Want Meaningful Work

Ask the Workplace Doctors about wanting a job you love, or ….

I recently started a new position where I deliver and sell a product within a territory. So far I mostly like the job for several reasons including the product is one I enjoy selling and delivering, I am getting to explore cool towns and areas, I am meeting some nice people, and the owners/bosses don’t micromanage. There are parts of the job and company culture which I don’t love, but overall this job feels like a good fit right now. I am, however, worried that this line of work may not be one I want to do for long because I would prefer to do a job where the work feels more meaningful. How invested do I become in my current work? Should I try to find meaning in it or in other parts of my life? Should work be the root of our meaning?

Signed- Root of Your Meaning

Dear Root of Your Meaning:

Yes, you are right, it is good to feel your work satisfies the deep desire to feel it is purposeful. Your question implies: you’ve seen and/or have experienced work that provides meaning. However, good is your job and its pay and perks, apparently you feel something is missing. Consequently, you ask: How invested do I become in my current work? Should I try to find meaning in it or in other parts of my life? 

I expect you have, at least temporarily, answered these two questions. And that your answer depends on if you find the job develops a sense of accomplishment and rewards that help you choose to invest more or if not, you will choose to stay with it long enough to enable you to vote with your feet in a new job that you see might have meaning

These questions were the ones asked by the founders of 80,000 Hours: How to make a difference with your career. and they are the questions circling in many other individual’s heads. Probably, only a few individuals are fortunate to be in jobs they love and feel called as some religious programmed souls do. Most people weigh the costs/benefit of those jobs against their image of the kind of work that is deeply meaningful.

The options for coping when employed in jobs that lack what is seen as particularly meaningful include:

  1. Rationalize you gotta do what you gotta do to earn enough to keep a roof over your head and food in your gut. The hard facts are most people must have work and take what they can get. Each of us is more than the jobs we can get.  Sidney Portier, who just died at 94, said he had failed in his first two attempts to be cast in a role, so he listened and imitated voices on the radio while as a dishwasher, and later asked to clean the theater in exchange to be a student of the organization that owned it. You do what you gotta do to live and until and if you can find work or create work that suits your want-to goals.                
  2. Refram your image of what is meaningful–perhaps that might be seeing small ways to help coworkers develop behaviors that enrich their personalities and that enable them to act constructively rather than complain. It might mean, you as an individual soften that image. Rather than define meaning as doing heart surgery, it might be scrubbing the floors of a fast food place or working a Waste Management route. That reframing might mean becoming an informed citizen or parent or providing for parents, or those without jobs. That reframing might mean working as a modest paying job that enables vacations in which you can work with can-do organizations or simply do what you like to do. We should honor effort in any kind of work so long as it is honest and does not harm. 
  3. Some work pays enough to enable you to contribute money and/or time to those organizations engaged in work you feel is meaningful –perhaps Habitat for Humanity, the ACLU or some groups you admire.
  4. It is important to be more than what you do for a living. You are valuable to family, neighbors, friends, those less fortunate, those who work to make where you live safe, those in prison, those without jobs, the homeless, and the environment. 
  5. 80,000 hours suggests those employed in dirty or dull work, work that needs doing but doesn’t lend itself to sufficient pay beyond necessities, are forced to find ways outside of their current jobs, if they are to feel they have purpose, e.g. volunteering in meals on wheels or food banks, campaigning for local office, singing in a community choir, tutoring someone who can’t read, etc.

Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, whether that is a have-to or a want to make a difference.  I hope after a few weeks or months at this new job, you will send a follow up in how you are answering your questions.–William Gorden