What’s the worst job in the world?

Answers certainly differ based on personal preference (my vote goes to anything involving heights). But cleaning up after hospital patients would surely be towards the top of most people’s lists. So what could janitors possibly have to teach entrepreneurs about career satisfaction?

A fascinating recent study uncovered a surprising answer.

Amy Wrzesniewski, now a professor at the Yale School of Management, had the radically simple idea of talking to the custodial staff at a hospital in detail about their jobs to discover what strategies they might employ to find satisfaction in their admittedly low-skilled, low-paid jobs. The wisdom she uncovered should serve to humble anyone who has ever made the error of thinking of those who work in the profession with condescension or not at all.

Turns out, they have much to teach even the most high-flying professionals about maximizing career satisfaction. The essence of this wisdom, author David Zax reports, is the idea of "job crafting." That doesn’t mean changing your work, it means carefully crafting how you think about your work. Some of the custodial staff, he reports,

Felt their labor was highly skilled, they described the work in “rich relational terms,” says Wrzesniewski, talking about their interactions with patients and visitors. Many of them reported going out of their way to learn as much as possible about the patients whose rooms they cleaned, down to which cleaning chemicals were likely to irritate them less. “It was not just that they were taking the same job and feeling better about it, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and whistling. It was that they were doing a different job.”

This second, happier group didn’t see themselves as custodial workers at all. One described forming such a bond with patients that she continued to write letters to some of them after they were discharged. Another paid attention to which patients seemed to have few visitors or none at all, and would make sure to double back to spend some time with them... What these workers were doing, Wrzesniewski came to realize, was quietly creating the work that they wanted to do out of the work that they had been assigned -- work they found meaningful and worthwhile. Wrzesniewski and her colleagues call this practice “job crafting,” and they think it could be the key to happiness in all sorts of jobs.

The idea of job crafting is available to everyone, Wrzesniewski believes. Though there are obviously times you should quit a terrible job, the impulse to always look for the perfect career situation rather than try to find ways to thrive in your current one and connect with the value of the work you already do, makes a lot of people unnecessarily miserable.

Could you use the idea of job crafting to reconceptualize any of parts of your work that drive you nuts?