It’s a sobering thought, but many people spend at least half of their waking hours—for their entire adult lives—at work. Not with their families and other loved ones. Not with their hobbies or community service. But on the job.
So doesn’t it make sense to do work that nourishes the soul as well as the bank account? Doesn’t it make sense to do whatever is necessary to find fulfillment in activity that consumes so much of the time we have on earth?
Shawn Askinosie thinks so. He left a successful career as a criminal defense lawyer to establish a bean-to-bar chocolate factory. He never looked back.
Askinosie Chocolate, based in Springfield, Missouri, is a triumphant success by any standard. The company sources 100% of its cocoa beans in direct trade with farmers on three continents. Its products have won multiple awards. Last year Askinosie Chocolate—with a workforce of only 15 people—was named one of Forbes’ 25 Best Small Companies in America.
Aside from the sweet success on the balance sheet, the company is hyper-focused on what Askinosie calls “reverse scale”—constantly asking not how big can a product or project scale but how it will transform people.
Some of that is distilled in Askinosie’s new book, Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul.
I interviewed Askinosie to get a flavor of his recipe for making the most of work.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Even in this age of more employment options than ever, many people feel trapped in their jobs. What advice do you offer people who want more satisfaction from their current work?
Shawn Askinosie: All of the principles I outline in the book apply to both storylines: leave your job for something else or stay and find meaningful work right where you are.
Many people tell me they are miserable and unfulfilled in their work, but they have no concept of what to do differently. I believe in the power of a vocation and the book details a process by which people can discover their own personal vocation. Once the picture of personal vocation is sharpened, you’ll have clarity to make decisions in your business and work life. You could stay right where you are and transform the job you’re doing right now into one of meaning. The key is understanding the virtue of stability. Without a personal vocation, you can sell your business and buy another business or quit your job and find a new one many times over and still find yourself in the same place.
Duncan: How can people find purpose in work that seems humdrum, repetitive, or “just a job”?
Askinosie: Walking along, a person encountered a stonemason and inquired as to what he was doing. The mason replied, “I am working on these heavy rocks, carrying and chiseling them all day long so I can get paid.” Walking further he asked another mason what he was doing and that mason replied, “I’m a stone mason, building a great cathedral to the Glory of God in which people will come to worship for centuries in the future.” The difference between the cathedral builder and a stone mason? Attitude, even though they have the same “job.” The title of the job is not what gives us dignity. It’s the attitude we bring to the task at hand.
To create an environment in which people have the best chance of believing their work is significant, we must believe it to be true. Every person has the basic human right to believe and know the work that they do matters. No work is insignificant. Martin Luther King said, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” It would be easy for our company’s four-person packaging team to regard their tasks as menial. But our packaging is recognized and awarded because each of them cares deeply about executing every small piece with excellence. They know their work contributes to the growth of our company, and money in the hands of farmers.
Our job as business leaders is to set the stage for success every day. Every business person might ask: “What are the things we can do in our organization to make it more likely that our team members see themselves as building a great cathedral?”
Duncan: Gallup surveys show workplace morale at an all-time low. What can business leaders do to help their people enjoy genuine engagement in their work?
Askinosie: Whether you call it culture, environment, foundation, servant leadership or more formally “core values”—it begins with how you make your employees feel.
We must get a handle on the space where people spend eight hours a day. They will breathe, work, talk, think, create, interact, laugh, hope, dream, eat, and drink in this space. Our hearts are present, so let’s stop pretending we need to leave them out of business. Of course our employees possess dignity outside of or apart from their work. But why wouldn’t we aim to cultivate an environment where they feel those same values about their job? In all humility, we must do everything we can to prepare and take care of our workplace culture as if it is a treasure.
One of the precepts of our vocation is service to each other within the company. There’s something we do at the chocolate factory to show our appreciation for our employees. It’s simple, no cost, and one of the most impactful things I’ve seen. In addition to birthdays, we celebrate what we call “work-iversaries.” When it’s someone’s work-iversary, we take time at the conclusion of our Tuesday huddle and recognize that person with a favorite food or drink. Most importantly though, everyone forms a semicircle around the celebrated person and one-by-one we tell them what we love, admire, respect, or appreciate about them. The person says nothing, they just take it all in. Sometimes there are tears—the good kind.
Duncan: Many people listen to an internal radio station WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). But when you coach people in how to discover satisfying vocations, you advise that they should expect nothing in return. Why? And how do you help people adopt the more selfless orientation?
Askinosie: The “expect nothing in return” advice is part of the paradox of service: find yourself by losing yourself in the service of others. The idea is that once we are living our vocation we need to realize that it’s not a destination at which we “arrive.” Therefore, we take this notion of service day by day in order to remain tethered to our life of meaningful work. I’m not saying that business folks should never expect profit or a healthy company, not at all. This principle is specifically related to the part of the process of maintaining our connections to the people and ideas that brought us this work in the first place.
Duncan: What are the three or four most important questions you ask when coaching a would-be entrepreneur?
Askinosie: 1. Where does it hurt? (If it doesn’t hurt, then we have more work cut out for us than I thought.) 2. Why are you waiting to take the first step with your great ideas of service? 3. Have you experienced joy at work? Tell me about it. 4. Have you pressure-tested your idea financially?
Duncan: In addition to your activity as a business entrepreneur, you’re a “Family Brother” at a Trappist monastery. What do you do in that role, and how does it relate to the principles you practice as a business person?
Askinosie: My time at Assumption Abbey offers me a personal respite regardless of what’s going on in my business or life. I use my time upon return to the world to practice bringing the Abbey with me so it can be with me wherever I go and in whatever I do.
The Abbey enables me to unplug from technology, rest in God’s presence and re-center to my true self. The lack of Wi-Fi and cell service somewhat forces that reality, but I often need that push to truly disconnect and decompress. I live behind the cloister and follow the monks’ regular schedule of prayer, which begins every day at 3:30 AM.
The practice of solitude trains me to listen to my own voice, my true self. The solitude I find at the Abbey benefits my business. I’m a collaborative entrepreneur. I seek input from all sides and enjoy discussing and vetting decisions with others.
As a Family Brother, I share in all aspects of the Trappist tradition as lived in Assumption Abbey, including residing in private rooms, sharing a simple and frugal lifestyle, working, participating in the Divine Office and Eucharist, community gatherings and discussions. I connect to this community as one expression of my faith. This life practice allows nearly everything else I do—business or otherwise—to flow from it. It’s my center point.
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