Earlier this week I attended a lecture, “Working for Pay or for Purpose”, hosted by my alma mater and presented by Stuart Bunderson, Ph.D. Dr. Bunderson’s research was focused on a profession where people love their work despite low pay, repetitive tasks, unpredictable hours, and minimal chance for advancement or recognition. That profession was zookeeping. Yes, zookeeping! Researchers worked with the American Association of Zookeepers to find out what made this particular group of workers so satisfied and engaged.
Many zookeepers described their work as a “calling”, and often said that once they retired they planned to continue in a volunteer capacity. What they had found in their work was meaning, and this meaning came from doing work at the intersection of who they are and what they care about. Zookeepers reported that they had always felt like “animal people”, so it was “meant to be” that they would one day work with animals. They also felt that regardless of their daily routine (such as sweeping out cages), they knew even these small, and often dirty, tasks were contributing to the greater goal of caring for animals and protecting species from extinction.
Dr. Bunderson determined that finding such meaning or calling was a double-edged sword for zookeepers: the strong commitment to fulfillment of the work came with a powerful sense of responsibility, long hours, the need for second jobs or income sources, and an inability to easily walk away if it all became too overwhelming. Some zookeepers even told of lost marriages due to their unwavering commitment to their work. Those things that give happiness do not always give meaning. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl put it in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” His theory is that man is not driven by pleasure, as Freud professed, but by the discovery and pursuit of meaning in our lives.
The session spoke to me on many levels. Running a mission-based, non-profit organization like ACS comes with a clear sense of purpose and meaning, as well as an amazing array of dedicated volunteers who share the same commitment to that mission. But this session really made me think about the many unexpected parallels between zookeepers and cheesemakers. Cheesemakers are incredibly dedicated to their work despite long hours and financial burdens; they are passionate about the land, animals, and their products; they often perform grueling and dirty work; and they are unwavering in their deep commitment to preserving traditions.
The take-away was that we can all find meaning in our work by recognizing what we care about and using our unique skills to further that cause. For those who can’t find that in their current work, perhaps it is time to change professions!