as important and valid and worthwhile, but not the source, the central source of meaning in your life. And I think years ago, most people did regard their jobs in that way. But in recent years, certainly, since the birth of internet culture, we’ve been told that we should feel passionate about our jobs, and we should make meaning from our jobs. And for many of us, that’s very unrealistic.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I’m intrigued. How does one go about making meaning, either in a job or outside a job? And how do you know— you said for me, it’s unrealistic. How do you know if there’s just no hope for a given job?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
You know, let’s be careful that there is hope, because it’s very hopeful to be able to go to a job each day or to tackle it— so, for those of us who work at home, to tackle a job each day and take satisfaction out of simply solving, you know, a problem. And again, you know, supporting a family, we are supporting oneself, these are very important things. These are critical things.

So, people you know, they don’t find passion through their work and still find satisfaction through their work, especially if they don’t set themselves up and berate themselves because they don’t feel passionate about their jobs, okay?

But another thing to keep in mind is, I think there’s this misimpression that we all require the same things on the job. In fact, I won’t mention any names, but there’s this idea

that we all seek challenge on the job and novelty on the job. This whole idea of moving fast and breaking things, you know, the Silicon Valley idea, actually, that’s not the way most of us make meaning from our job. Some of us do, but most of us don’t. Most of us, some of us really desire craftsmanship and mastery in our job.

So you know, we go to work each day, and we don’t mind doing the same, pretty much the same thing, as long as we can master it. And the example in the book is, you know, for example, a glazier, someone who actually makes windows and feels very strongly that he does an excellent job of glazing windows, making windows. You know, this is his thing; he doesn’t look for novelty or real challenge. He’s mastered this, and he feels on top of it, and he takes great satisfaction in that mastery.

Okay, so that’s one kind of job up— coders. Sometimes, you know, people who do computer coding, this is what they seek. Sometimes they seek challenge, but sometimes they seek mastery, you know, just being able to nail it every single time they do it.

And others of us seek kinship on the job. You know, we want to we think of our work family, whether it’s remote work family, or literally, you know, family we see at the office or in the workplace every day. Police officers, firemen, typically, people who work in hospital emergency rooms, oftentimes, this is a priority for them. They seek kinship, and it’s very, very important to them. That this is what they look for at a job situation.

So I make the point in the book, that there’s this myth that everybody needs to be challenged. Everybody needs novelty. Everybody’s working for rewards, immediate rewards. This is not true. Some people do, and some people don’t.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I love it. If, maybe, you can flesh out that menu, if you will, of job, happiness, drivers, if you will. So we got novelty, challenge, mastery, kinship, immediate rewards, and the other ones that seem to really do the trick for certain segments of workers.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, those are the major ones. And, you know, most of us— this is going to not fit well with many of your listeners, but what most of us really want on our jobs is stability. And that sounds strange.

In an era when everybody is doing the gig job, and we get the impression that people are moving from job to job—

in fact, especially millennials, millennials who now constitute the largest segment of the workforce, really, really value stability in a job, perhaps because it becomes scarcer than it once was.

But getting up in the morning and knowing that you have a job is, for most people, the priority. The number one priority. And again, people don’t think that necessarily, but that is the case. So everything else being equal. That’s the one, more than a better salary. More than other things, stability is the number one priority.

Pete Mockaitis  
Interesting. So you said that that is the number one, even if they don’t think it is. How do you reach that determination?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Again, as I mentioned earlier, I have had a lot of help. I interviewed hundreds people for this book: management scholars, social scientists, psychologists, historians. And this comes thanks to their research, which I cited, of course, and credited in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay, well, so then, let’s say that here I am, I want to make some meaning, I accept that I gotta do it myself. So what does that do and look like?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, again, that varies tremendously with the kind of job you have and the kind of person you are, most essentially the kind of person you are. So I mentioned I interviewed a lot of social scientists and management scholars, and among these was a wonderful scholar at Yale University. Her name is Amy Wrzesniewski, and she’s done some amazing work on work and jobs.

And one of her early pieces of work, one of her early studies, was of hospital cleaners. Now that sounds odd— custodians, in a hospital. And interviewing these custodians, she found that some custodians describe their work as just a job, as you would expect. I mean, they cleaned hospital rooms, right? So this sounds like, you know, just a job.

But there was a subset who described their work as a calling, okay? A call, a calling. That’s it, that’s a very high bar, to describe your work as a calling. We generally associated that with the clergy, or things like that. But these folks described it as calling.

