Why do we work? Sure, it's for the money. But more and more people, realizing that's not all there is to life, are embarking on a new search for meaning in corporate America.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – IN THE DAYS of misty towers, distressed maidens, and stalwart knights, a young man, walking down a road, came upon a laborer fiercely pounding away at a stone with hammer and chisel. The lad asked the worker, who looked frustrated and angry, "What are you doing?" The laborer answered in a pained voice: "I'm trying to shape this stone, and it is backbreaking work." The youth continued his journey and soon came upon another man chipping away at a similar stone, who looked neither particularly angry nor happy. "What are you doing," he asked? "I'm shaping a stone for a building." The young man went on and before long came to a third worker chipping away at a stone, but this worker was singing happily as he worked. "What are you doing?" The worker smiled and replied: "I'm building a cathedral."
WHEN YOU ASK PEOPLE why they work, most will tell you, in a tone usually reserved for slow children and dimwitted in-laws, that they do it for the money. But if that's entirely true, how do you explain people like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, whose combined net worth is greater than the GDP of Luxembourg and yet who throw themselves into their jobs as if their next meal depended on it? Or why do so many lottery winners, after a few months of champagne, oysters, and a suite at the Ritz, end up punching a clock again, if not at their old job, at some other kind of work? When Robert Weiss, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts, asked people in a survey whether they'd work if they had inherited enough to live comfortably, roughly eight out of ten people said yes. So if it's not only money, what is it? More and more people today -- and the trend is particularly advanced among baby-boomers -- are looking to work to satisfy some deeply individualistic, emotional, and psychological need. Now that the boomers have hit middle age and become morbidly preoccupied with their mortality, this most self-indulgent of all generations is beginning to ask hard questions about work and what it all means. Says Scott Adams, creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip "Dilbert" and a close observer of the American work scene: "In your 20s you're mostly concerned with having enough money to eat and get laid. In your 30s you start thinking, Is this all there is? Am I going to be an accountant and die?"
NOT SO long ago, people got plenty of meaning from the companies where they worked. You could proudly say "I'm an IBMer" or "I'm a Time Incer," and it meant something. Co-dependency, the psychologists call this reliance on your company for your identity. Today, however, many workers are either too afraid or too jaded to tie their identity to corporations hell-bent on reengineering and downsizing. Says John Kotter, a management professor at the Harvard business school: "The faster things change, the more meaning disappears on us, and we're left hanging in psychological air." Moreover, the Protestant work ethic has been turned on its head. In the corporate America of yesteryear, you knew that if you followed the precepts of Puritanism, you could look forward to clockwork raises and promotions. But today's flat organizations offer less opportunity for bigger, better jobs. Q.E.D.: Hard work is less a guarantee for success than ever before. Says Robert Jackall, a sociologist at Williams College: "Because the rules of the game have changed, old promises about hard work go systematically unrewarded. Big prizes go to people for reasons that are extraneous." As a result, disaffection is on the rise. A study of 30,000 U.S. workers by Opinion Research, a consulting firm in Princeton, New Jersey, found that while most people generally feel positive about the kind of work they do, 47% now say they either dislike or are ambivalent about the company they work for, up from 34% in 1991. If the old sources of meaning don't hold any longer, where are people turning? Like the medieval stonecutter who chose to find his own meaning for his work, people are looking within themselves rather than to the corporation. As John Geraci, the COO of Blessing-White, a New Jersey consulting firm, puts it, "Today the new creed is, 'I am what I do, not where I work.' " What form does this new, personalized search for meaning take? When Fortune asked scores of managers, from CEOs to warehouse supervisors, why they worked, the three most common reasons cited besides paying the mortgage were to make the world a better place, to help themselves and others on their team grow spiritually and intellectually, and lastly, to perfect their technical skills. Some, like Tom Chappell, work because they believe they can make the world a better place. Chappell left a sales job at Aetna Insurance to start Tom's of Maine, an environmentally minded company that makes toothpaste and other personal care products. Harley-Davidson's Martin Jack Rosenblum, a.k.a. the Holy Ranger, was a poet, musician, and English teacher who finally found meaning in corporate America. For others like PepsiCo's Debra Sandler, one of the company's marketing whizzes, it's a feeling of pride one can take in technical skills or, as she puts it, "the challenge of taking a product and selling it like no one has ever sold it before." While all these people have different reasons for working, they all, in the end, are searching for the same thing: self-esteem. Says consultant Warren Bennis: "Work really defines who you are. So much of a person's self-esteem is measured by success at work." Not a new idea, but still a very powerful one. Bennis remembers once asking author Alex Haley, just after Roots became a best-seller, what it felt like to be successful. Haley replied: "People listen to me now."
