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Aligning Yourself with a Cause

by Tom Johnson on Jan 2, 2010
categories: technical-writing

At a department Christmas social the other week, we had a special meeting following lunch. During the meeting, people spontaneously shared their feelings about working for the Church or other thoughts they had. More than a dozen people stood up.

Although it wasn't called such, the meeting was similar to a "testimony meeting," which is something that Mormons do once a month for their church meetings. During these meetings, rather than listening to several members give talks, anyone who feels the desire can spontaneously walk up to the front podium and say pretty much whatever they want for as long as they want. This can be both exciting and dangerous, or dreadful and dull, depending on who gets up and what they choose to say.

Some testimony meetings are inspiring. Others are filled with long spaces of tense silence. At work, whenever we allow people to share their thoughts or feelings at the end of meetings, it highlights the interesting mixture of church and work -- a mixture that feels new and sometimes awkward.

As I read up on the subject, it turns out that spirituality in the workplace is nothing new. In fact, it's a huge trend in business management. Marques et al even say that "spirituality is the new competitive edge" (Spirituality in the Workplace).

Spirituality a "competitive edge"? Yes, but they're not talking about spirituality in the sense of religion. Their definition of spirituality is broader. In their usage, spirituality is the desire to connect with a higher purpose and meaning. It's the yearning to be part of something larger than yourself, or to find a calling that guides you. Marques et al say some define spirituality as "the way we orient ourselves toward the divine." Others describe it as "an individual search for meaning, purpose and values which may or may not include the concept of a God or transcendent being." In other words, spirituality can encompass many characteristics, but overall it's the desire to align yourself with a higher purpose and meaning.

If you have this sense of spirituality about your work, you'll be more dedicated and hard-working. You won't do below-average work or spend all afternoon playing ping-pong and surfing the net, because you believe in what you're doing. It's not just a 9-5 job to you anymore. It's a mission. You have purpose from the inside.

Alignment with the Cause

Instilling a sense of spirituality in the workplace is similar to aligning workers with a cause. If you can get buy-in for the cause, you boost performance. This makes logical sense, and researchers Giacalone and Jerkiewicz even say "data unequivocally suggests that spiritually based organizational cultures are the most productive" (Handbook of Workplace Spirituality and Organizational Performance).

Some organizations and companies can tap into a cause more easily than others. Disneyland employees, for example, often work at a lower salary than at other companies just so they can be part of the magic and imagination of Disney. When they walk into the Magic Kingdom each morning for work, they're connecting with something greater than themselves. They're working in the kingdom, making unforgettable experiences for people.

You don't have to work at Disney to find a cause. Bill Pollard, CEO of Servicemaster, relates the story of a community hospital housekeeper named Shirley who gets excited about mopping and cleaning because she's not "just cleaning floors." She "sees her job as extending to the welfare of the patient in the bed as an integral part of a team supporting the work of doctors and nurses -- she has a Cause -- a Cause that involves the health and welfare of others." (qtd. in Inspire!).

In other words, in her mind, she's not just doing janitorial work. She's cleaning bed pans and mopping floors so doctors can help patients return to health, so that patients can get well and rejoin their families with a full life.

Almost any company has a worthy cause you can believe in. My last three jobs involved working for a biochemical weapons testing facility, a large financial firm, and a nutrition company specializing in protein for triathletes. Although I didn't always keep it in mind at the time, in the larger sense I helped protect the nation from terrorists (perhaps) by increasing the IT system administrator's understanding of data storage techniques for housing video test data. I helped financial analysts increase the retirement funds, 401(k) portfolios, and other savings plans of thousands of citizens so they could lead more financially comfortable lives. I helped triathletes replenish their depleted muscles with protein so they could achieve their gut-wrenching physical goals of swimming, 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26 miles.

But while I was involved in each of those companies, very rarely did I consider my alignment and participation in the cause. Mostly I was caught up in the details of documentation and missed the larger picture.

Aligning with Your Calling

If you work for an organization whose cause inspires you, such as Disney, or your church, you can hop on board the organization's cause and find meaning and purpose no matter what your role. But sometimes your company or organization is more mundane – for example, a circuit manufacturer.

