Scrappy People Find Meaning at Work

In our research on uncovering the sources of meaning at work, my colleague, Brianna Caza, and I have stumbled onto a group of individuals whose day-to-day activities do not fit neatly into our traditional idea of "working."
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Scrap-py (adj.) "Consisting of scraps"; "Having an aggressive and determined spirit: FEISTY"

-- Merriam-Webster

Last weekend, I visited some friends in another state and attended the most fabulous college football tailgate I have ever seen! At this tailgate, I met the woman in charge. She had engineered an amazing setup for her weekly parties. She rented two spaces near the stadium and set up tents, a flat-screen TV with college football playing, and high-end patio furniture to kick back in. She even arranged for her friends who owned the adjacent bed and breakfast to cater the fabulous food that was served. Her tailgating guests enjoyed all of this in exchange for bringing a donation directed to a different cause each week. On this particular weekend, the price of admission was toiletries, which were to be donated to a local charity. In trying to figure out her business model, I began talking to this woman. For the price of the spaces, she managed to do cost-effective advertising for the B&B, entertain many of her close friends, and donate to a different charity each week. In addition to this creative venture, she worked part-time as an event planner in alumni affairs for the university, had a full-time job working with a contractor, was the photographer at the football game, and, according to our mutual friends, is involved in just about everything in town. She had endless energy and had not settled for a traditional mono-career. Instead, she had patched together a mosaic career and was pursuing multiple ventures that fulfilled her personally and professionally. In short, this lady was "scrappy"!

In our research on uncovering the sources of meaning at work, my colleague, Brianna Caza, and I have stumbled onto a group of individuals whose day-to-day activities do not fit neatly into our traditional idea of "working." As we interviewed dozens of people about their work, we found a whole new class of workers: scrappy workers! And they can be accurately described using the definitions of "scrappy" from Merriam-Webster. Scrappy workers don't work at just one traditional job in a typical company. Instead, they piece together at least two, but more likely, several, activities into a meaningful whole, much like a patchwork quilt. For example, Jill is a fitness coordinator for university students, an online personal trainer, a regular fitness blogger and an active partner in her husband's homeopathic nutritional fitness company. David is the CEO of a medical devices start-up company, president of a strategy consulting company, and is actively involved in community development. Lauren is a labor and delivery nurse, a partner (with her mom) in a 65-bed long-term care facility, chair of several important committees at the hospital, a long-term care facility consultant, and a volunteer for a women's fertility organization that travels to Africa! For each of these "scrappers," a traditional job has proven insufficient in providing the necessary meaning they crave from their work. So, they have found satisfaction by weaving together several "scraps" of work into a meaningful whole. Lauren puts it like this, "I really feel like I've pieced together my career so that I get what I need right now." Interestingly enough, while these individuals may change the focus of their interests and engagements over time, none of them expressed a desire to "simplify" or reduce their commitments. If anything, they all seemed to be excited about adding more to their plate.

So what caused these very interesting people to become scrappers? Or were they born scrappy? We have evidence that would support both the nurture and nature explanations.

First, let's look at the environment. We found that scrappers had both "push" and "pull" forces working on them. Many of them originally worked at regular, full-time jobs, but those jobs did not suit their needs for one reason or another. For Jill, who interned after college as a physical therapist, "The biggest thing for me was that [physical therapy] was so protocol-driven. It was like, 'Here's someone who just came out of knee replacement surgery. Get them on the bolster and do this exercise.' There was zero creativity to it. So for me, I think a lot of it has to do with being creative."

For many of our scrappers, their "regular" jobs were stifling, limiting and de-energizing. One scapper put it this way when she referred to her former job in academia: "I felt like if I stayed there I would die, like I had this sense that somehow, slowly, I would just die. I didn't have anywhere to go; I just left. My predominant emotion when I did it [i.e., quit] was not fear but immense relief. So it felt like for the first time I was truly, deeply asserting myself, which was awesome!" This scrapper, Krista, now is not quite sure what to label her work. She explains, "For a while there I sort of struggled to explain what I do to people and -- because it's a very broad selection of skills, and there's no really good name for it. You know, I'm not some kind of clearly defined occupation like a photographer or farmer or something like that." The truth is that Krista's work is a patchwork of different tasks and activities, but all with one main purpose: to enrich life. On a day-to-day basis, Krista can be found writing blog posts, designing nutritional plans, coaching clients, refining online course protocol, training colleagues, and managing the largest online body transformation coaching programs in the world. And, oddly enough, even though she has stepped out of academia, she feels she uses her women's studies Ph.D. training in her work every day. Rather than feeling split into pieces from her various roles, she feels that her current work finally makes her feel "whole."

