Charlie Rose interviewed Malcolm Gladwell recently. They had the following discussion on meaningful work (at 26:00 into interview).
Gladwell: Meaningful work is one of the most important things we can impart to children. Meaningful work is work that is autonomous. Work that is complex, that occupies your mind. And work where there is a relationship between effort and reward — for everything you put in, you get something out…
If you are convinced that the work you are doing is meaningful, then curiosity, there’s no cost to it. If you think there’s always got to be a connection between what you put in and what you get out, then of course you’ll run off with a great excitement after an idea that catches your idea.
Rose: People often ask me to define leadership and I say to them what you just said all the time. You have to communicate what the mission is all the time — and how meaningful someone’s contribution is to the mission.
When you believe that the work you’re doing has meaning, it’s an extra shot of adrenaline. Good food for thought for anyone trying to create a workplace culture that engages employees.
In the interview, Gladwell also mentioned he meets with Nathan Myhrvold once a month to discuss ideas. Myhrvold sounds like quite a character: formerly Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, began college at age 14, worked under Stephen Hawking studying cosmology, is a prize-winning nature and wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in scientific journals like Science and Nature, is a master French chef who works at one of Seattle’s leading French restaurants, and he won the world championship of barbecue. Talk about a renaissance man!
Jeremyon 31 Dec 08
The distinction between “meaningful work” and “busy work” is certainly an important one. I think most people are instinctively able to recognize the difference, but they run into trouble when it comes time to prioritize the two types of work. And if you’re part of a small company or a small project team, it can be nearly impossible to avoid at least some amount of boring, rote tasks. While these might not be the sort of thing that drives your curiosity, they still need to be completed in support of the larger goal.
Nivion 31 Dec 08
I think you’ll like this quote from Einstein: “One should guard against preaching to young people success in the customary form as the main aim in life. The most important motive for work in school and in life is pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community.”
andyon 31 Dec 08
if you want something to be meaningful, simply change the way you think about it.
MCon 31 Dec 08
I watched that interview a few days ago, after my folks brought home his latest book “Outliers”. That led me to check out Charlie Rose’s interviews with Nathan Myhrvold which are excellent (4 interviews between 1996 and 2004). I found him as interesting as Gladwell, if not more. Myhrvold is an extremely curious man, and he comes off as an extremely nice guy, and wicked smart. In one of the interviews, he has some interesting comments on open source (remember he was the CTO of Microsoft). Watch them!
Manuon 31 Dec 08
@MC Are the videos available in youtube ?
Patrick Henryon 31 Dec 08
Allow me to show what this really means about the person (in parenthesis):
“Myhrvold sounds like quite a character: formerly Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft (above average intelligence and more-to-the-point immensely lucky to have stumbled into one of the greatest business monopolies of all time), began college at age 14 (a privileged kid with wealthy and well connected parents), worked under Stephen Hawking studying cosmology (a privileged kid with wealthy and well connected parents - who cares who studied what with whom? it’s what you create/discover/invent/make that counts), is a prize-winning nature and wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in scientific journals like Science and Nature (a wealthy man with money to fund his own obscenely expensive trips to Africa and buy better photographic equipment than top pro magazine staffs) , is a master French chef who works at one of Seattle’s leading French restaurants (he is too wealthy to work for money - this just means he’s an attention whore), and has finished first in he won the world championship of barbecue (again, wealthy enough to have the time to participate and not work, desperate enough to want the attention). Talk about a renaissance man!”
Patrick Henryon 31 Dec 08
Here’s how I define meaningful work:
Any work that earns me means to provide for my family.
Whether one is mopping a stairwell or programming Rails or writing pseudo-intellectual pop culture junk science books like Gladwell, they are all equally meaningful.
mhussaon 01 Jan 09
“If you want to build a boat, do not instruct the men to saw wood, stitch the sails, prepare the tools and organise the work, but make them long for setting sail and travel to distant lands.”
-Antoine De Saint-Exupery
Lesteron 01 Jan 09
Is it just me, or does the Charlie Rose site seem like the ideal environment for watching his interviews? On TV, the black background and cheap table seems so out of place, but on his site, with the vast black background and just the floating heads talking to each other, it looks less like an interview from the ‘80s and more like how interviews should be in general. Simple, non-distracting, and beautiful in its’ simple perfection.
Christopheon 01 Jan 09
Re Patrick: man, you’re bitter, and apparently totally biased against wealthy people, regardless of what they do.
I’m not wealthy, but I acknowledge the world is replete with obscenely wealthy people who don’t use their money in any useful, creative, or inspiring way; certainly not in a diversified way. What I like about Myhrvold is, he exhibits a sort of universal curiosity, coupled with obvious intelligence; and he’s done a few impressive things with it.
I would also say you’re confusing pragmatically useful and meaningful. That why there’s such an expression as “alimentary job.” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking such a job because you must put food on the table for your family. But that doesn’t make the job meaningful.
Jesseon 01 Jan 09
@Christophe – ease up on poor Patrick there man. I’m with him. The world that Gladwell inhabits is a tiny part of the overall universe of work and meaning. Most people are not allowed to be or have chosen not to be curious. Complexity is a relative term – and for many appears like a cloud of uncertainty, which is a negative. Most people want simplicity, clarity and most of all certainty in regards to the their working lives.
This all raises the central question of our era: how do we ensure that those with average to below-average intelligence are allowed to lead dignified and enriched lives? I fear that we’ve created an era where not being clever in a very specific way has become unfashionable and ultimately derided by the “smart kid” caste.
jameson 02 Jan 09
Nathan Myhrvold is definately an fascinating character. Gladwell and him probably have some fascinating conversations that i would love to listen in on. I just wandered why wikipedia listed myhrvold’s company Intellectual Ventures as a potential patent troll. Is this really true or misleading?
MCon 02 Jan 09
@Manu – I watched the interviews on charlierose.com but yes, they are also on youtube.
Matt J.on 04 Jan 09
I find Patrick’s comments easy to relate to. But so what? Do the best with what you have.
Rick Umalion 05 Jan 09
I’m glad for this post, because I just finished “Outliers”, and this is one of the key take-aways.
This discussion is closed.