Forget Your To Do List—Finding Meaning Is the Real Productivity Booster

Brought to you by American Express OPEN Forum

Susan Cain is the author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and is the co-founder of Quiet Revolution. Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, and her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic and more. The two recently sat down to discuss how both introverts and extroverts can thrive in the workplace, why being your true self matters, and how to find deep, fulfilling meaning in your work.

This conversation has been excerpted from the “Open Minds” video series on American Express OPEN Forum®. View the complete video and series for more on productivity.

For more on productivity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.

Susan: You talk a lot about the role of meaning in our lives in general. Then you talk about the way that our workplaces don’t necessarily have the sense of meaning that they could. Can you talk a little bit about how that’s affecting us?

Emily: One of the problems when it comes to workplace culture is how many people are disengaged. The research is pretty clear that what is causing this disengagement is that people don’t feel a sense of meaning in their work. They don’t think that what they do there matters, or it doesn’t engage them at a deeper level.

I wanted to understand that more, so I went around to companies that didn’t have that problem, that were doing really well. What I found was that they were succeeding in creating cultures of meaning, cultures where the employees felt like they were connected to some bigger mission, where they felt a real sense of belonging within the community of the office.

When people feel meaning at work, they end up being better at what they do, so they’re more productive. They end up being more generous in the workplace. So their sense of meaning leads even more to a culture of meaning at work.

Susan: I think it’s really hard to feel meaning at work or create that kind of culture unless you’re also creating a culture where people feel like they can show up and be themselves. I used to be a corporate lawyer, and I remember feeling like I was putting on my superwoman costume every day before I would get to the office. It was this feeling that you couldn’t be your true self if you were going to be successful. You couldn’t show your vulnerabilities. You couldn’t show your quirks.

All of that had to be sandpapered over. This is so embedded into what we imagine work to be that we don’t even realize how much we’re turning ourselves inside out before we even show up in the morning.

Emily: What do you think that workplaces lose when people can’t bring their full, true selves to the office?

Susan: Burnout is a huge issue. Then there’s just a waste of talent. At Quiet Revolution, we’re looking at all these introverts who are showing up to work with an expectation, either explicit or implicit, that they should be acting more extroverted. We hear from these people; we know what’s at stake for them. It means that they might be looking around for another job, or they might have a sense of, “This is taking more energy than it should.” Imagine how much meaning there would be if everybody were truly showing up as themselves.

Emily: One question I get a lot is, do people have to find meaning at work? Maybe work isn’t everyone’s life. People are working, and then they have home lives as well. Isn’t it unfair to expect work to provide them with this sense of fulfillment that was once the province of religion and community and family? I’m curious about what you think of that.

Left: Emily Esfahani Smith, Right: Susan Cain

Susan: I’m very sympathetic to the place that question comes from. We’re really putting a lot onto work, should we have such deep expectations of it? I think that we don’t have a choice. People are spending so much time at work now, and so much of their social life is happening in the workplace, that we can’t afford anymore to just let it happen. We have to think more deeply about it.

It’s not to say that every moment is supposed to be full of meaning. Even if you’re with your family or practicing religion, not every moment is going to be transcendent and full of meaning, and no one expects it to be. I think the same is true here. Sometimes you’re just slogging through and cranking out a report or whatever, and that’s okay.

Emily: One of the wonderful gifts of meaning is that when you’re slogging through things that seem really tedious, if your culture has done a good job of helping people find meaning, it can reframe those tasks as ways to achieve some bigger goal. I spoke to a hospital cleaner who told me, “My job isn’t cleaning bedpans and mopping the floor. It’s helping children heal.” Even the menial tasks become worthwhile if they’re part of some larger mission.

Issues like disengagement, unemployment, low labor force participation, we think of these as economic problems, business problems. But really, they are existential problems. People need something worthwhile to do with their time. That’s a big part of why they show up to work every day, whether their purpose is to support their family, or to be part of the larger mission of their organization. The existential and the economic are really part of the same problem.

Susan: Right, right. Two decades ago, there was a way of looking at people [as just] rational, economic actors. Now there’s a growing understanding that it’s actually humans who are showing up at work.

Emily: What are some tweaks that small businesses or people working in these organizations could take on if they wanted to help introverts be their best selves at work?

Susan: The first tweak is getting people talking about it. Gather people together in a room. Have them do a personality test as a way of opening up the discussion.

Then you might want to get the group talking about different points: how long do you like to be working uninterrupted? Are you doing your best work at home? Are you waiting til everybody goes home at night when it’s quiet? How do you do it? Once you figure that out, you can start trying to be creative and structuring people’s work environment so they’re doing their best work.

