Meaningful Work

finding meaningful work

Finding Meaningful Work

Find your passion. That’s the prevailing wisdom when it comes to selecting a career path. Find that ONE THING that is all consuming and fills you with an endless supply of joy and excitement and just do that thing for a living.

I’ve always struggled with this advice mostly because, a) what I love to do is not easily monetized, and b) I’m kind of fickle and if I’m passionate about something today I likely won’t be next year, and most definitely won’t be 10 years from now. Passion wanes. When it comes to my life’s work I’m looking for true love. I’m looking for meaning.

Meaningful work is the stuff that gets us through the tough days that inevitably come in any job. It is a critical component of a life well lived.

That still doesn’t make finding meaningful work all that easy. It can be just as confusing and difficult to sort out what you believe is meaningful, and once you do, you again need to find a way to make money doing that thing you’ve landed on. But it is infinitely easier to figure out what’s meaningful to us and to find work aligned with that goal, because meaning is based on our own internal values and unlike passion they don’t change as much over time. 

This is a topic I have spent a lot of time thinking about because like many humans, I at times have struggled to find meaning or a greater sense of purpose in the uninspiring landscape of the corporate world, or when faced with difficult work circumstances that leave me feeling stressed and drained. In those moments I get an urge to pack it all in and sell coconuts on the beach… but I don’t because I’m not sure I would find that meaningful either.

So, what does meaningful work look like?

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the three components of meaningful work: complexity, autonomy, and relationship between effort and reward.

  • Complexity is about a good mental challenge and being able to master increasingly challenging skills, thereby seeing yourself improve.
  • Autonomy is about being in control of your own choices about your work.
  • Relationship between effort and reward is the idea that for everything you put in, you get something out. This could be financial, but often it’s something more personal, for example seeing your work make a difference in the lives of others.

If you’re like me, you read this list and initially think, “But my work environment rarely provides me with these things! Thanks for nothing!” I write public policy for a living which means my work is always complex (easy points in that category). But being in the public sector means I’m a public servant, which means that I can spend years working on a project, only to find that the political winds have changed upon which work will get shelved/re-directed/re-done or outright cancelled.

When I first embarked on this public sector journey, I often struggled to find the autonomy or relationship between reward and effort. What am I doing all this “meaningful” work for, if it can be shelved in a heartbeat?

This is where my mindfulness practice has been incredibly beneficial in helping me notice these thought patterns, examine if they are really true, and choose to do something different. It has helped me to take a more expansive view of how I define “autonomy” or “relationship between reward and effort.”

I’ve now learned to identify and focus on my own internal reasons for doing the work that I do, and embracing the process of doing that work, rather than focusing on the outcome.

For example, a project I’ve been working on for years gets shelved. This is beyond my control (i.e. not my choice, thereby does not tick the autonomy box), and I don’t get to see the reward for all my hard work because the outcome is that my project didn’t get implemented. Wrong! Politicians can take away a project (i.e. the outcome) but they can’t take away my experience, what I’ve learned from that project, the relationships I’ve built through that process and in essence how I’ve grown through that work (i.e. the process). I get to keep all of that! That’s the reward, and that’s where I have autonomy over my work.

This has taught me to get really clear on what my own internal reasons are for doing the work I do and to define what is meaningful for me.

Regardless of the outcome of my work, I now go to work every day knowing I have this as my clear purpose:

  1. To continually challenge myself to take on new work that allows me to build new skills and that helps me learn more about myself. This means using work as an opportunity to practice mindfulness – using a challenging circumstance at work as an opportunity to practice building my awareness, to practice maintaining a sense of calm in a stressful circumstance, and to practice compassion towards all people, even the difficult ones; and
  2. To be of service to my fellow coworkers and the community I serve. Like many people, I find helping others to be incredibly meaningful. Regardless of the outcome of any project, there are opportunities to help others and build meaningful relationships every day.

I’ve also learned that if my full-time paid work isn’t giving me everything I need; I can take on a side project (either paid or not) to build more meaning in my life. For example, writing a mindfulness blog…

Believe me, this is a practice. Some days I lose sight of these goals. That’s ok, I’m human and I’m doing my best. But most days when I’m faced with a difficult or stressful situation, I can focus back on my own reasons for doing the work I do, and use it as a compass to guide me through the situation. It’s really helped me to be a little calmer at work, and to accept what I can’t control.

Let’s Do This:

Whether you answer to politicians, your boss or your customers, we all face times at work where on the surface we feel like we don’t have the autonomy, complexity or reward between relationship and effort that we desire.

What are your own personal reasons for doing the work you do?

How do you define meaningful work?

Share your thoughts below.

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