Finding Meaning in Dirty Jobs

Max and Dylan watch the G-men

Max and Dylan watch the G-men

My son Dylan is fascinated with garbage men.  He will scream with glee, “The garbage truck is coming!” and rush to the window of the house to watch them load their rubbish into their giant truck.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, we time it right and come out in front of the house just as the garbage collectors arrive.  They always greet us with a smile and a wave and take a few extra minutes to talk to Dylan.

Dylan admires the garbage men.  They are larger-than-life heroes swooping in with their massive truck (basically a giant toy, in Dylan’s eyes) and their bright orange vests.  They seem to own the neighborhood.

And the garbage men also seem to be fairly proud of what they do.  They are quite used to receiving the adoration of the children and seem to relish the opportunity to be outdoors in the early morning hours, while they clean up the neighborhood.

Few of us, however, would choose this career.  Many look down on this kind of labor as menial, or “beneath” them.  Some would be downright revolted by the idea of working in rubbish.

When I teach workshops on meaningful workplaces, I ask people to describe jobs that are inherently meaningful.  Certain responses are consistently given: teacher, doctor, nurse, social worker, or firefighter, sometimes an artist or a craftsman, sometimes an astronaut or a scientist.

Then I ask people to think of what I call “NSM” jobs, or “Not So Meaningful” jobs.  Again there is some consistency in the answers: custodial/janitorial work, sewer workers, bureaucratic office workers (think DMV or IRS in the US), and maybe a manual labor job such as a ditch digger.

Photo credit Geoff LMV

Photo credit Geoff LMV

While researchers agree that certain jobs are probably more associated with a sense of meaning than others (this may be in no small part due to the social stigma around certain jobs) they have also found that across any occupation, a wide variety of orientations to work can be found.  In a hospital, for example, some of the custodial staff may view their work as “just a job”—something that they dislike, but do for the money.  While others see their work as a “calling” and feel a deep sense of fulfillment and connection from contributing to the important healing work of the hospital.

In a recent paper, “Profane or Profound?  Finding Meaning in Dirty Work,” two management professors outline three ways that workers can find meaning in “tainted” professions:

  1. Reframing:  Workers emphasize the positive aspects of either the way they perform their work (means) or the outcomes from the work that they do (ends).  Our friendly neighborhood G-men, for example, may think less about the negative aspects of working in garbage, and instead take pride in the relationships they have with their “clients” and the positive service they provide the community.
  2. Recalibrating: Psychologically, workers may weight as more important certain aspects of their work that are more meaningful.  They cite the example of firefighters defining their work “in the heroic light of firefighting” in spite of the fact that fires represent less than 10% of their emergency calls.
  3. Refocusing:  In this case, workers recognize the tainted aspects of their job as negative, but focus on more positive aspects (like the pay and the camaraderie.)

Finding meaning in one’s work is not easy, regardless of your profession.  So I think Dylan is right to admire the G-men.  They like what they do, and they do it well.  They are providing a valuable service, getting good exercise, and spending a great deal of time outdoors.  This is better than most of us can say.

And most importantly, Dylan would say, they get to play on the back of that giant truck.

References and recommended reading:

Ashforth, B. E. & Kreiner, G. E. (2013). Profane or Profound? Finding Meaning in Dirty Work in B. J. Dik, Z. S. Byre & M. F. Steger’s (Eds.) Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace, 81-104.  American Psychological Association.


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10 Responses to Finding Meaning in Dirty Jobs

  1. Curtis Voisin December 5, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    I love this post Jeremy.

    It ties directly into the book that I’m reading right now called Start With Why which is about great leaders and organizations that are able to articulate a larger purpose of WHY they do what they do whereas most other people describe WHAT and HOW they do things. Companies like this don’t need to rely on discounts and rebates because even the customer understands it.

    Take the example of two brick layers. One may come into work and describe his work as simply as “building a wall”

    Another may describe his work enthusiastically that he is “building a castle”.

    The main point being that it’s no so important what we do or necessarily how we get there. It’s that we have a clear understanding of WHY we do what we’re doing.

    It may be a bit off-putting to some but I think at my next networking event, I’m going to start asking WHY do you do X vs. the age old WHAT do you do at X Company. I hope to get some interesting answers.

  2. Judy Krings December 6, 2013 at 6:20 am #

    This is “Bring positive psychology to work” at its best, Jeremy! Loved your “why?” translation to life’s meaning and truth messages, Curtis. So much of life is how we perceive it to be. Creative brilliance is within each of us if we look for it and frame it to what suits our purpose, values, and action planned goals. Many thanks!

  3. Judy Krings December 6, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    P. S. Just had to add: Love this down and dirty blog!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy December 6, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Thanks Judy and Curtis. Curtis, I love the idea of asking WHY at a networking event. I’m always trying to think about how to avoid falling into the rut of boring small talk. Asking people why they do what they do seems like an opener to a great conversation.

  5. quackwatch December 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Jeremy, Lets do a stocktake on meaning (research based)
    1. Having meaning is a good thing
    2. Wanting meaning and not having is not wonderful
    3. There are no proven meaning interventions (Straight from the horses mouth -Michael Steger)

    Meaning appears to be like a drug of dependence. Perhaps pushing meaning (like this article does) is like pushing drugs? Might these types of articles be irresponsible?

  6. Jeremy McCarthy December 10, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    I don’t buy that. But if I am found guilty of “pushing meaning” I will gladly accept the charge.

  7. Marie-Josee Shaar December 10, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Enjoyed the article very much, Jeremy! Love your asking why at networking events, too – will try it next week! 😉

    … and if there are no proven meaning interventions, I see nothing wrong with figuring out what works for ourselves.

  8. quackwatch December 11, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    So you think its ok to push something when there is no research suggesting you can attain it?

    In fact there is some research suggesting the more you look for meaning the less likely you are to find it? It seems like for most people that just stumble upon it?

    AS an aside you are conflating meaning and purpose – if you were up on the research you would know there are meaningful (I know you like the word) differences.

    An article called stumbling on meaning would be more responsiible

    As an aside I wonder if man’s search for meaning is the cuase of many mental health problems.

  9. quackwatch December 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm #


    How about some different perspectives

    Meaning only matters if you aren’t engaged
    Meaning is more important for the emotionally fragile
    Meaning is purely a meta cognitive process
    Meaning only matters when everything else fails
    Meaning is a construct based on exception – if you are not happy then its because you don’t have meaning
    The harder you look for meaning, the less likely you are to find it
    Meaning is more improrant in religious countries
    There will always be a meaning business because its such a scare commodity
    People might lie about having meaning because of its perceived importance
    Meaning is different from purpose
    Meaning is the new religion

    If you really want to change the world then perhaps you need to move beyond existing paradigms

  10. Jeremy McCarthy December 14, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Unless you have a lot of time and patience, I would not recommend sitting around waiting for scientists to prove how to find meaning in life.

    I do think it is a reasonable position to conclude that life is essentially meaningless, that meaning is purely a metacognitive process and that the pursuit of meaning is not worthwhile. That being said, most people do not put themselves into this camp and that goes far broader than those who are religious, “not engaged” or “emotionally fragile.”

    I have seen many researchers describe the differences between meaning and purpose and more than one definition for each. I am using the word meaning the way that I intended to. I’m sorry if that doesn’t mesh with your understanding of it.

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