The quest for meaningful work

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September 1st 2023

The quest for meaningful work

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Finding meaningful work is a complex and personal journey. To do it right, we must consider an array of subjects including career aspirations, financial goals, societal & global impact, and our own work-life balance ideals.

By identifying what works (and what doesn’t) in our prior roles, and by reflecting on personal skills & experiences, we can create our own career compass to guide ourselves toward meaningful work.

We can also learn to build an intentional mindset, or framing, of how we approach our work— which is also subject to change as we navigate different phases of life.

So, how do we approach the job search? We start with our own definition of meaning.

What makes work meaningful?

I spend a great deal of time thinking about this, stemming not only from personal curiosity but also because my day job revolves around career coaching and professional development. I help people discover what type of work they find meaningful and rewarding. I also help people build resilience to cope with the stress, anxiety, and burnout associated with work.

For the first decade of my career, I’ve been working in the tech sector where I’ve focused on how to make work rewarding, valuable, and meaningful for employees, while simultaneously helping companies achieve their strategic goals.

One conversation that I find timelessly relevant is when people ask me “How do I find my passion?” Often, what people are really asking is, “How do I find meaningful work?

In this context, 'meaningful' is subjective. It's not important that everyone perceive your work as meaningful, it's important that you find your work to be meaningful. Each of us must personally define what “meaningful work” means to us.

Start with a sense of direction.

A great place to begin is by identifying goals. This could refer to your career goals and what you aspire to achieve. It could also involve financial goals concerning what you hope to afford or invest in the future, and how you plan to amass the wealth to attain that. You might also be seeking work that has a global or societal impact, in that it’s aimed at specific areas you're invested in, such as:

Yet another goal could be striving for a job that doesn't expect you to work after hours or on weekends. This could be due to other commitments such as raising a family, running an additional business, side hustle, or simply desiring work-life balance. These are just a few examples of how differing goals can shape our definition of meaningful work.

Think about your ideal working style.

Once you understand your goals, it's vital to reflect on what your ideal job might be. Let’s explore a few reflective topics that I explore when I am coaching. Take time to think through and write down your reactions to the following questions...

Work-related: → What do I love most to do? ”I love it so much I can work for hours without getting bored.”

What work doesn’t feel like work? ”When am I in a ‘flow state?’”

What are my unique skills & abilities? Stuff I can do that benefits me and the people I help

Feeling-specific: → What work gives me energy naturally? When I feel energized, not drained.

→ How do I feel when I'm doing this work? Try the Emotions & Feelings cheat sheet

→ Why do I love this work? What does it mean to you? Why is it important?

People-related: → What do people say I do naturally well? What other people have to study/work hard to be good at.

→ What do people ask me for help with? What people trust or rely on you for.

It's also important to acknowledge what's not working.

Consider what drains you in your current work, job, or in roles you’ve held previously.

Ask yourself:

  • What specifically do you find draining? Is it specific tasks or types of work?

  • What types of colleagues or customers are hard for you to work with?

  • How does your industry influence what you find draining?

It's necessary to explore these factors as they help shape your career compass. This compass must be personal, not too heavily influenced by family, friends, influencers, or peers. It should guide you towards where you want to go and give you a realistic sense of what's possible for you.

The aim is to define the gap between where you want to be and where you currently are. For some, this could be one job or one connection away; for others, it might be a ten-year journey. It's not about comparing your journey to others, but about understanding where you are and identifying your next steps.

Should you pursue a passion, or leverage your skills?

A topic that I frequently encounter is the need to find work that you're passionate about.

For some of us, it's important to avoid work we’re too passionate about, especially if we can be heavily impacted by challenges and setbacks. For example, if you worked in the political space, a failed campaign could be draining and potentially devastating for some people.

The current line of thinking is that it’s more important to focus on skills and abilities.

This means focusing on:
  • What you have already achieved?

  • What you are capable of doing next?

  • How do those skills serve your future?

Your resume is a tool to highlight and market your skills, but people need to be prepared to share authentic, insightful stories about their experiences in interviews and networking calls.

I call this work “Career Storytelling,” and it’s a skill you can develop on your own, or with support. If you’d like to learn more about how to approach this, check out my Guide to Career Storytelling.

In the end, this is all about framing. A job can be very meaningful one moment, and a change in life circumstances can alter your perspective and mindset, changing how you view your work.

It's about knowing what this next job will contribute to your career path, whether that's a paycheck, a new skill, a relationship, or experience.

It's crucial to stay in touch with your mindset and be aware of the framing you're using. If something changes in how you view your job, you either need to adjust your mindset or make a change in your job or environment. These two things are deeply interconnected.

Written by: Ryan Giordano Learning & Development Leader, Career Resilience Coach

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