Finding meaning in your work

by Brian Mc Vey

What you get out of a job depends on how you define it

Three brickmasons walk into a bar and order drinks, and the bartender asks what they do for work. The first brickmason answers, “I lay a lot of bricks.” The second says, “I’m making a wall.” The third replies, “I’m building a cathedral.”

In other words, as Dr. Viktor E. Frankl famously stated, “It is not a person’s occupation that creates meaning or fulfillment but how he or she does the work.” 

Those in law enforcement have the opportunity to find meaning in serving others. There is great joy in being able to help another person. Years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in an ethics training session filled with bosses from the Chicago Police Department. The instructor posed this question: “What has been your favorite day on the job?” A majority of the bosses’ answers included helping someone, often in what some might consider an insignificant way. Some talked about caring for people with medical issues. Not one answer involved arresting someone. This question made me think of the many happy moments I had on the job helping people. These are chances for officers to create their own favorite moments on the job. 

Their answers made me think about a custodian at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. Some may think being a custodian isn’t the most important job in America, but don’t tell that to Charles Clark. For almost 25 years, he has been cleaning classrooms and bathrooms and counseling students. Most of his student “clients” are referred to him by the school counselors. Clark has helped dozens of kids turn their lives around — not because it was a part of his job duties, but because he found satisfaction helping those in need. There is a lesson for anyone feeling trapped by their title: You can always do more than your title. Clark used more than his broom to find meaning at his job.

Author David Brooks tells another story of finding meaning at work with hospital custodial workers. Some of these custodial workers defined their job as “cleaning the floor,” while others described it as creating a safe environment for patients. Brooks explains that if your attitude is about service, your job becomes more satisfying and meaningful.

Brooks compares a career to marriage: “Nobody enters marriage with a utilitarian mindset: ‘Does this pass a cost-benefit analysis test? Am I getting more out of it than I’m putting in?’ … And anyone thinking about a career in law enforcement should enter their academy with these questions, ‘Who can I serve? What am I pouring my effort into? Am I all in?’” Brooks also warns that dwelling on serving others has its problems. He cites the English author Dorothy Sayers, who argued that when you attempt to serve a community, you can become obsessed with whether the community sufficiently appreciates your work. This is what turns affable officers into cynical coppers. Sayers said the best way to truly help a community is to do your job well — to primarily serve and find meaning in the
work itself.

Men and women in law enforcement know the job is more than just a badge and gun. You are counselors, legal advisers, teachers, friends, mentors, social workers, psychologists, ministers, jugglers, judges and more.

Some find great fulfillment and joy in their jobs because they have answered the following questions:

  • Have I undervalued the importance of my work?
  • What is the cost of a lack of meaning in my work?
  • What do these symptoms say to those entering my line of work, as well as to my co-workers?
  • How can I discover ways to engage in meaningful work? 

Remind yourself that the largest piece of your daily routine is devoted to work and related activities. If we hope to experience life as meaningful, we need to experience our work as meaningful. If you find little satisfaction in your current position, work on not being that dark cloud at roll call. Don’t wait until the end of your career to realize the significance of your job — make an effort to find its importance today. 


Brian Mc Vey was a Chicago police officer injured in the line of duty in 2012. He is a proud father, adjunct professor and writer. You can reach Brian at btmcvey77@gmail.com.

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