Frank Martela |Derin Kent
June 6, 2020
In dire times, it’s natural to question the meaningfulness of your work. When your world is shaken by a massive disruption, your job may seem insignificant and even pointless. On the other hand, crises can also heighten feelings of purpose and connection — something we saw in studying the response to 9/11 in New York and to the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto. As one ICU director who lived through that outbreak told us, “I felt something important could happen at any minute and that I had to be at work.” An ICU nurse recalled: “There was a sense that if we don’t lock this down, nobody will. We were the few. A lot of people bonded in unusual ways.” Crises lead many people to find deep value in their jobs, develop professionally, and grow personally.
Today most of us don’t have frontline roles in the fight against coronavirus, of course. But we all can still discover ways to contribute through our everyday work, by taking these three steps:
Empower yourself with small actions.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, obsessing over the big things that you can’t influence is bad for your mental well-being. Instead, try to act on whatever aspect of the situation is still in your control, no matter how minor. That will bolster your feelings of personal effectiveness and make it easier to then move on to more-meaningful goals — to think about what else you can do to improve the situation for yourself, your colleagues, or your community.
During the 9/11 attacks, Manhattan resident Nicole Blackman was as lost as anyone in the city. She wasn’t trained to do rescue work and didn’t belong to any emergency management organizations. But she felt the need to help in any way she could — so she decided to donate some sandwiches to the rescue workers at Ground Zero. From there things quickly escalated: After delivering the sandwiches, she stayed around for a while at the volunteer drop-off point. When the person in charge of operations left for the day, Blackman ended up taking over. In a few weeks’ time, as she recounted in Damon DiMarco’s oral history, Tower Stories, she was leading an ad hoc volunteer organization involving hundreds of people, with job titles, divisions of labor, and an expanded mission. Most government agencies in the area even assumed her group was an established nonprofit like the Red Cross.
Blackman didn’t stay in her apartment wondering how to make the world better. Instead, she did something, and as a result she put herself in contact with people who were organizing a response, discovered what rescue workers needed, and became a resource for others.
The idea here is just to get moving: Try a number of things and see what sticks. We assume that our goals determine our actions. But the reverse is also true. Our small actions generate feedback that allows us to discover more-meaningful goals.
Consider how your unique skills can address crisis-related challenges.
Proactive employees are increasingly using “job crafting” to actively redesign their work to better fit their strengths, passions, and motives. Part of this approach, according to Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski, involves simply rethinking how you view your work. After the 9/11 attacks, for instance, many employees of financial service firms doubted the value of their jobs, yet others discovered new purpose in them: Keeping their companies running was a way to defy the terrorists, help their country rebound from economic harm, and honor their fallen colleagues. As one banker interviewed by DiMarco put it, “I’m not a doctor. I couldn’t rush to the hospital to put people back together. I’m not a construction worker, so I couldn’t dig. I tried to give blood, but the line was four hours long….So the way I fight back is to make sure our company is not affected.”
Similarly, during the current crisis you can fight the recession that the pandemic is likely to cause simply by keeping your business operating. Remember that it’s providing paychecks that feed families and helping vendors do the same.
But even more significantly, you can mold your job to contribute solutions to your community’s current problems. Start by taking an inventory of your skills and resources, and then think creatively about where they could be put to good use. If you’re an expert in investments, for instance, you could dedicate a few hours to giving financial advice to struggling entrepreneurs or those who’ve lost their jobs. If you’re an architect, you could redesign offices, restaurants, and schools to be more virus-proof, and if you’re in marketing, you could help nonprofits providing vital services with their fundraising campaigns. A diverse set of groups is affected by the crisis, so there are countless ways to provide assistance. And by partnering with others, you can maximize your impact. If you don’t yet have an idea, you might start by participating in one of the hackathons that are popping up, at which diverse teams try to innovate ways to help those hurt by the crisis.
When the pandemic hit, Samuli Kokki, a service sales account manager at Cisco, noticed that many friends and acquaintances whose livelihoods depended on meeting customers in person were struggling financially. Because of his role, Kokki had a keen knowledge of digital meeting solutions. Partly during his work hours and partly during his leisure time, he guided several organizations through the digital transition. For instance, he helped a real estate agency design and set up a service to display and sell houses remotely and a children’s art school with remote operations that allowed the kids to continue their classes from home.
Use the crisis as an opportunity to connect with a more purposeful future.
If you’re in a tight spot, there might not be much you can do right now to enhance the meaningfulness of your work. Maybe you’ve been laid off or are so overwhelmed keeping your head above water you have no time for anything else. But you can still find meaning by focusing on the future. Humans’ ability to mentally time travel is unique in the animal kingdom. We don’t just experience the present; we also can relive the past and envision the future. And research led by Adam Waytz from Kellogg School of Management shows that when we exercise this ability, it enhances how much meaning we feel in the present.
Crises interrupt the passive unfolding of our lives and make us more aware of what truly matters. So we’re most apt to gain life-changing insights during them. A crisis can help you realize that what you want out of your career requires a change in direction. A decade from now, many people may look back at this moment as a turning point at which their path toward a more meaningful existence started.
With that in mind, think about what your potential dream job might be in 10 years’ time. But don’t imagine just one job; imagine several. Now work backward to imagine the paths that took you there. At the same time, explore where your current back-burner projects and dormant passions could lead you.
In 2001 Jeremy Bouman’s booming telecommunications business was just five blocks away from Ground Zero, and as a result of the attacks it lost customers and was forced to close the following spring. Although those months were highly stressful, Bouman in hindsight saw them as fortunate: “September 11 focused me on thinking about how I would spend my time on earth — how I would contribute to the greater good. Not just selling internet connections for money,” he told Wendy Healy, author of Life Is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal After 9/11. That led him to take a fundraising job at Lutheran Social Services of New York, where he met his future wife. Eventually, he went into social entrepreneurship, founding RISE, a nonprofit that provides entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training to currently and formerly incarcerated men and women. Through the reflection the crisis triggered, he said, “I discovered who I was and found a career and meaning for my own life.”
Finding purpose during a crisis is more than making a temporary situation bearable. You didn’t choose the circumstances, but you can choose what to make out of them. Start with small actions and identify how your own skill set could be put to best use. By taking a step or two forward you will not only make a contribution today but reach out toward a more meaningful future.
Frank Martela is a postdoctoral researcher in Aalto University’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, chairman of the board at the consulting and research firm Filosofian Akatemia, and the author of A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence (Harper Design, 2020).
Derin Kent is a postdoctoral researcher in organization and management at Aalto University School of Business, Finland. He studies how people find meaning in crises and extreme situations.
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