A version of this piece was previously published at Forbes.
University of Michigan professor Jane Dutton and a colleague, Amy Wrzesniewski now at Yale, coined the term “job crafting” to explain a phenomenon they were seeing: That people often take existing job descriptions and expand them to suit their desire to make a difference. In other words, job crafters are those who do what’s expected (because it’s required) and then find a way to add something new to their work — something that benefits others.
“We started looking at everybody from cleaners to engineers to cooks,” said Dutton. “Across the whole gamut of work we saw people altering the boundaries of their job descriptions in ways that made their jobs more meaningful.”
What does meaningful mean? In contrast to motivation theory, which tends to be based on self-interest, Dutton and Wrzesniewski (and a growing number of psychologists) are noting that in addition to self-interest, we are very much hard-wired to connect and serve others as well.
It’s the creation of results that benefit both the “me” and the “we” that is at the heart of job crafting. Said Justin Berg, a student of Dutton who helped with many of her studies, “Today’s jobs are typically bureaucratic and one-size-fits-all. Even the way we communicate jobs is boring and dry: a list of responsibilities in a job description.”
To job craft is to reframe how we relate to our job. To think about how our work affects others. To look at the larger purpose of our work and who it might benefit.
A little job crafting can make a big difference
In a famous 1954 Life magazine article, "Why Johnny Can’t Read," John Hersey pointed out that the Dick and Jane books most schools depended on were boring. They had no real story and just repeated simple words again and again.
Someone needed to break the mold and make a difference.
William Spaulding, the director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division, took his friend Ted to dinner and issued a challenge: Take 225 unique words every 6-year-old knows and “write me a story that first-graders can’t put down.”
Ted was a talented artist and had already illustrated numerous children’s books. He saw this challenge and its constraints as an opportunity to re-think children’s books and to reframe his job.
At first Ted thought he could dash off such a book in no time. But as his desire to make a significant difference took over, Ted wrestled with the list of beginner words for a year and a half. Most of the words only had one or two syllables. There weren’t many verbs. The task became a mission for Ted and he committed to create something great.
“I read the list three times and almost went out of my head,” Ted said. He thought to himself, “I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme, that will be my book.”
Those two words were Cat and Hat.
When Ted Geisel (now known as Dr. Seuss) published "The Cat In The Hat" in 1957, children’s literature was changed dramatically for the better. Gone were the soft illustrations of Dick pulling Spot in a wagon. Instead, Ted’s book had a cat in a top hat, a know-it-all fish and two blue-haired “Things” that made a mess of everything. It was different.
Children and parents loved it. Kids weren’t being forced to read the book; they were begging to read it.
The book made Seuss a household name and started a revolution in early readers. It helped to promote phonics as a replacement for rote memorization and began the slow decline of those dull early readers.
Imagine the loss to the world if Geisel had seen Spaulding’s challenge as just another job with unreasonable constraints to crank out; if his eyes weren’t open to new possibilities; and if he didn’t have the mindset to do a little job crafting.
To reframe one’s job is to make a mental connection with a grander purpose: its social benefit, its worth to society, its potential to benefit others. Thinking of the good our work can do, beyond our daily to-do list, helps us change how we relate to our work. Such reframing possibilities exist in practically any occupation. All it takes is a little effort to think beyond our to-do list to the difference we want to make for others.
Note: This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
David Sturt is an executive vice president at O.C. Tanner and author of "Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love" (McGraw Hill). You can follow him on twitter @david_sturt or visit www.greatwork.com.