One sure sign that this new search for meaning is real: the recent explosion of consulting firms and books focused on the trend. Stephen Covey, who conducts the corporate equivalent of tent revivals and who should earn $70 million in fees and royalties this year, is a hot draw in corporate suites % these days. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and director of MIT's Center for Organizational Learning, commands fees as high as $40,000 to talk about, among other things, making work more meaningful. Five years ago New York publisher Doubleday started its Currency imprint, which specializes in books about finding meaning in the workplace. So far the imprint has sold a total of over three million copies of its books, a number that far exceeded Doubleday's expectations. Says Currency's executive editor, Harriet Rubin: "Meaning is hot, and it's going to get hotter. This is the age of disenchantment, and people are looking for something more, for an antidote to the masochism of work." One of Currency's latest hot sellers is The Heart Aroused, by David Whyte, which was published last spring and is already in its third printing. Whyte, an English-born poet, makes his living teaching business people how to get in touch with themselves through poetry. (The subtitle of his book is "Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.") And that's what corporations like AT&T and Boeing pay him to do -- come in and save their souls. Whyte doesn't promise a higher return on equity or attempt to reengineer you. With his sonorous, deeply haunting voice, he recites his own poetry as wells as works by William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, and T.S. Eliot, and hopes his poetry reading will unleash "the sound and the fury of an individual's creative life, which are the elemental waters missing from the dehydrated workday." While many more people are searching for meaning in work, a fairly large number, no one knows exactly how many, have given up finding any at all in their jobs. Scott Adams, who gets up at five each morning to draw "Dilbert" and then works a full day as a Pacific Bell engineer, says that he, like many of his colleagues, can't find enough creative outlets in the corporation. Says Adams: "The corporation is designed to eliminate creativity." Adams likes his engineering job (it doesn't hurt that it provides him with the landscape for his comic strip), but it's his cartooning that really turns him on. He's not alone. One of Adams's co-workers recently wrote a book about World War II on the side; another plays bassoon in a symphony orchestra. For those who haven't yet given up the search for meaning on the job, what shape does the journey take? Here are the stories of three people who embarked upon their own personal crusade to make their work more fulfilling. + WHY? TO BETTER THE WORLD Tom Chappell, CEO, Tom's of Maine In my darkest days, I was working for aims that were too narrow for me. I was working for market share, sales growth, and profits. It was a sense of emptiness. I was to some degree depressed, undirected, unconnected to myself. I felt like an actor because what I was doing was not authentic. I was a phony to myself because I wasn't living up to what I cared about. It's not winning at all costs. It's challenging yourself to win according to who you are. So now I'm trying to engender more kindness. I'm trying to link what I'm doing more to the environment and the community. That's what we do at Tom's of Maine with no money. We take market share and shelf space away from P&G and Colgate on a daily basis, and we don't do it with money and muscle, which they have plenty of. We take it away with a product that meets the expectations and aspirations of a particular customer who shares the same values we do. Believing your work can make a real difference in the world has motivated many people over the years. The fireman who rescues a child from a burning building and the surgeon who saves a life feel that they're making a contribution to society, and they are. But finding this sense of mission in big business isn't all that easy; only a lucky few do. Back in the 1980s, Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs famously persuaded John Sculley to leave his job as president of Pepsi-Cola to become president of Apple by saying to him, "Do you want to spend the rest of your life peddling sugar water?" Psychologists say that people who can create a rationale for their work usually get more out of it. Sculley, for instance, convinced himself that personal computers could change the way we live and learn, and they have.
BUT BEING a corporate crusader isn't easy. It usually involves a difficult spiritual battle between one's soul and the dictates of the marketplace. No one better exemplifies this than Tom Chappell and his wife, Kate. In the late 1960s the couple moved to Kennebunk, Maine, and started Tom's of Maine, today a very profitable small company with sales of $15 million and a growing line of organic toothpastes, deodorants, soaps, and shampoos. Despite his success, Tom Chappell, who with his close-cropped hair and wire-rim glasses looks more like a New England preacher than the hard-driving entrepreneur that he is, began feeling that his work was becoming meaningless. He became increasingly ! depressed. At that time, he had hired a slew of smart MBAs who told him that to grow the company he needed to sweeten his toothpaste with saccharin, hardly a natural ingredient. Chappell, torn between his strong beliefs as a naturalist and environmentalist and his desire to build the company, felt stymied and lost. Starting in 1988, he attended Harvard divinity school part-time and began studying the writings of the 18th-century Puritan Jonathan Edwards and the 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber. He came to the conclusion that there were basically two ways to look at work, the utilitarian and the formalist. If you do business as a utilitarian, everything is aimed at maximizing profits. The relationship between you and your customers is "I--they." In other words, you look at your customers as objects to be controlled, conquered, sold, manipulated, whatever. Eventually, Chappell decided that in his heart he was formalist, a person who looks at the world as a series of "I--thou" relationships. If you do business as a formalist, you treat people as you'd like yourself treated, and you look for, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, "people's consent" for what you do. As you might have surmised by now, Chappell did not put saccharin in his toothpaste, his environmentally conscious customers approved, and sales at his profitable company have been increasing 25% a year.
