Meaningful Work: What it is and How to Find It

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A sense of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose is something that we all crave in our lives. We want to make an impact. We want to help others. And we want to feel like the world benefitted from our presence.

For many of us, our work seems to be the context of our lives where a desire for meaning most often manifests itself. And it is unfortunately an area where many of us feel like we’re falling short.

There are lots of people that I personally know that feel a lack of meaning in their work. They’re grateful for the income that their job generates, but often wake up in the morning feeling numb about going to work.

They put in their hours to earn their paycheck but the significance of what they’re doing is to…make money somebody else? To generate a return for investors they don’t know? To buy themselves nicer things?

In many cases, they’ll wonder — is this really all there is?

This article is meant to give you a framework for how to think about meaningful work and the role that it can play in your life. Throughout, I’ll talk about what meaning actually means, draw a distinction between work and a job, and then walk through a process for finding meaningful work. Let’s get started.

What Is Meaning Anyway?

When I really sat down and thought about it, I actually had a bit of a hard time defining meaning.

To me, it’s more of a feeling. Like you know it when you’ve got it.  You know when you’re doing something impactful.

But I felt like it was important to try and define it nonetheless.

A fantastic article that helped my process is On the Meaning of Meaning: What Are We Really Looking For on Positive Psychology. It really gets into the nuances of how to think about meaning, and I’d encourage you to read it, but I think the use of a simple definition that they provided is all we need.

For this article, we’ll define meaning as the relevance, significance, or overall value of your life.

Note that the definition mentions that it’s at the level of overall life. And that’s an important distinction, because meaning does not need to, and probably should not come from a job.

Meaning comes in the context of the overall work of your life. But more on that later.

So that’s the meaning of meaning, but it feels pretty broad. And you may be wondering how that applies to you. So let’s talk about a way in which you may find what is meaningful to you.

How to Define What is Meaningful to You

To ultimately have a life that has that feeling of relevance, significance, or value, I believe the key is to give yourself to something outside of yourself. To dedicate your energy to serving a group of people, fixing a problem, sharing an idea, or building something that you believe to be fundamentally good.

I think David Brooks summed it up well in his book The Second Mountain

No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. … A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?

-David Brooks

So if we ultimately need to give ourselves to something…to respond to what life is asking of us in order to experience a sense of meaning, how do we ultimately figure out what to give ourselves to?

Below is the method that I’ve found most helpful for doing that.

Define Your Focus and Your Problem

My personal favorite route is to define your focus area and to define your problem.

The reason I like this method is it helps to make it tangible and concrete who or what you’re serving and the way in which you’re contributing.

A common challenge that I see when trying to discover your meaningful work is that starting with general issues or causes, like climate change, or animal cruelty, for example, can feel too broad.

People don’t know where to start, they feel overwhelmed, and get lost in their quest for meaningful work.

So we’ll start this process by defining our focus.

How to Define Your Focus

The way I think about what to focus on is the person, place, or cause/idea to which you want to give yourself.

That could be your family. Or it could be a group of people that have struggled with a similar problem as you. Maybe it’s the place that you live. It also could be cause/idea like decentralized finance.

Whatever it is, the key is to think about a group of people, a place, or a cause/idea to which you would feel significance or value in contributing good towards it AND that you understand fairly well.

And to start, all you need to do is just take five minutes and make a list of possible items that could fit the above criteria.

Here is an example list for me:

  • My family
  • My neighborhood
  • Portland, OR
  • People who are trying to improve themselves
  • The University of Oregon
  • Husbands
  • Fathers
  • People who work in marketing
  • Young kids
  • Teenage parents

Now that we’ve got a list, we’ll need to prioritize it down to the people, place, or thing that we care most about serving.

My favorite prioritization method is from the book What Color is Your Parachute. Basically, it just involves comparing each item on your list on a 1:1 basis and deciding which item is the higher priority. Simple, but effective.

Fortunately, there is a free tool that will help you follow their process right here.

For example purposes, I went ahead and input the list above, and then went through their prioritization method.

The output of the exercise is below:

focus prioritization

So now we have a prioritized list, and we need to select the people, place, or idea/cause that we’re going to focus on.

Item number one was family so, in this example, just focusing on serving  family would likely lead to a feeling of meaning and significance.

However, for this example, I’d like to select an item beyond direct family, because it leads to a more robust set of ways that we could serve our focus area.

So for our purposes, we’ll say that yes, we’re going to serve our family well, but we’ll also commit to serving people who are trying to improve themselves.

