In most people’s minds the words meaningful and work have little, if any, connection. Our culture has become such that we are encouraged to choose a career based on its ability to provide security and financial stability rather than opportunity for alignment with our passions and dreams.
The prospect of finding fulfilling work is believed to be relegated to the lucky few born with extraordinary talent, wealth or an unusual drive to succeed. And the numbers back this up – job satisfaction is at all time lows. Yet, there is no reason why these two aspects of life should be mutually exclusive for anyone. Meaningful work is not just possible, it is your birthright.
“Meaningful work is not just possible, it is your birthright”
Most of us have no trouble getting excited about the prospect of finding meaningful work—after all, is that not a dream we all share—to be able to support ourselves doing something we love and are deeply passionate about? The problem lies in the fact that many of us have come to believe that it is simply not possible or wishful thinking at best. Yet, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Like anything in life, with the right knowledge and tools, anyone can be empowered to accomplish whatever it is they set their mind to.
“How to Find Meaningful Work”
1. Don’t Get too Specific – Just Head in the Right General Direction
One of the major mistakes that people make when searching for meaningful work is trying to pinpoint the exact thing they should be doing. It is rare that someone knows precisely what they want to do with their lives. This knowledge only usually comes after some time is spent heading in the right general direction.
To use an analogy, if you are in New York and you need to get to Los Angeles, at first you simply go West. Having a specific address is not necessary until you get much closer to your destination.
Finding meaningful work operates in much the same way. At first, just figure out in a very general sense:
- What qualities you value and would like your job/career to have
- What you would like to be doing if money were not an issue
With this information, you can begin to explore what fields would be a potentially good fit for you.
It is important to think in broad terms at this stage or you will defeat the purpose of the exercise. Remember, you only need to know what general direction you would like to begin heading in. As you hone in on the path that is correct for you, the details will reveal themselves.
Your goal should be to find something that aligns with the vision you create for yourself as closely as possible. As you dive deeper into an area that you are interested in, you will begin to notice what you are most strongly drawn towards. Too often people get so hung up on trying to figure out every little detail at the start of the journey that they end up losing sight of the destination.
2. Your Direction Will Change Many Times
Where you start and where you end up will be related, but still distinctly different. Most people won’t discover their life’s work right off the bat. As you begin to follow what you are interested in, you will find increasing clarity as you explore your passions and different fields of work. It is important to embrace the uncertainty that comes with this process and not feel that you need to get everything right on the first try. So long as you focus inwardly and trust your intuition, you will be able to “connect the dots” along the way from point A to point B on your journey towards deeply fulfilling, meaningful work. The only constant in life is change and you would be wise to expect it and embrace it.
It is highly likely that what you thought was right for you at the start of your journey will change many times. However, each correction of course will bring you ever closer to the work that is most meaningful and fulfilling for you. Knowing that this will happen ahead of time will save you from feeling that you made a mistake or wrong choice.
3. Mix Your Passions With Your Values and Talents
If you are not sure what your passions are, try asking yourself the following question:
“If money was not an issue, but you still had to work for a living, what would you do?”
The answer to this question will provide you with extremely valuable insight into what type of work would be deeply meaningful and fulfilling for you.
Meaningful Work Exercise: PVT Triangle
A simple exercise to help you find meaningful work is to draw a triangle with your values at one point, your talents at another and your passions at the third. Then try to think of careers or professions that integrate all three and list them in the center.
4. Pursue a Job or Career Path that Fosters Learning
If you are having difficulty figuring out what it is you are passionate about, then at the very least, pursuing work that encourages learning and growth is your next best bet.
UC Berkeley psychologists, Morten Hansen and Dacher Keltner, explain that seeking work that encourages learning, achievement and growth results in expansion of one’s self-worth, opportunities and potential careers. Ultimately it will help you to discover what is right for you. If you are truly unsure what to do, work on growing yourself as an individual.
“If you are truly unsure what to do, work on growing yourself as an individual.”
Similarly, Krznaric suggests becoming a wide achiever (someone who is experienced in several different areas) instead of a high achiever who is highly specialized in one specific field. By doing so, you’ll be preparing yourself for any path you ultimately choose. As your skill set widens, you become more resourceful and increasingly likely to be successful at whatever career you end up pursuing.
How to Cultivate More Meaning
From Your Current Work
Perhaps you are not in a position where you are able to leave your current line of work for whatever reason, financial or otherwise. In this case, the following suggestions are intended to help you derive even more fulfillment and meaning from the work you are already doing.
1. Return to Your Passion
Regardless of whether you will be changing careers, venturing out on your own or staying in your current position, it is crucial to highlight the importance of incorporating your passion and interests into your work life. For example, if you enjoy helping others, perhaps this takes the form of organizing a charitable event or initiative within your company.
If in your current position there is simply no way for you to integrate your passions into your work, you may consider making a lateral move within your company. Krznaric suggests this as a way to return to the aspects that attracted you to your work when you first started if you have somehow gotten away from them or perhaps never embraced them in the first place. Often times this can be far easier than leaving a company and starting over from scratch, and this might be all that you need to find deeply fulfilling, meaningful work.
2. Integrate Social Responsibility
UC Berkeley psychologists, Morten Hansen and Dacher Keltner, suggest that making a contribution that extends beyond yourself can provide a greater sense of fulfillment and potentially even transform an otherwise less than ideal job into a form of meaningful work.
One way to do this is by taking the initiative to create or join a movement that integrates eco-social awareness and responsibility into the workplace or incorporates it as part of the overarching business model of the organization. Not only might this add great fulfillment to your current position, it can also lead to recognition and promotions as people realize the value of what you are doing.
Most companies these days are very open to these types of initiatives and realize the significant value it adds in terms of overall employee happiness.
3. Find ways to Engender flow
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work suggests that finding tasks that are naturally compatible with your skills and passions, but difficult enough to provide a challenge and stimulate creative problem solving can result in deeply fulfilling and enjoyable states of ‘flow’. This state is characterized by intense focus, boundless energy, and total immersion in the present activity to the point where time seems to dilate, either slowing down or passing much more rapidly.
Furthermore, this type of work can be deeply rewarding and often plays strongly off of our values, talents and passions. Try to identify situations, tasks or projects that help you tap into this state of flow and, if possible, focus your time and efforts in this direction. Doing so can bring renewed meaning to your work and interest to the current position you find yourself in.
4. Create a More Positive Environment
Research suggests that participating in a work environment that cultivates a sense of community, encourages taking personal or group initiatives and provides an overall sense of freedom can enhance job satisfaction by creating feelings of belonging, self-worth, and reward.
A good way to cultivate this type of environment if none exists is by taking the initiative and embracing principle number two, integrate social responsibility. This can quickly engender a new sense of community and comradeship in an otherwise ‘stale’ workplace. Inspiration is always a catalyst for change and growth.
When All Else Fails
If all else fails, you can always embrace the tried and true method of taking some time off from your everyday responsibilities to travel and clear your mind before making any life-changing decisions. We often become so caught up in the day-to-day reality of our life and work that we forget to step back and see the larger picture. Taking an extended break or vacation usually gives us the breathing room we need to reassess and view our lives from a fresh perspective.
This can lead us to powerful insights and revelations about what new directions we might like to take with our lives and help us hone in on meaningful work.
Passion and Determination is Unstoppable
Either way, it is important to remember that you are never trapped in a given line of work, despite how it may seem at times. Making major changes in your life may require you to summon great courage, but always know that where passion and determination align, there is little that can stop you from being successful in whatever path you ultimately pursue.