If You Can’t Have the Job You Love, Love the Job You Have

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

You need a new job.

Your current gig has become, or maybe always was, a tedious routine of meaningless tasks; each item on each day’s to-do list feels so far from anything resembling any of your passions. And yet the thing about jobs — which sometimes gets a little lost in the “do what you love” advice — is that they give you money. Doing what you love is a nice goal, but there is also the tiny fact that you actually need to do what earns you a living wage. Sometimes, for some lucky people, the two align; maybe your perfect job is out there, somewhere, too. But, for whatever reason, you can’t leave your job, not right now.

There is good news, however: According to one concept in organizational psychology — one with 15 years’ worth of empirical evidence backing it up — you don’t have to leave your current job in order to find meaning and satisfaction in your work. Instead, you can try something the psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton call “job crafting”— turning the job you already have into the job you love. As Wrzesniewski and Dutton defined it in a groundbreaking 2001 paper, job crafting is when employees shift the boundaries of their work, by expanding and/or narrowing their job descriptions. The evidence — gathered from studies on organizations as varied as Fortune 500 companies and tiny nonprofits — suggests that people who do this tend to be more satisfied and engaged in their work, perhaps because what they do all day at their jobs has become more closely aligned with their most dearly held beliefs about what makes life enjoyable, or meaningful.

There are three general categories here; some people do one, or two, or all three, in order to make their work more meaningful. Here’s an overview, borrowing from a 2013 paper Wrzesniewski, Dutton, and others, published in Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology:

Rethink the things you do at your work. This is the obvious one, known as “task crafting.” Are there tasks you wish you were doing, but aren’t? Are there things you are doing, but wish you weren’t? Job crafters, when they can, will add or drop tasks to, or from, their days. Sometimes, this perk comes with status you’ve earned over time, said Adam Grant in a recent interview with NPR. “So what that means is you have to demonstrate that you’re excelling in your job at first, and then what most managers do is they give leeway,” Grant said. “It’s called idiosyncrasy credits — basically the freedom to deviate. You get that if you’ve ended up being a star performer.”

This particular piece of job crafting, the researchers acknowledge, is not feasible for every person at every job; someone who works in retail, for example, can’t really stop ringing up items simply because he doesn’t care to use the cash register. But there may be more wiggle room than you think; maybe it’s not possible to stop doing something altogether — but can you change the way that you do them?

In a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain, Wrzesniewski shared an example of a series of interviews she did with the cleaning staff at a hospital. Some of the janitors she interviewed saw the setup of the room itself as part of their job’s purview: In each room, they’d make sure to clean the ceiling, a place of the room that’s easily overlooked by everyone except the patient, who might spend a lot of time staring up there. Others went even farther, technically bending or straight-out breaking the rules, by engaging with the patients — delivering a cup of water, or helping a patient move. These things are not part of the job description, but the cleaning staffmembers who did them were more likely to find meaning in their work.

Rethink the people at your work. The relationships we form with other people are as important for our well-being as exercise and healthy eating, and the social aspect of our lives is what brings meaning to our days. This, I am sorry to tell you, is as true at work as it is outside of it.

Your relationships with your co-workers are at once responsible for the “greatest joys and greatest frustrations” that come from your job, as Wrzesniewski phrased it on Hidden Brain. This piece of the job crafting puzzle is known as “relational crafting”: Creating or deepening relationships with others at work, for example — or spending more time with the people you like and less time with the people you don’t.

In that original 2001 paper on job crafting, Wrzesniewski and Dutton wrote about a study of engineers, who told the researchers that they expanded the scope of their jobs by taking time out of their own busy days to teach more junior staffers new skills. That’s one way to do it. Wrzesniewski and her colleagues also suggest thinking about your job from the perspective of others in different departments: If you work in marketing, it might be smart to get a better idea of what the ad sales team does, for example. Another study found that some nurses choose to expand their relationship with their patient to include the patient’s family, too. (You can also take a note from research I am currently conducting, on how employee well-being is influenced by a semi-regular happy hour. It’s early, but the results so far are promising.)

Rethink the way you think about your work. This is the third and final part of job crafting, called “cognitive crafting.” In some regards, it’s the easiest one — all you have to change is your own mind. (This, of course, is what also makes it the most difficult one.) In the janitors study, for instance, the researchers asked members of the cleaning staff a very simple question: What was their job title? Many answered this straightforwardly — they were part of the cleaning staff. But other answers were revealing. One called himself an “ambassador”; another, a “healer.”

Really, you are likely “job crafting” already, even if you’ve never heard of the term. One 2010 study of two firms — a manufacturing company and a small nonprofit — found that employees at every level of the organization were equally likely to shape their jobs to their own liking. And research published in 2013 found that three-quarters of salespeople at one firm engaged in some combination of those three facets of job crafting. You even do it every time you delegate responsibilities to someone else, or shift around your workload to match your energy level that day.

And the link between job crafting and an increase in well-being and job satisfaction, as Wrzesniewski’s research has suggested, are not so surprising. It creates a greater sense of autonomy, something that many studies have shown is associated with greater job satisfaction. But beyond that, consider this: More than half of Americans recently surveyed by Gallup told the pollsters that they defined themselves by their jobs. Shaping your work to suit your own interests and values helps align your work most closely with your sense of self. In a way, it creates a through line between that career advice that everyone wants to believe — “do what you love” — and the very real criticism of that cliché, that this is not possible for everyone. If you can’t go out and find the job you love — maybe you can find a way to love the job you have.