But what if you don't peddle something noble like natural toothpaste, and your job is something seemingly meaningless like processing insurance forms? How could that possibly make a difference in the world? MIT's Senge says that people shouldn't necessarily have to leave their job to find one that's more meaningful. Many, argues Senge, can find meaning if they just think about their jobs differently. He recalls how an insurance CEO once described his work as a worthy profession, explaining that life is unfair, bad things happen to good people, and insurance is a way to help those good people for whom fate dealt a bum hand. For him, something as seemingly mundane as insurance took on great meaning. It's a good idea -- try it with your own job.
WHY? TO BE PART OF A TEAM Martin Rosenblum, Archivist, Harley-Davidson The reason I get up very early and get down to the Harley-Davidson office immediately is that the company has soul. There really is a mystique involved with this motorcycle company that is rightly labeled its soul. I can't define it, but I know it's there. Let me try to explain it. I've never been a joiner. In the Fifties, when I raced hot rods, instead of a club plaque on my rear fender, mine said lone wolf, no club. Before I came to Harley, I was in the music business, and I wrote poetry. I also taught English for ten years at the University of Wisconsin. But at Harley it's different. For the first time in my life I've encountered a lifelong learning process that says that leadership involves not a dynamic personality, not a command-and-control mentality, but the ability to empower others as well as yourself. Yes, I've got tattoos. Yes, I'm a hard-core rider. But what I'm talking about goes beyond just getting a job done. It is about a very complex, difficult, personal transformation. For me it's a real struggle because I come from a background where my father was a Swedish immigrant, a real command-and-control, you-do-this kind of environment. What I enjoy here is not bothering with your own ego, the joy of becoming an active, forward-moving individual, of being part of a team. For the first time in my life I felt humbled. I'll be honest with you, man, I've never felt humility before. So you've tried convincing yourself that your job can save society, but it didn't work. Don't despair. You're not alone. Many of those who can't get an altruistic rush out of their jobs often find meaning in the way they do work. Martin Jack Rosenblum, known around Harley-Davidson as the Holy Ranger, is a poet, blues singer, and former English professor who, after a long search, finally found meaning in corporate America. (He made up the Holy Ranger name in third grade because he thought there was something spiritual about both motorcycles and the Westerns he saw on TV.) What Rosenblum found at Harley was camaraderie, teamwork, and the sense of accomplishment that made him feel like a contributor to his microcosm. Says Rosenblum, a bearded long-hair who likes to wear snakeskin boots and cowboy shirts to his job as the archivist at Harley's Milwaukee headquarters: "For the first time in my life I feel like I'm part of a community. Harley is the university I've always been looking for." When Rosenblum was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, he hated all the politics and backstabbing and despaired at all the ineffectual intellectual banter. It was, he says, diametrically opposed to effective teamwork. During those years in the 1980s, he developed an ulcer that nearly killed him. But once he found a more open, goal-oriented environment at Harley, his life improved. Explains Robert Weiss, author of Staying the Course, a book about what makes men successful: "For most men the greatest thrill in work is to be part of a winning team, to knock yourself out for two or three weeks on a project, be successful, and look at each other and say, 'We did it.' It's a great thrill." Rosenblum's successful quest for fulfillment has a lot to do with Harley CE Richard Teerlink, who spends much of his time making sure people work in the kind of environment that's conducive to meaningful work. Teerlink, who looks as much the typical big-corporation CEO as the Holy Ranger looks the typical hard-riding biker, says, "When you ask, 'Can I make a difference at work?' most of us say, 'No, I can't really.' I believe that everyone wants to make a difference, but most people don't have the opportunity to make a difference, and that's my job, to make sure that they do." And that's exactly what gets Teerlink himself up in the morning. Says he: "It's fun to see people grow and to have been part of it. And not to be responsible for it, because that's not my job, but to facilitate and be responsible for a fair and open environment that's exciting, to bring everyone at Harley-Davidson together today to make a product that excites the consumer. It's a big team effort. Life is a glorious thing. Why should we waste any time doing what we don't like?" What Teerlink is talking about isn't some new piece of management esoterica but simply treating people with respect and fairness. For example, Harley has sold out all of its 1995 production of motorcycles. (Another telltale sign, perhaps, of boomers searching for new meaning?) Teerlink says he could easily raise prices 10% or 15%, but he won't. Why? He says flatly: "It wouldn't be fair to our customers." Is Wall Street laughing? Teerlink doesn't care. He hopes behavior like that will send the message that Harley is a place where people are respected and are out to help, not exploit one another. What would it feel like to work in such an organization? To explain, Teerlink likes to tell his lost dog story: "One morning I was an hour late to work because our dog got out, and I couldn't find him. Later a woman phones and says she's found our dog. Now this woman has two infant children, one of which she was taking to preschool. On the way she had seen our dog, figured it was lost. On her car phone she called the police, found out our number, called and brought the dog to our home. Now that dog had been in the fields and mud. She picked it up because she wanted to make it feel good. I mean, wow. Now she could expect no monetary reward for that, other than the feeling of doing good work. Wow. When this woman called and then brought the dog over, that's what life's about. How do we get people to do that? How do we make people who work here together at Harley-Davidson feel good and feel that they make a difference?" Teerlink is the first to admit that he still has a long way to go creating such an environment at Harley. But so far his efforts seem to have spawned a highly motivated work force that's getting results. In 1986, when Teerlink first started concentrating on building a meaningful workplace, the company's stock was $1.20 a share. Today it trades at $26.
