What Does My Work Mean to Me? Lessons Learned from the Mumbai Dabbawalas.

Vikas Joshi
April 23, 2018

The Dabbawalas of Mumbai are an inspiring study in contrasts: despite being semi-literate, they deliver lunch boxes to 200,000 customers daily without a single mix-up; although they rely on train schedules that tend to slip every now and then, their customers always eat on time; and in spite of a routine job that is quite taxing, they serve long tenures, well into old age.

Harbinger Group recently hosted Dr Pavan Agrawal, educationist, author and speaker who has researched the Dabbawalas of Mumbai extensively. The occasion was Harbinger’s annual awards function, and Agrawal was the chief guest. As he presented the history of the 125-year old organization comprising 5000 dabbawala couriers, the audience listened with attention and cheered endlessly.

The press they generate is impressive: Prince Charles visited them and praised their work. They have been honored with six sigma certification. Harvard Business School has created a case study on them. They were included in the select invitees at the Buckingham Palace for the royal wedding. The list goes on. What makes these people feel proud, however, is more profound than what we read in the press.

When you stop and think about a day in the dabbawala’s life you cannot but be struck by the inevitable routine of it. You get up in the morning, and go around the suburban neighborhood to 40 different houses to collect the lunch boxes. You carry these to the nearest train station and load them in the luggage compartment. In the compartment, you sort boxes based on the code, and unload them once the train reaches its destination. Each courier carries a crate, fully loaded with about 60 kilos of lunch boxes overhead or on a bicycle. You then distribute the lunches, reach into your own pocket to take out your own lunch, eat it while the customers eat theirs, and get ready for the return trip. This goes on day after day, week after week, year after year.

Yet their work means so much more to these people. Dr Agrawal narrated story after story of proud dabbawalas. Indeed, to see the meaning of one’s work, one needs to rise above the day-to-day minutiae and grasp the bigger picture. As you zoom out, you can ask yourself: Whom do I serve? What difference does it make to them? How does my work influence the world around them? How does it influence the world around me? And finally, how does it change me?

It is answers to these questions that help you explore the meaning of your work, or lack thereof. These are the questions raised in Remains of the Day, a novel by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. The story portrays Steven, an English butler who serves his lord with utmost loyalty and professionalism – yet forgets to ask the crucial questions that leave him producing excellent work with questionable results.

At Harbinger, the meaning we make of work revolves around enabling the success of our customers, becoming part of a great environment, and developing ourselves. Every story we tell follows one of these archetypes – and makes us proud. No wonder, then, Dr Agrawal’s talk resonated so well here.