The more meaningless you feel your work is, the less driven you are to perform, and the lesser your happiness at work. Daniel Pink, for one, named purpose as one of the three pillars of intrinsic motivation. Similarly, Martin Seligman referenced purpose in his PERMA framework of what constitutes happiness at work and in life.
Clearly, the pursuit of purpose, drive, and happiness all go hand-in-hand. Is it really possible, though, to derive a sense of meaning from work without having to sacrifice real-life concerns?
You might be surprised, but it is. Here’s how.
Meaning is about perspective; it isn’t static and absolute. Hollywood might make you feel like if you have a meaningless job, it’s definitely because you haven’t found the right job for you yet.
In this case, the “right job” refers to a job that feels personally meaningful to you. In reality, though, meaning is made, not found whole. You don’t just stumble upon it by chance; it takes real, continued effort to construct and build meaning out of the work you do.
Most of us probably don’t have the luxury to be working in jobs that are glamorous or immediately rewarding. That doesn’t mean that the odds are stacked too high against us, though. Making meaning at work is a deliberate practice that you have to keep engaging in every day lest it erodes and ultimately makes you prematurely jaded.
A commonly held misconception about meaningful work is that it hinges entirely on the nature of the work you do.
For example, it may seem so much easier for a firefighter to derive purpose from his work, considering how often firefighters are seen as real-life superheroes. A marketing executive, on the other hand, might have more difficulty finding meaning in what he does. Even so, those in a similar predicament to will benefit from understanding that there are multiple sources of meaning. Just because the nature of your work isn’t immediately meaningful doesn’t mean you’re condemned to a life of purposelessness.
Ask yourself, “what do I work for?” Is it for financial independence, or to support your family, or to have an illustrious career and leave a legacy behind? Different people will derive meaning from different sources. Some find meaning in the nature of their jobs themselves, as nurses and teachers often do. Others take meaning from having a job that enables them to bring up their children comfortably. Others still will find meaning in being able to retain their personal autonomy at work.
At one any time, you could be drawing from multiple sources of meaning, even if the work itself might be drab.
As with everything in life, change is the only constant. Your most significant source of meaning right now might, for instance, be the opportunity to learn from a mentor or a visionary leader at your workplace.
As you gain more experience and progress into the later stages of life, though, you yourself change, along with the things you hold most valuable. Subsequently, you’ll start finding meaning in different ways than you used to in the past. Where your current priority is to build your career and learn as much as you can, in the future it might change into the opportunity to serve others through your work in some way.
One of the first things you need to realise about finding and doing meaningful work is that it does not have to be diametrically opposed to making money.
The dominant narrative around doing purposeful work has made it seem like there’s an inherent and inevitable trade-off between choosing to do meaningful work and making lots of money.
Seeing it this way puts you between a rock and a hard place when it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.
For instance, if you’re trying to build your side hustle or cultivate more sources of income outside of work, a stable job could be the bedrock you need to be able to comfortably pursue those other interests without letting them be beholden to money. Stability itself could be what provides you meaning in this regard.