John Gardner

It's All About Meaningful Work

Blog Post created by John Gardner on Sep 30, 2016

I have very few original ideas.  One was “the first-year experience.” Another was “the senior year experience.” The list is short. Most of my ideas I get from other people. And I get these ideas usually by two means: I listen to them in conversation or presentations; and/or I read them.


So this piece is inspired by the fact that the other night I was at a conference related dinner in Arlington, Virginia, engaged in a conversation with one of my colleagues at the University of South Carolina, whom I respect greatly, the University’s chief undergraduate education officer, Dr. Helen Doerpinghaus. After we finished our conversation I noted to myself that she had mentioned to me not once, not twice, but three times, the importance to her as a faculty member and academic administrator most responsible for the welfare of our undergraduates, of “meaningful work.” I didn’t tell her at that time that I had been doing a word count, but I did later. She really nailed it.


When I think of what I am most thankful for, “meaningful work” is right up there at the top of the list.


I am a seeker of truth, my truth. I learned how to do this in college when I had a political scientist in a political philosophy course teach me the Socratic method. It is that method that I use most often to seek my truth(s). I was taught, by having to read Plato’s Republic, that Socrates went about speaking in the interrogative mode with others, drawing from them presentations of what others believed to be the truth—their truths. And I saw Socrates adding up these truths of others to create his own synthesis of truth, and thus inspiring me to do the same.


And that is what I was naturally doing in conversation with my USC colleague who was talking to me about the importance of academics like us doing “meaningful work.”


When I was 18 years old and came home from my first year of college, my father was not happy with the new ideas, views, attitudes, I had come home from college with. He told me I needed to have a real world experience, implying to me what so many business types believe, that college is not “the real world.” So he arranged such an experience for me: I became a steel worker in a plant that made beer cans. This was sheer torture for a college kid. Millions and millions of beer cans but not a drop to drink.


This experience didn’t illuminate for me what I wanted to do when I grew up, but it helped clarify what I didn’t want to do. I saw how bereft of meaning was the work that most of my fellow factory workers were doing. And at the end of the summer, all I knew was that I was still very much in search of “meaningful work.” I didn’t call it that yet. And actually, I was in the process of finding it in college, where I truly regarded my work as “meaningful”—because it led to so much understanding, insight, and intellectual and personal empowerment. It was also in college that I learned from reading Thoreau, writing in the 1840’s, that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”


Of course I was also gradually coming to the awareness that millions of my fellow citizens do not have the good fortune to experience “meaningful work.” Instead, they have jobs. Ultimately, I did not have a “job”; I had a vocation, a “calling” as the Latin derivative of vocation yields.


Now I didn’t discover this calling until after college and a graduate degree and a military experience, when the Air Force ordered me to do some college adjunct teaching as a form of “community service.” It was only then that I discovered my operational definition of “meaningful work”: it was being engaged in remunerative work that had redeeming social value and that involved the four things I loved most to do: 1) talk 2) read 3) write 4) help people. I did not have any career planning in college because it didn’t exist in the early ‘60’s in my kind of college. I am thankful to the Air Force and the University of South Carolina that I discovered “meaningful work.”


I am struck today by how many college students have never experienced “meaningful work.” In fact, my upper SES background students may never have experienced any remunerative work at all! They don’t have paper routes any more. And they don’t mow lawns either. Instead they have after school and during the summer “enrichment” experiences that help them leverage the college admissions game. And for my lower income students, the fortunate ones have had some employment history but I rarely ever hear that it was meaningful (e.g. in the fast food service economy).


I shared with my USC colleague, Dr. Doerpinghaus, that I thought that higher educators could profit from being convened to discuss what is meant by meaningful work, and just what that experience for them in the academy has been. And how those kinds of experiences might relate to efforts to make students more successful. In like manner, I suggested that we try to design some structured processes for undergraduates to learn how to discern what might constitute meaningful work. I am confident USC will figure out a way to do this. Just think, if they left college with any more clear indication of what “meaningful work” consisted of, how much better their life choices might be.


So what is meaningful work?


What I know best is what I found to be the characteristics of meaningful work through my own meaningful work. Now that doesn’t mean that my students would have to end up doing what I did and do to experience meaningful work. I am not a faculty person who wants to produce student clones. But surely there are some generic take-aways.


OK, for me, meaningful work is characterized by:

  • a discovery of some idea that becomes the basis for new work
  • a high degree of autonomy and freedom in the work setting
  • the intellectual, professional, personal freedom to raise questions about anything and pursue them wherever they lead me
  • having remunerative work that pays me for doing the things I most love to do (reading, writing, talking, helping people)
  • having legal work that harms no one, including myself, and helps many
  • high levels of personal fulfillment and empowerment
  • freedom to determine where I work
  • and when I work
  • and how I work
  • and with whom I work
  • being engaged primarily in activities that I have initiated as opposed to having imposed on me, or as my good friend and mentor at the University of California Irvine put it to me thirty years ago—work that enables John to “stay out of other peoples’ meetings!”
  • forms of work that require me to continue learning
  • outcomes that are win/win for myself and others—it is never about just me
  • and thus work that is inherently collaborative, that would be very difficult to engage in alone
  • and further is work where my skills, knowledge, hopes, dreams are complemented and magnified through integration with those same qualities in others
  • often fun and entertaining
  • always demanding, pushing me further
  • never finished, yet fulfilled


I think there needs to be more talk among academic colleagues and work with our students to help all discover and achieve meaningful work. And this is one more benefit to college in addition to simply “completion” and degree attainment.


Thank you Helen, for getting me to think about this. And I will continue to do so.


Originally published at on 11/24/14.