The 90,000-Hour Challenge:  Finding our ‘Why’ in the Daily Grind

The average American clocks a whopping 90,000 working hours in their lifetime.  That’s a huge number!  I’ll let you do the math of where you fall on that timeline, but it’s an interesting reminder of the huge investment we have in our work.  In those hours of daily grind, isn’t it easy to forget the ‘why’ or the purpose behind what we do?  Is a job just a paycheck, or is it more?

According to a McKinsey & Company report, “Over the past 30 years, Americans have identified meaningful work as the most important aspect of a job, ahead of income, job security, and the number of hours worked.” Their research also found that when employees find work to be meaningful, performance improves by 33 percent and employees are 49 percent less likely to leave.  The pandemic and upcoming generations continue to reframe the importance of work, balance, and purpose.

Maria VanDeman

Recently, I was at the closing walkthrough of a 10-story, 264-bed new hospital and health center in Pensacola, Florida designed by Gresham Smith.  It was a remarkable state-of-the-art facility, an exemplary showcase of pandemic-era teamwork and a vital community asset.  This project was not just an architectural achievement; it was a reminder to me of how gratitude and purpose can be contagious.

With a large group of furniture vendors, designers, architects, PMs and facility folks gathered in the brand-new atrium, the hospital’s VP of Corporate Construction Services, John T. Porter, delivered a passionate speech.  In it, he recounted his nearly 70 years of life and the extensive years of strategy, planning, and gathering the perfect team to bring this grand project to fruition.  John passionately and humbly spoke of his vision to serve the Pensacola community, and the lasting impact the hospital would have on lives for decades to come.

Everyone in the room could see and feel his heartfelt passion for the project and people of Pensacola as he emphasized the faith, grit, and determination it took, as well as the importance of teamwork to deliver the project (on time and on budget). John’s words, delivered with the wisdom of age and the heart of a servant-leader, left a lasting impression and vividly reminded me of the purpose and meaning that can be found through work.  Serving and impacting the community through the hospital is John’s ‘why’.

Regardless of age, career stage, or size of accomplishments, we can be fueled in many ways. Personally, my favorite moments often occur during heartfelt connections while sharing a meal, whether celebrating a client’s victory, empathizing over the struggles of family life, or diving into lively conversations about technology and the future of our design industry.  Work will always include the monotony of meetings, zoom presentations, and busy work, but in being someone’s shoulder to cry on, their biggest cheerleader, or enthusiastic design-nerd, there is power and purpose in supporting others and fostering human connection.

Personal experiences from being a frequent hospital visitor are what drove my industry colleague and friend, Alexis Moore Gaskins, RID, NCIDQ, IIDA, Interior Designer and Associate at Gresham Smith, to become a healthcare designer.  Alexis said, “Growing up and living with a quadriplegic sister made me understand and visualize the designed world around me a little differently than many others. I draw inspiration from times with my sister in the pursuit of creating this world equal for all to use, including all abilities, all cultures, and all populations.”  Designing healthcare spaces for the diverse needs of people like her sister is Alexis’s ‘why’.

Whether we rescue puppies, perform brain surgery, have life-altering perspectives like Alexis, or build transformational landmarks like John, we each have unique opportunities to find meaning in everyday moments and interactions. Sometimes purpose can be as simple as shifting our mindset away from negative chatter and into an attitude of reflection and gratitude.

I’m not discounting jobs that are truly awful, or the struggle of individuals just trying to earn a paycheck, because not all people need a ‘why’.  I’ve simply outlined a few examples that have helped me learn and grow. If you’re anything like me, here are the questions I ask myself: “Who is benefiting from my work?  Where do I find my happy-dance moments during the workday?  What’s the bigger picture my work paints?  For what am I thankful?  Whom in my network can I help?”

In a world where we invest 90,000 hours of our lives in the daily grind, it’s clear that meaningful work goes beyond mere hours on the clock.  In the pursuit of our purpose, it’s not about grandiose achievements or landmarks, but the genuine gratitude, heartfelt connection and the impact we have on others that truly counts.  I dare you to find your passion and “why” at work, and trust me, you’ll love what you discover.

Maria VanDeman, NCIDQ, IIDA, is an accomplished workplace advisor at OFS, interior designer, published children’s book author and advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.  With a passion for helping people and designing for human needs, Maria strives to make a positive impact on the world through her work and mentorship.  Connect with Maria on LinkedIn: