What can Lego, Cycling and IKEA teach us about meaning?
Imagine getting paid to build Lego. The perfect job right? How long could you do it for? How much would you want to be paid? Could you consider it meaningful work?
The lego experiment
Well, a bunch of American university students participated in an experiment to build Logo Bionicles for money. They were paid $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on.
One group’s creations were stored under the table, to be disassembled at the end of the experiment, the other group’s Bionicles were disassembled in front of the builders as soon as they’d been built. According to the researcher Dan Ariely, “this was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes,”
We’ll get to the results shortly, but first, let’s examine the relationship between work and meaning more broadly.
Many years ago, I worked for hours and hours, days and days on a presentation for a massive new client. I was obsessing over, and perfecting a presentation. Two weeks had passed and I was ready to send the final presentation to my boss.
I saw him in the lift and he said to me, hey, about the presentation, I’m sorry but we’ve pulled out of the deal. Up until that point I was massively motivated. Afterwards, I lost motivation for many many months. In fact, my work never really recovered there, and I ended up leaving.
Activities require meaning. Even if that meaning is so tiny that it seems inconsequential.
There has to be a purpose for what you do to make it worthwhile.
I’m going to take a detour here and tie it all together.
Meaning from activities
I love bike riding. But more times than not, I hate the activity. I recently completed a ride which had me climbing 3000 meters each day for three days. Most of the time I was miserable, in pain, alone, and questioning what I was doing there.
My mind would wander so ridiculously that I can’t remember most of what happened. Even the descents were not as enjoyable as you’d think. Yes, there was less physical work going down, but the descents were full of concentration as opposed to a wandering mind. One little slip in concentration at 60km/hr and I could find myself flying into the air down a steep cliff.
But there was also enjoyment.
If it was going to be so miserable, why not just sit by the pool and drink beers while my buddies did the climb? Because I had a purpose, irrespective of its importance, my purpose was to reach the top.
You can’t ask me ‘why’ I do these things any more than you can ask a mountain climber or marathon runner the same question. It’s personal. But, ultimately, my purpose was an accomplishment and the camaraderie of sharing it with friends, it wasn’t unadulterated enjoyment.
But the enjoyment happened to come from the accomplishment. I wasn’t seeking enjoyment, but it came.
Rides like this require training and focus. I’m a person who struggles with focus, so the quest to accomplish something with my buddies created an acute focus on the ride and in the lead-up.
For anything we do in our lives, we know that if it means something, it’s preferred to something that doesn’t.
When we expand that over multiple activities or indeed expand that over a whole lifetime we get some feeling as to why meaning matters, why things need to have a purpose.
So the search for meaning stretches from the whole of meaning of life to the meaning of your job as a checkout cashier or in doing housework. Cleaning the house can be a different activity between one-day and the next.
If you’re just cleaning the house on a boring Tuesday afternoon, it’s very different from cleaning the house before hosting a dinner party with your favourite friends. One has a practical purpose, and the other an overlay of emotional purpose, a deeper purpose. As a result, you do that work with more vigour, dare I say, more purpose.
Doing the work itself can also create a deeper meaning to the outcome.
Meaning from IKEA
We all know the frustration of putting IKEA furniture together, or, watching someone fumble through the construction process. When you put IKEA furniture together, you suffer frustration and annoyance through the whole process. If you don’t know how my bike ride felt, then constructing flat-packed furniture may give you an inkling.
Despite the head scratching, sore back, and arguments with your loved one, when somehow that furniture has special pride and place in your house. It’s because you did the work, and that effort gives the furniture more value, and also some meaning. Simply having someone deliver it to you is not the same thing.
Seeing the fruits of our labour may make us more productive
Back to the Bionicles. Remember, they were paid $3 for the 1st construction and $0.30 less for each subsequent one. The first group’s creations were stored under the table and the second groups were disassembled in front of the builder immediately after they were built.
The first group made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only seven before they quit.
The Upshot: Even though there wasn’t huge meaning at stake, and even though the second group knew their work would be destroyed at the end of the experiment, for the first group, seeing the results of their labour (for even a short time) was enough to dramatically improve performance.
The search for meaning extends beyond our personal lives but is critical in our own work, and in getting employees motivated to be more productive.
This doesn’t mean it’s solely up to the employer to provide meaning. And it doesn’t mean you have the power to create your own meaning in work.
Both are necessary.
How we give context to our own mundane work is a topic for another conversation and the fodder of countless self-help books. The point here is that the search for meaning does not have barriers between work and personal life. Meaning matters.