Have you ever asked yourself this profound question while sitting at your workstation?
Career Coach David Dean delves into what makes work meaningful.
Philosopher Plato believed that we are in constant search of a profound sense of purpose and meaning. On a personal quest to ultimately lead a satisfying and fulfilling life, cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, in this short video, highlights why meaning and purpose are so important to us at work. Most of us are looking to create a life that matters at work, to make a difference to our business, industry, families, friends and communities. Or to put it another way, to be remembered for doing great things.
However, many are left feeling unfulfilled and unhappy with our lot and in a constant search for meaning in our work. So much self-help and career advice is geared toward helping people pursue their dreams, passions, happiness & fulfilment. It could be argued that our needs go far deeper than just that. Meaningfulness in life and career do not necessarily equate to happiness.
For many generations, there was always a pathway to purpose and meaning through organised religion. A belief system connecting us to something greater than themselves; something that represented a profound basis for community and meaningful life. Those traditional forms of meaning that played a major role in people’s lives, have now moved on to look at work as more than a wage packet. We now use work and our careers to fill the spiritual void for the profound meaning in life.
There is no shortage of research that suggests “purpose” in what we do is increasingly hard to come by for many workers, with many employers failing to deliver on that fundamental need. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as any surprise as we all have the drive to grow, learn, contribute to a compelling mission, feel valued and know that our work matters. Though is it the responsibility of the employer to provide this facet of our existence; isn’t it our responsibility to manage our careers? Handing well-being and career satisfaction over to an employer is fraught with danger for all the reasons mentioned.
Many employee engagement studies corroborate our deep need for meaning, that is somehow now fulfilled at work and in our careers. Many people can feel stress, depression and overpowering anxiety when not engaged with the organisation they work for or on the career pathway they yearn for. If we don’t feel a sense of belonging to our job, then both our careers and our lives can feel unconnected, unfulfilled and meaningless.
In many respects, we can trace our obsession for happiness at work to the positive psychology movement from the late 1990s. Today, we strive for happiness and for “happy” workplaces. These organisations are heralded by consultants and gurus that tell us happy workplaces and perky workers are more productive and contented. In most cases, happy people are of course productive workers. Countless studies published discuss ways we can make our lives at work happier, satisfied and fulfilled. All of this interesting research can lead us to believe all we need in life and our careers is just to be happy. Though is it that simple?
The constant pursuit of happiness tends to make us feel unhappy – ironic but true. We can start to believe that our career success will make us happy, or that being wealthy or in positions of power will get us there. The pressure that is brought to bear by social media and influencers that appear to lead near-perfect happy lives is profound. Creating a fear of missing out and that we need to step up and find happiness, purpose and meaning. If we can’t deliver these fundamentals then we may believe we have failed in life and our career. When we start to pursue the things we are told will make us happy, we can find that they are not always what we were promised or expected.
In one study, participants were asked to spend 10 days doing things that made them feel happy (like having a lie-in, playing games etc.). A second group was told to use the same 10 days to do things that felt inherently meaningful (helping friends or colleagues or just a small random act of generosity and kindness). When these groups of people were brought back three months later, those in the first group admitted to feeling no better off. Their feelings of happiness proved to be ephemeral. Those in the second group, however, found that the things they did in those 10 days produced a sustained “well-being boost”.
Moreover, psychologists suggest that comfort, ease and contentment are the words used to define not only a happy life but a truly meaningful life. We know and have rationalised that life and our work is going to be hard and stressful at times. What is clear is that it is life’s struggles, successes, failures and our choices that will define us to create a better sense of meaning. Indeed, the conscious choices we make to help people with an act of kindness or feel gratitude for what we have create a chain reaction — we feel good about ourselves and what we have done to help them.
Therefore, even if we’re not feeling ‘happy’ with our lot all the time, maybe a good career is acknowledging where we are and where we have come from. The struggles we have had and those that we have helped along the way may be a good place to be in our careers to promote a sense of contentedness and fulfilment.
These random acts of kindness can make a difference to both ourselves and other people. Perhaps a goal of people who have found that core meaning in life and work is to make life better for others. Their objective is to do things, add value and to be of service to others.
When we re-frame our day-to-day tasks as opportunities to contribute, our own lives feel more significant. People who rank their jobs as meaningful have a number of things in common. They tend to see their jobs as a way to help others, their communities, friends and family. Whatever job we do there will be opportunities to add value, supporting our team and being considerate. As mentioned before, we know work has the capacity to be mundane, frustrating and irritating. The question is what we do next, is it time to move on and if so where? How will the move progress the career goals to add purpose, impact and meaning? There is nothing more fulfilling than putting food on the table, a roof over our children’s heads and feeling secure in the knowledge we are doing something meaningful in that way.
With this knowledge in mind we will need a proportion of our working week to have purpose and meaning. We need this to feel engaged with the job and a metaphorical thumbs up or down on how our careers are going. So here are a few points to remember to feel as though your career matters.
Balance: Know that meaning at work is not an all or nothing affair – all of us have tedious jobs to do. Therefore, if you are unhappy with your lot, ask yourself if you are setting yourself unrealistic goals for your happiness at work.
Appreciate: Find your meaningful nuggets – buried in your work will be moments and tasks that you find meaningful and give purpose. Meaning and purpose will be there, you just need to recognise when the moments happen. Learn to appreciate them and try to do more of them.
Activate: Pushing for purpose – try to spend 10-20% of your working week in meaningful tasks for you. Move your role toward these tasks if at all possible. If not possible it may be time to think about your career strategy. Time to head off toward a career that will give you more of what you need from your job.
Finding whatever creates that profound connection with a sense of purpose or the “why” for your career direction is a difficult exercise that takes time. This time out to consider the big existential career questions will give a great return on your investment in the long run. If nothing else you may realise your work and career is doing just fine or exciting new opportunities are just around the corner.
When we start to pursue our career meaning goals then the overriding feeling of fulfilment and contentedness tends to follow. This sense of meaning in our careers and work can be that you have found a vocation or a job that fits your talents, strengths, skills etc. to a tee. There is no easy path to career fulfilment sadly if there was I would have used it by now. It’s not the far off goal that matters so much but the journey. Therefore a 2, 5, 10-year career strategy and learning plan will keep you on track with your objectives and what career meaning you want to achieve.
Holding an overriding belief that you are doing something you are meant to do, motivated to do and that “fits” with your career drivers is key. However, when your work or career feels unglamorous, remember that your work is an act of service for those you care about. Keeping this front of mind will help you tie more purpose into your work, even when accomplishing the most tedious of tasks. Creating purpose isn’t the only ingredient to fulfilment at work but it’s something we must consciously manage, pursue and create.
C. Bailey and A. Madden (2016) “What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless” MIT Sloan Management Review (accessed 26/11/2019)