WHY? FOR TECHNICAL EXCELLENCE Debra Sandler, VP of marketing, PepsiCo
I've had jobs where I just don't want to get up in the morning and go to work. That for me is the real sign. Once I was a manager at a clothing retailer. The company was dogmatic. "You will do X," my boss would say. I'd say, "Gee, no, I'd rather do it this way. Here's why I think so." She'd say: "We're not going to do it this way." The thing that was most frustrating was that I'd think, Hey, I'm an intelligent person, and you're paying me a lot of money to make intelligent decisions. why won't you let me make any decisions? If you want someone who just executes what you want done, you can get someone else to do that. Allow me to contribute. Today at Pepsi, I'm around a lot of people like myself, self-starters, highly motivated people. Here I feel I can make a difference. I do get a charge out of marketing, of understanding the psyche of the person on other side, and creating wants and needs is sort of fun. I feel I can market anything. The art of marketing is what I enjoy. Debra Sandler has learned what many more people will have to learn if they want to survive in the 21st-century economy: you are what you do, not where you work. It's not the company name or logo or annual picnics that give Sandler a charge, but the intellectual challenge of national marketing. But what is it exactly that turns her on? Learning new skills and showing the world you can apply them successfully. Last year, Sandler was in charge of repositioning Slice, one of Pepsi's soft drinks that wasn't doing particularly well in the market. Taking on the challenge full force, Sandler changed the market focus and began selling to young black and Hispanic teens. She changed the flavor, the packaging, the pricing, the positioning, and the ad campaign, and hired Boyz II Men, a hot new rhythm and blues band, to do a commercial. Almost overnight Slice became a big hit. On this fall day, in her Somers, New York, office, Sandler, wearing a crisp business suit and talking with the kind of excitement typical of her high- energy soda commercials, explains why a project like Slice means so much to her: "It wasn't brain surgery, but it was something different. Sure, you can say it's just marketing sugar water, but I think I can do it in a different way, in a way that hasn't been done, in a way that many companies are just beginning to think about. It's the creativity I like. I feel like we're just at the bottom of the hill, and that's why I get excited." Sandler has another motivation that gives her the energy to work 60-hour weeks, and it has to do with her racial identity. As a black woman she wants to send a message that someone like her can hold an important job, that what she's doing is anything but tokenism. Says she: "I see myself as an agent of change. There are not many women of color in corporate America, and I place a heavy burden on myself to show that we can do it. And that we can do it pretty darn well. And that I'm not here simply because someone said, 'Let's pad the affirmative action numbers.'" That she's a marketing director at Pepsi's $8 billion soft drink division and has nailed a string of successes including Slice suggests she's already more than proved her point. Sandler, though, doesn't want people to think she works only for such noble purposes. When asked what she'd like to see etched on her tombstone, she says it would read: "She did everything she wanted to do, she led a full life, and she had fun along the way." So what if you're not finding meaning in your current job? Don't be too quick to look for salvation elsewhere. As the C.P. Cavafy poem "The City" puts it: "You won't find some other place, some other sea./The City will follow you." When people aren't finding their work meaningful, they often dream of going off and doing something entirely different like being an artist or actor. But think hard about this. The financial ramifications aside, many of us get meaning from work when we get recognition for a job well done. When you get praise for something you've done in your current job, chances are it's sincere and well earned. After all, you've spent years and years building up an expertise. People should be truly impressed. But what if you did quit to become, say, an artist? Would hanging your paintings in some second-rate gallery in Akron where only your friends and relatives would see it, would that be recognition enough for you? Psychologists say few of us have the inner resources to live without constant and meaningful praise. In his book Working, Studs Terkel quotes Nora Watson, a writer of health care literature: "I think that most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us. . . have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people." The challenge, then, is to make your own job big enough to give you what your spirit needs.