Most people have heard the word introvert and extrovert, but what a lot of business owners don’t realize is how fundamentally these ways of being can affect basic productivity in ways that can help run a business. I’ll give you an example.

Emily Esfahani Smith, author

Russell Geen was a psychologist, and he did a well-known experiment where he gave math problems to introverts and extroverts to solve with varying levels of background noise playing. He found that the extroverts did really well when the background noise was loud, but the introverts did much better when the background noise was softer. Think about that from the point of view of a business owner. That research is saying we shouldn’t be creating one-size-fits-all workspaces. We want to be creating workspaces where people can toggle the amount of stimulation that’s coming at them all day long.

Emily: That reminds me of when I was a writer working at these magazines. I’m working and trying to write, and I had extrovert colleagues who I loved, but they would constantly be coming over and interrupting me. I think for an introvert, restarting your task every time that you’re interrupted, every time a stimulation overwhelms you, really makes you lose productivity.

Susan: Absolutely. At the same time, I can imagine being a business owner saying, “Wait, I have to redo everything just for the sake of people’s personal preferences?” Everybody has to step outside of their comfort zone for sure, but the idea is to let people be in a place where they’re stepping outside their comfort zone only for the sake of a larger project that really means something to them, or that has a greater purpose for them. It’s a lot easier to step outside when you know why you’re doing it. It’s in service of something other than just feeling a little bit jangled. Then you feel ready to come back to a place of comfort.

Emily: It reminds me of a study by Adam Grant and his colleagues, where he had a fundraiser at a university call center. They’re calling alumni all day long. It’s not paradise for an introvert, because you’re always on the phone, you’re asking people for money, you’re getting rejected all the time. He had some of the fundraisers think about the students who were benefiting from the work that they were doing, because they were raising money that was going to the financial aid of these students.

They found that just thinking about those students, and in some cases meeting those students, led to the callers being more productive and raising more money for the school. If there’s some larger meaning that’s driving you, it’ll help you be more productive and meet these goals that draw you outside of your comfort zone.

Susan: So what would you tell a business owner to do? Should they be thinking on a daily basis, “How can I remind the people in our organization what their larger purpose is?”

Emily: I think as a business owner, one of the things that you do is you tell a story about the work that your company is doing. Every company exists because it’s putting some value in the world that wasn’t there before. That’s a wonderful thing. Are you telling a story that connects your employees to whatever that good thing is? If you’re telling that story in a compelling way, they will naturally link up their own personal stories to that larger mission. I think that’s what we saw happening in Adam Grant’s study, and it’s what company owners can do as well. Just tell the story. Remind people, “What is this company about? You’re part of the good it’s doing in the world.”


Susan: That’s so interesting because you’re talking about the sense of larger mission that you gain through thinking about one person in particular. We often don’t realize the power of just one story.

There’s this whole branch of [psychology] called narrative psychology. It’s the idea that whether [or not] you feel a sense of happiness and meaning [comes down to,] do you have a redemption story about the difficult things that have happened to you? That’s something we could all focus on more, in any workplace. Thinking about, “Well, we had this particular setback. Things didn’t go as well as they could have.” You can either feel really glum about that, or you can be like, “Okay, what story are we telling about this?”

Emily: Let’s say your company experiences some major crisis. The dysfunctional story might be, “We experienced this major crisis. The reason we experienced it is because this person, this person, and this person screwed up in a big way, and we’re firing them.” Then that’s the end of it. These kinds of stories are dysfunctional because they’re stories that move from good to bad. The company was great, and now it’s terrible because of what these people did.

[But] you can take the same set of facts and reframe the story. Maybe the company wasn’t so great before. Maybe the reason why it messed up is because there was something internally wrong that was causing the company to go down this wrong path. Now that this crisis has happened, the company can be better than it was before. We can take steps to improve the company. I love the redemption story because it’s about finding the good. Setbacks happen in work and our personal lives, and yet there’s always something that redeems it.

Susan: Have you had a setback like that in your personal story that leads to where you’re sitting right this minute?

Emily: One of the things that I think about a lot has to do with what you talked about, that one person’s story can make a difference. A lot of people [say] your life is meaningful if you are making a difference in the lives of others. I used to interpret that in terms of the more people’s lives you’re touching, the more meaningful your life is. If I write this article that reaches millions of people, then that means that the work I’m doing is really meaningful. What I realized, though, is that actually that’s not a good definition of meaning. Maybe that’s a definition of power or success, reaching a lot of people.

But meaning really comes down to touching that one person, affecting that one person’s story. Maybe it doesn’t change the world in some grand way, but it can change it in a small way. And that has ripple effects throughout the world.

For more on productivity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.