Why do you work? That’s a question I often use to open my workshop and keynotes. It’s a question we so rarely stop to deeply think about. Over the years I’ve heard nearly all of the answers but here are the most common. Money! To have a reason to get out of the house! To do something useful! To help others! To make a difference. Because I like my colleagues! To challenge myself! To do what I love. To feel good about myself. Because society tells us we have to (ok so let’s leave that one out for now – it deserves its own article). On the weekend I heard a new one: to buy a Lego police car!
My son Otto is 4 years old. He LOVES lego. We love building lego together. A few weeks ago he told me he wanted a Lego police car that he’d seen. “How are you going to get one?” I asked, “It’s not Christmas or your birthday”. “You should buy it for me daddy!” Was his slightly confused reply. It seemed like a good time to explain the concept of money and work to him. We came up with a plan. He was going to have a job washing bikes to earn money to buy the lego.
For every bike he helped me wash he would get paid 1 euro. He would save the money in his little piggy bank until he had the 6 euros that he needed. As it turns out he was already halfway there, “I have 3 euros. 2 from Oma and 1 Euro that I found on the sofa!“ So, he just needed to help me wash 3 bikes. He was so excited, “let’s do them all now!”.
We filled a bucket with soapy water and headed to the garden with the bikes. First up, a very dirty gravel bike, but motivation levels were sky high, especially when it came to using the hose and spraying me with it! Second bike, a vintage racer. Starting to get the hang of it and he took it incredibly seriously getting his little fingers into all the nooks and crannies. Third bike, actually a bike trailer, he hit his limit and started to experience the emotions of every worker in the world ever. “Aaarrrggghh this is boring”, “I’m tired!”, “can’t we just go and play instead”. I realised that 3 bikes was too many so I helped / finished off the last bike.
Now it was time to be paid. He was so unbelievably over the top incredibly excited! Now I have 6 euros! I can buy the police car! We went to the shop, he found the lego, and emptied out his piggy bank onto the counter. He proudly told the store owner “I’m buying this lego with my own money from my job!” We went home and built the little police car together. He was so proud of himself and positively glowing. He knocked on our neighbours door to show off his achievement. He slept with the lego in his bed. He took it to kindergarten to show all of his friends. “I bought this with my own money from my own work”.
This is what meaningful work can feel like!
What Otto learned about work
Of course, Otto learned that work = lego! More importantly he learned the feeling of setting and reaching for a goal, the satisfaction of being lost in a fun work task, having a purpose, and the sense of achievement from completing something hard.
There were moments when it was fun and exciting, moments when it seemed impossible and he lost hope, but eventually he learned that he could come through in the end and do it.
What I learned from Otto about work
I learned that the difference between fun work and hard work is often a matter of framing and reframing (much like most elements of parenting and motivating children!). I also learned that as a leader extreme encouragement, lots of positive feedback in the moment, trying to find the fun in tasks, framing the positives, and setting goals leads to happy 4-year old workers! It also works for us grown-ups.
What really struck me was how much meaning can be attached to a simple job like washing bikes. The police car reward is not just another model to him. It has a story attached to it that makes his work meaningful. In fact, Otto’s experience sparked every element that leads to meaningful work.
What we can all learn from Otto about work
If you’re struggling to feel meaning in your work then Otto’s police car can teach us all how to love our jobs a little more.
Authenticity – Otto loves bikes, playing with water hoses, and building lego. Engaging in tasks and projects that we are genuinely interested in or love gives us so much joy, energy, and intrinsic motivation. Are you working in the areas you love?
Belonging & connection – we love building lego and doing tasks together as a team. Positive connections, interactions and a shared sense of belonging is crucial for meaningful work to all of us in any job. How connected to your colleagues do you feel?
Achievement & self esteem – Otto set himself a challenge, he had guidance and was supported to reach the challenge. When he was bored with wiping the wheels we switched tasks and gave extra challenges like the hose, when it got too hard we eased it back. We simply need challenges to keep us feeling vital. Too much challenge and no hope of making it leads to burnout. For self-esteem we need to achieve. What goals do you need to increase or scale back?
Purpose – Otto had multiple levels of purpose going on. There was the high level “lego police car goal”. He also had clear and easy to follow instructions that were connected with their own micro-purpose “whys”. Eg first we must hose the bike. Why? To get rid of the surface dirt and dust so we don’t scratch it when we wash. Of course we all know that purpose is essential. We often spend lots of time thinking about the bigger purpose, and forget that task-to-task, day-to-day we need the little whys too. Are you clear on your day-to-day and bigger picture purpose?
Making a social impact – Otto didn’t just clean some bikes. He did something for his daddy. When I ride my clean bike, he feels a direct connection to his work. We know the scientifically proven benefits of doing something for a greater good but we often miss the connection to that good. This direct, visible connection to the impact of our work is key. Who benefits from your work? How often do you connect with that person?