The NASA Janitor
A story about finding purpose
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The NASA Janitor
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy visited NASA.
The year prior, he made his famous proclamation:
The United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s.
On his visit, the story goes, he meets a janitor.
The man is sweeping the hallways when JFK approaches him.
“Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy,” he says to the janitor. “What are you doing?”
The janitor responds:
“Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
This story may be legend more than truth.
Regardless, it contains a powerful lesson:
To the janitor, his work was meaningful.
He did not simply sweep dust.
By cleaning hallways, he:
Provided a safe work environment
Supported the NASA engineers
Contributed to the mission
The janitor had what so many want.
He had a sense of purpose.
There are many reasons we work.
To make money
To find fulfillment
To improve our lives
And plenty of others.
Everyone has their own motivations.
But we all want a sense of purpose.
We all want to know our time isn’t wasted.
We all want to believe we’re doing good.
This raises a question organizational psychologists have spent decades studying:
How do you find purpose in your work?
There is no perfect answer, but here are a few frameworks I’ve found to be useful:
Start With Why
In September 2010, author and speaker Simon Sinek delivered a speech in Puget Sound, Washington.
It was titled, “Start With Why.”
It became one of the most famous Ted Talks of all time and then a best-selling book.
Sinek’s premise is simple yet profound:
Most companies explain what they do in this order:
what we do —> how we do it —> why we do it
But the best companies do it opposite.
why we do it —> how we do it —> what we do
Sinek’s big idea was if you want to inspire people — customers to buy, employees to do great work — then start with why you do what you do.
The “why” provides an emotional connection.
No longer are you building or buying a product.
You’re contributing to a larger purpose.
(Note: If you haven’t watched Sinek’s speech, I’d highly recommend it.)
Taiichi Ohno was an industrial engineer and businessman.
Ohno came up with a concept called “Five Whys.”
It’s a root-cause analysis tool meant to get to the bottom of a problem by asking why it happened five times.
Aside from solving problems, it can also be used to discover purpose.
Let’s pretend we are the NASA janitor President Kennedy met in the story at the beginning of this issue and use the Five Whys method to trace back to his purpose.
1) Why do you sweep floors?
To keep the building clean.
2) Why does that matter?
It creates a nice place to work.
3) Why does that matter?
Our engineers are more motivated when the work environment is nice.
4) Why does that matter?
When our engineers are motivated, they do incredible work.
5) Why does that matter?
Because we’re putting a man on the moon.
It’s not perfect — and I’m obviously answering in a specific way to get us back to the janitor’s purpose — but you can see how this framework can drill into the deepest “why” behind your work.
That deepest “why” is your purpose.
Dan Cable is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.
He wrote in the Harvard Business Review that to help others find purpose in their work, it needs to be personal, authentic and perpetual.
Tell a story — or have someone else tell their story — that connects back to the purpose of your work. Stories sell more than facts.
You need to believe what you’re saying, and your behavior must consistently model it. If your message is not authentic to who you normally are, others will see through it.
Purpose can’t be communicated once. It must be a routine. Find ways to perpetually connect work back to purpose. One way to do that is staying close to who you serve (e.g. customers).
The NASA janitor story may be urban legend, but we should heed the lesson:
Purpose is powerful, and we all need it in our lives and work.
If I were to summarize and combine the three frameworks above, here’s how I’d simplify how to find purpose in your work:
Identify WHO you serve
Clarify WHY you serve them
Connect HOW your work contributes
Then remind yourself — and your team — of that every day.
You’re not just doing a job.
You’re putting someone on your version of the moon.
He meets a student named Maggie Rose and is blown away by her music. “I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” Pharrell tells her.
Watch this clip for why:
In 2016, Pharrell Williams visited an N.Y.U. music production class to critique student songs.
After he listened to a song called “Alaska” by a student named Maggie Rogers, he explained why “I have zero, zero, zero notes for that:”
— Billy Oppenheimer (@bpoppenheimer)
Mar 11, 2023
(2) I stumbled across this old article on chef Anthony Bourdain about leadership lessons he learned from running kitchens. It’s fantastic.
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