You could tell yourself that you're not just writing instructions. You're helping computer manufacturers build more power-efficient motherboards so that people don't have to wait so long for pages to load. But despite this cause, sometimes it's not quite strong enough to lift you through the dull moments.

When your organization lacks a compelling cause, you can at least take comfort in the idea that you're pursuing your calling or vocation. For example, no matter what you're creating as a chemist, if chemistry is your calling, just working in the lab doing chemistry might ignite you.

For many technical writers, as long as they're working with the written word, crafting and shaping sentences, clarifying ambiguity, describing complex setups with a grace that taps into their core talent, it's okay if their company's cause bores them. It's all right because they're pursuing a career they love. They're aligned with their calling.

And when you're aligned with your calling, Pollard says "a creative power is unleashed that results in quality service to the customer and the growth and development of the people serving."

The Problem

Aligning with your calling is ideal, but this can be an issue for technical writers, because almost no one feels that technical writing is a calling. In Technical Writing: Career or Calling?, Scott Nesbitt writes, "I believe that technical writing is a career — a career that can be interesting and rewarding. But it's definitely not a calling."

In Is Technical Writing Your Calling?, Michael Harvey also agrees that technical writing isn't a calling. He writes, "I don't think that writing installation manuals, product guides, or help panels is a calling. It's a job — an enjoyable career if you're good at it. The underlying activity — clearly communicating complex concepts or procedures to help someone get work done — feels close to a calling." But it's not a calling in the sense that you would leave everything to do it.

In a guest post I wrote for DMN Communications, I explored more or less the same topic. I concluded that technical writing isn't something you can be unstoppable about, like you can with a calling. But if you hook into a related sphere that ties in closely with tech comm., such as film or story or code or illustration, and that's your calling, you can use that passion to convert your job into something more meaningful.

A Creative Solution

Rather than looking at ways to find a calling in your current work, which can be an endless chase, Lance Secretan, former CEO of Manpower Inc., suggests a reverse strategy: apply your existing calling to your work.

For example, an ex-helicopter pilot once contacted Secretan for work. Secretan asked the pilot what his calling was. He said he loved to fly and used to transport people to the North Sea oil rigs off the main coast of Scotland during the economic boom in that area. Secretan ended up forming a new company to help service oil rigs with fleets of helicopters.

Secretan's strategy is to find people passionate about a calling, and then "to align their Calling with our Cause, so they could create magical careers for themselves, while, at the same investing in our cause." In other words, rather than try to inspire employees with a new passion or calling, he uses the existing passions or callings of his employees to grow his company (Inspire!).

So if you don't find your calling in technical writing, try Secretan's strategy: figure out what your calling is, and then bring that passion to your technical writing role.

For example, Michael Pick has a background in film. I assume this is what he's passionate about, rather than creating help tutorials. But he brings his passion for film to his role as a technical communicator for WordPress by creating mesmerizing screencasts.

Another example: You might have a passion for creative writing. Rather than minimizing your calling as a creative writer, integrate your passion with your technical writing role. You could create scenario-driven help, where your characters (played by imagined users) encounter problems and you explain the solutions. You could write story-driven blog posts about your product for your corporate website. You could take special care to ensure that each button and interface label resonates with the clarity and precision of poetry.

One activity I enjoy is building websites. Rather than leaving my passion behind and relegating myself to the standard tech comm. tools, I can breathe passion into my tech writing role by creating and branding web platforms to publish my help (such as what I've done with Mediawiki).

But let's say your real passion seems to have nothing to do with technical writing. You're a helicopter pilot with a history of transporting soldiers to and from the field of combat. How would you integrate that passion into your role as a tech writer? The solution is simple: Look for work in the helicopter industry, writing manuals for helicopter pilots. And then immerse yourself in usability, interviewing and observing helicopter pilots in their own environment to assess their tasks and needs.

However you do it, find your calling and integrate it into your work.


The most fulfilling jobs occur when you are aligned with both the organization's cause and your calling. This is why the engineers and other IT professionals at my work can stand up and share special feelings they have for their jobs. Many get up and say that it's "night and day" compared to previous jobs they've had, and so on.

But any job can have the same spiritual underpinnings, as long as you believe in your organization's cause (or as long as you remember how your work fits into the larger picture), and as long as you find a way to integrate your calling into your role.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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