The Meaning of Meaningful Work

by Andy P. on February 20, 2013

This month we had the privilege of hosting Scott Jamieson of Bartlett Tree Experts on a Come Alive Outside EDGE Webinar. The story of Bartlett’s involvement on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and Scott’s reflections on how the project affected the way that Bartlett’s employees view their work bear repeating. As you read, think about what your reason is for doing what you do. Are you doing things just to get them done? Or are you doing things because you are conscious of the impact that your actions have on the world around you and the lives of the people you care about?

Bringing Life Back to Ground Zero

The memory of September 11, 2001, is a wound in our nation’s psyche that will never fully heal and certainly will never be forgotten. For those who lost someone dear to them in the tragedy, the absence of that person is a daily reminder of one of the darkest days in our country’s history. In the months and years that followed, we saw thousands of images of the rubble that remained at Ground Zero. The site became an icon of destruction, pain and loss. Though we will certainly never forget the horror of that day and the memory of those we lost, the 9/11 Memorial was created to honor the lives of those lost in a setting that also encourages a rebirth of hope and the reemergence of life.

Bartlett Trees 9/11 MemorialThe design of the plaza juxtaposes the gaping emptiness of two water features in the footprint of the towers with the living presence of over 400 swamp white oak trees.  Bartlett Tree Experts was hired and charged with the task of caring for the trees that would occupy the plaza and create the setting for contemplation and renewal.  From the beginning, this was not just another job.  This is a job that is steeped in meaning.  It was not just about irrigating, monitoring and fertilizing trees; it was about creating something important.

Trees Being Cared for the 9/11 MemorialThese trees have been called “the most cared for trees in history” and rightly so.  The trees had to be raised at a nursery with conditions that mirrored those at Ground Zero for five years before being moved to the site.  During this time, the members of the Bartlett team spent time with the trees every day and became closely attached to each of them.  Some said that it felt like they were losing a child every time a tree was moved from the nursery to the construction site.  Most of the trees have now been moved to the site of the 9/11 Memorial where they are currently weathering the New York winter and waiting to add a resurgence of green life to the site with the coming spring.

We Need Meaning

Meaningful work has the power to motivate people, perhaps more than anything else. It’s not what you’re doing but why you’re doing it that makes your work worthwhile. Bartlett Tree Experts is a great company that has earned its reputation by doing great work all around the world. But, even for a world-class company like Bartlett, there is an added degree of motivation and energy that comes from knowing that you are working on such a meaningful project as the 9/11 Memorial. Everyone involved, from the nursery to the corporate offices, has become energized by the project and shares a sense of pride in knowing what their work is for.

Caring for 9/11 Memorial TreesImagine how ridiculous it would have been had the Bartlett team not been told that they were caring for the trees that would fill the memorial.   If each of the more than 400 swamp white oaks had been treated as just another tree before it was taken to the site, imagine the difference in the relationship that the Bartlett team would have had with the trees.  Such a situation might have been detrimental to the health of the trees, but it would most certainly have deprived the humans of the honor and pride that comes from doing meaningful work.

We are creatures that crave meaning.  We’re rather unique in this.  Your dog may know that when you get home from work it means that he’s going to get fed, but he really doesn’t care if his dog bowl is made of crystal or cardboard.  He doesn’t care whether you bought the dog bowl on your honeymoon or at the dollar store.  He certainly doesn’t care if he is supporting a local business by eating this particular brand of dog food.  Obviously, things are different for people.  We connect meaning to everything we do and see.  Our brains are hardwired to match up the things that we see with the things that we remember, so that everything we experience is inherently bound to the meaning that we connect to it.  Give a man a steak dinner in a cardboard box and it will taste different than the same steak on a crystal plate.

Don’t deprive yourself or your team the privilege of doing meaningful work.  When you think about how vital “meaning” is to the human experience, how sad is it that “meaningful work” has become a rarity for most people?  Why should meaningful work be a break from the status quo?  Meaningful work should be the norm.  If we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing, either we’re wasting our time or we’ve become so far removed from the final product of our effort that it’s impossible to see the fruits of our labor.  I believe that this is a major fallacy of the world that we live in these days, and one that not only makes people dread going to work on Monday morning but also saps the rest of our life of its meaning and vitality.  Show me a person who knows why they do everything that they do and I’ll show you a very happy person.

Tell Your Story

We don’t pick up meaning by osmosis.  We learn it through stories.  I once saw a perfectly hideous, life-sized glass sculpture of a toucan sitting in a high-end boutique store in Shanghai, China.  It looked like something that my grandmother might have found at a garage sale or flea market for twenty-five dollars and talked them down to five because it was so awkwardly ugly that no one else would buy it.  The only thing different about this particular bird statue in Shanghai is that it had a $100,000 price tag taped to its foot.   When I asked the clerk why this monstrosity was worth such a price, she responded that it was made in southern Italy.  Now, whether or not  the thing actually came from Italy or ugly, glass birds from southern Italy are actually worth $100,000 dollars is besides the point.  What I know for sure is that if that clerk had been telling people that the bird was made in a Chinese factory, she would have had to knock a few zeros off the price.  She wasn’t selling the toucan; she was selling the story.

9/11 Tree MemorialThese digressions aren’t meant to distract from or trivialize the meaningfulness of the 9/11 Memorial and Bartlett’s work on the project.  The idea is that meaning is not just something reserved for a handful of jobs in a handful of industries doing a certain type of work.  Meaning is something that we make.  The best leaders are the ones who help their team see the big picture and understand that there is greater meaning to their work than the paycheck that they receive every couple weeks.  The happiest people are the ones that narrate their own life.  People who are working towards their goals and dreaming about the world that they want to see are the ones who can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning; the ones for whom work is not a chore but an enactment of everything that is meaningful in their lives.

If you understand the meaning of the work that you do, tell the other people on your team.  If you understand how your work helps people Come Alive Outside and live happier lives, tell your customers.  If you understand how a bike path in your community would get families outside, being active and having fun; tell that story to your city council. We need to hear stories to understand why we should do something and we need to tell our story so our employees, our clients, our families and our communities all understand the meaningful work we do.

To learn more about Bartlett Tree Expert’s work at the 9/11 Memorial, check out the recording of the webinar we did with Scott Jamieson at

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