The day after she turned fourteen, my mum (number ten in a family of eleven), woke early to catch the bus that would take her to work at her first full-time job in a sweet factory. I don’t remember her telling me about how she got the job. It’s likely it happened through word of mouth, and she never had an interview. The factory supervisor simply needed bodies who were motivated to clock in and do repetitive, mind-numbing work, that has long since been automated, for eight hours every day.
By the end of day one, my mum knew she wouldn’t care if she never saw a caramel toffee again. She wouldn’t spend her says dipping caramel squares into vats of pink and white icing. She told her widowed mother so as soon as she got home that evening. ‘I’m not going back,’ she said. Her protests fell on deaf ears. Work was work, and the family needed the money. She finally left the factory when she turned eighteen.
My mum’s greatest aspiration was to be a seamstress. She wanted to sew and to make things—later evidenced by the number of colour-coordinated fair isle patterned jumpers me and my brother and sister wore, for as long as she could make us. But she didn’t have the luxury of choosing.
Last year, one of my sons graduated with a degree in design and architecture. He commutes four hours a day, there and back, to a casual job where he works with his head, hands and heart—helping to design and build custom cubby houses that will bring joy to families in back yards around Melbourne for years. What’s worth more to him than the money in the bank at the end of the week, is the feeling he’s doing meaningful work each day. All the while his grandmother worries and wonders that the degree hasn’t landed him a steady, tie-wearing desk job.
Most people reading this are fortunate to be working for reasons beyond only bringing in enough money to put food on the table. We are the lucky ones—intrinsically motivated to do work we care about and enjoy. Work that gives us a sense of purpose while helping us to fulfil our potential.
In our quest for success, we spend the majority of our time chasing the kind of growth we believe bolsters the bottom line. We aim to expand our reach, convert more customers and overtake our competitors—sometimes at the expense of doing what lights us up. We often ignore the things that motivate us to do the great work, that will ironically enable us to expand our reach, attract more customers, be competitive and feel fulfilled. When we prioritise meaning the marketing and sales fall into place. Putting purpose before profits is still and underrated business strategy.
Image by Frans Persoon.