Is Your Work Meaningful?

Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

As we’re entering the vacation season, many of us are going to take a step back and reflect on where we are in our professional lives. To what extent is our work aligned with our personal goals, norms and values? Does it help us grow and develop as professionals and as individuals? Is the direction of growth still the one that’s the highest priority for us?

In my collaboration with companies, I frequently meet individuals that seem to have succumbed to the ‘boiling frog’ syndrome. Although their job might have been a good match for them at some point in the past, over time more and more activities, responsibilities and tasks have been added that have made the position less and less aligned with their implicit purpose. Their growth has plateaued and the excitement long gone. The consequence is a situation where people crave vacation to get a reprieve from the constant grinding of a job that has lost its luster.

So, my request to you, my dear reader, is to use the time that you’re away to reflect on whether your work is (still) meaningful to you. As we spend most of our waking hours during the week at work or thinking about work, wasting time on a job that’s not in line with what you want to get out of your life is a humongous waste of human capital. Seth Godin captured this in a wonderful quote: “Instead of wondering when our next vacation is, we should set up a life we don’t need to escape from.”

The challenge is, of course, that thinking about what it is that makes your work meaningful immediately raises the question what your overall purpose in life is. In an earlier article, I reflected on this mostly from an organizational perspective, but of course, there’s a personal side to this as well. Although Robert Byrne defined the answer to this question as “the purpose of life is a life of purpose”, actually defining what it is that feels purposeful and meaningful for you – for you personally – is a very difficult question to answer.

For most people, a meaningful job has two dimensions: personal growth and, in some way, helping others. In Maslov’s theory, the highest level of the pyramid of human needs is self-actualization. As most of us have the first four levels figured out, the focus for personal growth has to be on self-actualization, which is defined as “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone”.

Especially as one reaches mid-life, many directions and aspects have been tried out and experimented with and the risk is that you end up getting squarely rooted in your comfort zone. I believe that it’s imperative for a well-lived life to ensure that you break out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. Although we, in the first part of our lives, tend to focus on changing our external circumstances, I believe that as you become more mature, you start to realize that the focus should be on changing our internal perspective, viewpoint or paradigm. Many have changed their external circumstances, eg by changing jobs, only to end up in virtually the same situation after a few months. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Andrew Brooks discusses his journey and I think it’s a wonderful read during the vacation season.

The second dimension of a meaningful job is to help others or, in general, offer a positive contribution to the society or culture that you’re part of. My experience is that everyone, deep down, wants to leave this earth in the knowledge that they contributed to some improvement in the world. Something that made things better, in some minor way, than what they were when we arrived. It’s easy for this to get snowed under the daily noise of life, but I think that regularly reconnecting with your purpose and reflecting on how your job is meaningful in achieving that purpose is important. Of course, over the course of your life, your purpose evolves and changes and this may require you to reflect on what it means for your job and the rest of your life.

There’s a wonderful quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Concluding, I believe that living a life of purpose is critical for a well-lived life. The purpose you choose is entirely up to you, but choosing some purpose that feels meaningful for you is mandatory to avoid feeling empty, disconnected and living a life that you constantly want to escape from through vacation or other means. As it is such a large part of our lives, we should ensure that our jobs are meaningful and connected to our purpose. And what better time than your vacation to reflect on this question and plan any changes that you feel you need to make!

As I will also take some vacation, my next article will be published in mid-August.

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