So she she wanted to know why, and so she drilled into that. And what she found is in this subgroup of janitors or custodians, they thought of themselves as healers, okay? They worked in a hospital, and they would kind of keep an eye on the patients, they would notify the medical staff if they saw problems. If they could take a break, they would sit by the bedside and console someone who was missing a relative or who was not feeling well.

They really took a role. They saw themselves as healers. And Wrzesniewski explained to me that when the hospital found out about this, the custodians were often told not to do this, because this was not part of their job description.

Pete Mockaitis
And do what, specifically?

Ellen Ruppel Shell
Not to act as healers.
Yeah, stick to your cleaning. Stick to your cleaning. And because there was no impact on the bottom line, in other words, they saw this as kind of a waste of time. And they didn’t want their custodial staff to do that. And so, what Wrzesniewski explained to me was that, what these janitors were doing — their work was crafting, job crafting, what she calls job crafting.

So they took their job, and they carved out a piece of it, that to them, made it meaningful for them, okay? And they focused on that part that made it meaningful for them. And so it made them much more satisfied with their work — much better workers, by the way; they stayed longer, much less turnover.

So that is something that she did, then expanded to look at other workers and other arenas, and found out that one way to make meaning of your work is to find the part of your work that you find the most meaningful, and find a way to focus on that as much as you can, obviously, without costing your employer in the long run, right?

So you take the part where you feel a certain sense of mastery, or feel a certain sense of purpose, and focus on that and orient your job in that way.

So that’s one way to look at it. And I suppose we could talk about almost any job category, and find out how an individual could make the most of the job that they have.

Pete Mockaitis  
Right? Yeah, that does get the wheels turning. And could you share maybe some other actionable prescriptions in terms of if you’re a professional seeking to flourish at work, and enjoy it all the more, and perform all the better? What are some other things you recommend they do?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, okay, so my book is not a self-help book, okay? And I don’t make recommendations to people, you know, the general. I wrote this book as food for thought, and also to look at some myths about work and what we need as a society, what we should prioritize.

So I am low to good advice. There are so many books on self-help books in this arena that would do a much better job than I would. So I really, I don’t want to get into that too much.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, maybe let’s focus in on some myths in terms of, “Okay, you might believe this, and it is false. And that could lead you to make some suboptimal decisions.” So you’re not quite giving a prescriptive “don’t,” but you are highlighting potential errors that can feed the decision-making process. So what are some key myths that need to be busted?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Oh, my gosh, there’s so many. So on an individual level, early on in the book, I talked about the problem of people having to convey a personal chemistry that aligns with their employers’ expectations.

And I compared Israel, which I have visited, and the United States, and how these two countries differ in their approach to hiring individuals, especially knowledge workers. And again, this is a generalization, and not everyone has had this experience, okay?

But in the United States, there’s a push towards selling yourself as a person, as a total person to employers. You need to be a “cultural fit” with the company, we throw around words like that. And “the chemistry has to be right,” we throw around words like that.

In Israel, your skill set is what they’re looking for. More commonly, they’re looking for, “Can you do the job?” So if you don’t get the job, it means they don’t like your skill set. That’s so personal, right?

In the United States, if you don’t get the job, it means your chemistry was bad, okay?

That you couldn’t sell yourself well enough, that there’s something wrong with you. Psychologically, that’s very damaging, okay?

So I think when people are seeking a job or seeking a promotion, they need to think about this expectation, and find some way to arm themselves against it. Okay, so the the idea of “cultural fit,” and aligning one’s personal chemistry with the interviewer or the employer, is something I really addressed in the book.

And I warned against both for individuals’ sanity, okay? But also because it isn’t good for employers, because too often, employers look for people who look like themselves. And that’s something that — many of your listeners probably know — that you look for someone who’s a lot like you. And in fact, in a study of law firms and investment banks, the most likely reason someone would be hired was because he or she shared the same leisure interests as the person interviewing them.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, the one predictor number one predictor.

Ellen Ruppel Shell
The number one predictor. So if you play squash and the person who interviewed you plays football, that’s not a match. That’s not a match.

Pete Mockaitis  
Yeah. So it’s like, learn their hobbies in advance, and then do it for, like, a weekend. You can talk about it.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Exactly. But you can see the implicit class-ism in this as well, right? And one of the things they found out is if you played football in college, and they played squash, that’s not good, because that implies, “Oh, you’re a football player; what’s that say about you?” Right? And they’re a squash player. What does that say about them? So that’s a problem because you’re hiring yourself. And that doesn’t lead to diversity or heterogeneity in the workplace. And heterogeneity is a good thing in the workplace. We want a lot of different viewpoints.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s great.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Yeah. So you know, that’s just something to think about on a personal level, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s juicy. Could you bust out another myth for us? That was fun.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Like I said, there’s so many myths. So another one that I really tackled in this book — and some of your readers might have seen some of my hotbeds on this, because it really got my goat — is the whole idea of the skills shortage in the United States, as if Americans don’t have the skills to do 21st century jobs, or can’t acquire the skills quickly to do 21st century jobs.