With that group of people in mind, we can now turn our attention to the problem that we want to address for that group of people.

How to Define Your Problem

To figure out the problem that we want to address, I’d suggest going through a similar exercise as above. But with a couple of extra considerations for how to approach it.

First, start by making a list of all of the problems that you know exist around your area of focus.

For our example of folks that are trying to improve themselves, here is an list of some areas in which they may need support when it comes to self-improvement:

  • Physical health
  • Mental health
  • Community/friendships
  • Family
  • Meaningful work
  • Finances

The next step is to prioritize those problems.

Before diving into the prioritization tool, however, here are a couple of tips to help frame your thinking about the problem you want to solve.

The first would be to think about a problem that you’ve personally experienced.

If your focus area is on a group of people, then you may have personally experienced the problem that you’re looking to help solve. Based upon your own personal experience, you’ll be able to attack the problem with a good starting point of how to best approach it.

So, for example, if you’re dedicated to helping people improve themselves, and you love to have a lot of experience in the corporate world, then helping people with their work or career may be a logical focus area for you.

Another way to potentially frame how you’re prioritizing the problem you want to solve is to think about which of the problems on your list would feel enjoyable for you to address.

You can think through these questions to help assess the problem you would enjoy focusing on:

  • Would solving any of the above problems feel like fun to you, but work to others?
  • Do you spend time working on any of the above problems on your own because you enjoy it?

With those tips and that framing in mind, if put those list of items into the prioritization tool that I shared above, and go through the exercise, here is what a result could look like:

problem prioritization

That tells us that helping those that are trying to improve themselves find meaningful work is the problem that we want to give ourselves to,

So, through this process, we now have a prioritized list of potential area on which to focus our service, and the problem that we could dedicate ourselves to solving within that focus area.

From here, the next step is figuring out how to go out and do the work,

But first, I want to take a quick detour to talk about what I think is an important distinction between work and a job, and how the two can work together.

Your Work vs. a Job

So, now that we’re at this point, you may be looking at who you want to serve and the problem that you want to solve and thinking that has nothing to do with your job.

And you may be thinking that it would be difficult to find a job doing the meaningful work that you want to do in the first place.

So I’d like to draw an important distinction.

Your work and your job don’t need to be the same thing.

I’ll explain what I mean.

Dallas Willard offers may favorite definition of work, which is the following:

The expanding of energy to produce good

-Dallas Willard

So your work is the energy you put forth to create good.

Your job, on the other hand, is what you do for somebody else to generate an income. 

Those are not, and do not necessarily need to be the same thing. In fact, it can be risky to tie the overall good that you set out to produce too much into a job. 

The key is that your job needs to enable you to do the work that you’d like to do and fit into the overall life of meaning that you want to life.

So it needs to give you the time to produce the good that you’d like to produce, whether it’s directly through the job or on the side.

And provide the income to enable you to live a life to be able to pursue that good.

Or, at the very least, it should feel like it’s enabling you to work towards doing the meaningful work that you’d like to do.

If it does none of those things, then that may be where your job and/or career becomes problematic.

And if meaningful work is important to you, then you may need to look at alternate jobs or career paths in this case.

Now, back to giving yourself to your meaningful work

How to Go Do the Work

Ok, so you’ve got the focus area that you want to serve and the problem that you want to solve.

Now, the question is how you go about actually going out and doing the work.

Here is the process that I would recommend:

Start by Listing What You’re Good At

Ultimately, producing good requires contributing in some way.

And that means that you have to leverage a skill that you’re good at in order to add value.

I walk through a few different ways you can figure out what you’re good at here in this article, so you can read the article if you’re unsure of your best skills.

However, for our purposes, I’ll provide an example list of skills that could be leveraged in our work:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Digital marketing
  • Talking to people
  • Organizing projects
  • SEO
  • Teaching
  • Coaching
  • Setting up processes

Now that we’ve got an example list, we can put it through the prioritization tool referenced above to sort it.

If you’re following along and doing the exercise yourself, just update the list above with skills that are relevant to you and prioritize them as recommended.

From there, here’s where we go next:

Figure Out How to Leverage What You’re Good at For Your Focus and Problem

So now that you’ve got a list of focus areas, problems, and things that you’re good it, the final step is to figure out how to put what you’re good at towards your meaningful work.

And there are a variety of different ways that you can do that, some of which I’ll list below.

Find Where Your Group Gathers and Go Contribute

This option applies if your focus is on serving a group of people.