At the same time forces were pushing them out of their traditional jobs, other forces were pulling scrappers toward more meaningful pursuits. Sarah, who is a doula, a birth photographer and a midwife-in-training, shares:

I did my undergrad in anthropology. I was really interested in birth and how women viewed their birth and experienced their birth [as well as] women who are choosing alternative routes such as homebirth or natural birth within the hospital. As I moved into my adult life I still felt really passionate about birth. I have both a passion for birth and also for photography. When I was pregnant with my second child, a friend posted some birth photography she had done and I found it just really amazingly beautiful and inspiring, and I knew that when the time came up to go back to work, that was something I wanted to explore more deeply. As much as I've done so far I just really love it. It's amazing work.

Since our interview with her, Sarah has further increased her "scrappiness" by going back to school to pursue another degree while maintaining her birth photography company and becoming a doula.

Jill talks about the "pull" that led her to start her own business at the same time the push forces were moving her away from physical therapy.

I went through a period where I was doing a lot of soul-searching and self-evaluation. I was learning about myself -- with the support of family and friends and my husband -- and just really coming to this place where I was crafting my own thing and thinking, "Why would I ever do something that I wasn't in love with?" ... And I got interested in nutrition once I started getting serious about fitness and realizing that the two really couldn't be alone. So, my online fitness and life coaching business really started as a hobby. People were asking and becoming interested in what I was doing. And then it just turned into a business from there. It was just like, "OK, well, I can help these four people, and then I can help these more people and then I'll help these people. I'll help these people out in Portland." So it's gotten to the point now where we do online training and it got overwhelming with just me, so I brought on additional trainers and now there are six of us. I literally consider my online business as a hobby. I don't ever feel pressured to do anything with it. For me, it's always been more of an outlet than anything else.

When we talked with Jill about her traditional job at the university, she told us:

For me, the need to be creative is so important. I feel really lucky because the department I'm in and my boss totally gets that and really trusts us as departments. He always says, "Look, you know fitness better than me. I'm not going to tell you your job. You're the expert in fitness." So he basically gives us the free reign to try things. And if we mess up, then we mess up. Hopefully we don't, but he's very trusting in that way. And for me, it's very important to have a supervisor who gets that about me; that I'm going to try things, and just throw a bunch of things against the wall and see what sticks. So that creative piece is really important.

While many of our scrappers were engaged in "non-traditional" jobs, Jill demonstrates that even traditional jobs can be part of a scrapper's mosaic.

Several of our scrappers described bosses that gave them pretty much full reign over their work. For example, Stan told us:

I've never had a boss who tried to micromanage me, and I've never had a boss who gave me assignments to do. I've always been able to create my own work and work on my own projects and to do that at my own pace. It's much more interesting for me to create my own work to do, and I think that as a result, I'm always working on projects that resonate with me. There's never anything I'm working on that I don't want to work on, because I'm the one who created the work ... In my view, people who don't create their own work are given work by the same bosses that give me the freedom to do the work I create.

While a few of our scrappers had bosses who gave them long leashes, most did not have the luxury in their traditional jobs to be able to fully express their creativity or need for autonomy. It seems that scrappers have certain personality traits that require a fair amount of space for discretion. This is the "nature" explanation. Specifically, we find that they are creative, energetic (they have several "jobs" after all!), self-confident, prefer flexibility, take initiative, think they are pretty smart and don't much like working for others (unless they are given a long leash!). When they are able to fully express themselves through their various outlets, they use words like "adrenaline" and "energized" to describe their working experiences. When asked if they would continue to do their work if they won the lottery, they resoundingly said "Yes!"

Finally, when we defined "scrappy" for them, using the definitions from Merriam-Webster such as "feisty" and "having an aggressive and determined spirit," and applying those attributes to their "scraps" of vocational activities, they categorically smiled knowingly -- seemingly delighted with the label "scrappy"! They are proud of who they are, what they do, and the satisfaction and meaning their scrappy work brings to their lives.

If you are reading this blog, it's because the title intrigued you or the concept of meaningful work got your attention. Or, maybe you are a "scrappy" worker! Hopefully, you will reflect on your own job(s) and think about whether or not you are finding happiness and a sense of worth at work. If you do, I would love to hear from you. If you don't, I'd love to hear from you too!

Consider posting a comment and visiting our website,, to share your story or take our survey which will help you figure out your own sources of meaning.

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