And I looked into this quite closely, and did a ton of research on it, and found out that, in fact, there really is not a skills shortage in the United States.

Certainly, there are times when it’s hard to find a particular employee for a particular position in a particular place, okay? That certainly happens, no question about that. But an overall skills shortage does not exist.

And so, what I warn against is the idea of society. And by that, I mean taxpayers paying for training, jobs training for individuals so they’re just in time ready for a particular employer that is not an effective way to produce workers of the future, okay?

If an employer has a particular skill and can’t find that they need it, and can’t find someone to fill that position, it’s most likely that they can hire someone close enough and train that person fairly quickly. It’s what we used to do not so long ago.

So the idea that we have to seek in our employees from other nations, or we have to train up a workforce in a particular way, I did not find evidence of that. What I did find evidence of is that there are, unfortunately, too many kids in the U.S. We’re not getting basic education, right? So they’re not learning what we call basic analytic skills, that is, being able to solve basic logical problems, make a logical argument, do basic communications, arithmetic, that kind of thing.

There’s no question, there’s a problem. But in terms of advanced skills, and a shortage of advanced skills, that I did not see.

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh, interesting. So it sounds like you found that we have a bit of a shortage of some foundational, fundamental critical skills, but not so much a skills gap on the advanced technical skills like Python, or, in particular, language or technology.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Right, right. I mean, anyone can learn Python, who has basic training in understanding computer languages and has the basic mathematical background and has had that exposure.

We can train, we can be trained in these things, and we should be, because, as you know, computer languages change fairly quickly. So that’s not a problem. You know, the idea that you demand that someone’s a Python expert versus another kind of individual who’s also worked in the computer industry is a little questionable, right?

Now, obviously, there’s always a shortage of the best and the brightest, right?

The top, top talent. But that’s sort of like saying there’s a shortage of the best NBA basketball players. So, to get that magical basketball player, you may, in fact, have to search the globe; they’re at least at the country.

But that doesn’t mean we need to train up a whole lot more basketball players, right? It just means that the best can call their own shots, and they will be rewarded for what they have to offer. But that does not mean that we need to be training— and taxpayers need to pay for the training of these basketball players, right?

Pete Mockaitis  
Got it. Well, Ellen, tell me anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things.

Pete Mockaitis  
So could you share a favorite quote, something that you find inspiring?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
I love Oscar Wilde, as do many people. And he has this great quote, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Yeah. You heard that one, yeah? I love that one. So if that’s a quote, yes, for quote. So I do try to be myself, and then I encourage everyone else to be. So, what other questions do you have?

Pete Mockaitis  
And how about a favorite book?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Well, I’m a big fan of Edith Wharton, and I love— I love, love, love Age of Innocence, which is her masterpiece, I think. So it’s kind of an indictment of society at the time for being estranged from its from its culture, right? And, you know, I think we have a lot to learn today from that, you know, being estranged from culture and being focused on on sort of material world can be quite, quite problematic. So, I think Age of Innocence, I would have to say.

Pete Mockaitis  
Thank you, and how about a favorite tool? Something that helps you be awesome at your job.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Gosh, I’d have to say my bicycle pump. I love riding bikes, and I make very good use of— I ride on really rough roads, and so, I mean, I find myself inflating my bicycle tires quite a bit.

Pete Mockaitis  
And if folks want to learn more and get in touch, where would you point them?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Where would I point them? Well, I do have a website, and I probably should do a better job of maintaining it. It’s EllenShell.com, EllenShell.com. So if they want to, they can do that. I also teach at Boston University, and so naturally, I have one of those EDU emails. So, it’s EShell@bu.edu. So they have anything they want to share, I’m happy to hear it.

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs? Don’t forget the power of contemplation, okay? Getting away from the team and thinking quietly on your own. Because that’s often when people accomplish the most. And I think there’s an overemphasis on teamwork. Working on your own, often in a quiet place, can often be the most productive experience.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, Ellen, this has been a real treat. Thanks so much. And good luck with your teaching and your writing and your travels and adventures.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Thanks. And I think we’ve mentioned the book, right?

Pete Mockaitis  
Absolutely. The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change.

Ellen Ruppel Shell  
Thanks a lot, Pete. It was really fun.

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