Basically, what you do here is just go find where the people you are looking to serve gather. And then volunteer your time to go contribute.

So for me, through this website I’m looking to serve those that are trying figure out the role that work should play in their lives. 

And folks that are struggling with that problem often ask for support at the subreddit: r/findapath.

So, as an example, I’ve committed to contributing to that subreddit at least once per week to help those that I’m trying to serve.

While that’s an example of how you can do it online, there are many in-person opportunities as well.

For example, if your focus is on people experiencing homelessness, and your problem is hunger, then volunteering at a soup kitchen may be an obvious opportunity. 

Similarly, if your focus is your city, and your problem is litter, then you can go participate in cleanups.

VolunteerMatch is a great resource to find ways to contribute to causes that you care about.

Build Something That Can Help Solve the Problem

I’ll mention Reddit once more here, as you can occasionally find some wonderful sources of wisdom.

There was a post on the r/findapath subreddit that I thought summed up really nicely a path to meaningful work.

You can take a look at it right here, but I’ll pull out the quote below that resonated with me the most below.

Note that the context is discussing how people come to the idea and motivation to change their lives for the better.

They didn’t just pick a profession, they looked for a problem they were passionate about solving and built something to help solve that problem

-u/itsjustdifferent

Of all the ways to go do the work, there may be no better way to do meaningful work than by going out and building something that can solve the problem. 

A beautiful example of this is Everybody Athletics. The founder, Brad Franklin, recognized a problem that adults with disabilities lose the structure, schedule, and support system that they had growing up once they graduate high school.

So his focus is people with disabilities and his problem was lack of support for adults. He himself is very physically fit, and is also good at organizing people.

So he combined those things to build his own non profit that provides exercise programs for adults with disabilities.

In my opinion, that’s the perfect example of building something to solve a problem as a form of meaningful work.

Look for Jobs

I mentioned earlier that your job and your work don’t have to be the same thing.

And, in fact, I think there is a lot of risk in tying your overall sense of meaningful contribution to your job. 

The reason being simply that jobs can go away in an instant.

That said, if you can generate an income by putting forth energy to produce good that you care about, then that’s something that you have to seriously evaluate.

So it’s worth at least seeing if there are jobs out there that enable you to serve your focus area, and your problem, that leverage your best skills.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a single resource or job search tool to this point that is encompasses all available social impact-type jobs. But the Movingworlds Blog lists a variety of good resources out there that you can use.

What If I Can’t Do The Work Right Now?

So we talked about the distinction between your work and a job. And established that they don’t need to be the same thing.

That said, your current job may not be one that enables you to do the work that you’d like to do.

The job itself may not be meaningful to you. Or, more commonly, it may be demanding to the point where you have no time on the side to produce the type of good that you would like to.

So what should you do in that situation? Here are some recommendations for you:

Make Your Job as Meaningful As You Can

For many people, there is meaning in simply the pursuit of excellence.

Contributing in some way, whether or not it’s aligned with solving an important social problem (as long as it’s not actively damaging to society), can be truly meaningful.

So, even if you don’t feel your work is currently contributing to some larger good, take pride in being excellent at it. Strive to be the best you can be. And the process of mastering a skill can enhance your drive.

Additionally, something that’s important to keep in mind is that you likely impact the lives of other people through your work. You interact with workers regularly. And if you manage people, you have a strong impact on their level of anxiety and well-being.

So just by being someone that is enjoyable to work with and be around, you’re enhancing the lives of others.

With that being the case, you can view your work as an opportunity to serve others and lift up their lives. And I think it’s important to not lose site of the opportunity to bring meaning through the day to day by treating others well.

So you can think of your work in that context as you’re looking for alternatives to enable you to do more meaningful work in your life.

Or that way of approaching your job could also become your long-term source of meaningful work.

Think of Your Job as a Means of Progressing to Something Meaningful

Even if your current job isn’t meaningful, it’s important for us as people to feel like we’re working towards something meaningful.

And it’s tough to contribute good if you’re not in a good place yourself.

If you’re struggling financially and it feels hard just to meet your basic needs, you’re not going to be in a great place to serve and contribute to your chosen focus and problem.

And if that’s the case, I recommend taking care of yourself first. Establish your own base and then from that sound base (which is often best established in a job for somebody else), you can start to go out and do your meaningful work.

My overall recommendation here would be to think of your job in the larger context of your life. It needs to enable you to work towards the ultimate good that you want to produce, whether that’s immediately, or by establishing the base from which you can build long-term.

Look to Leave Your Job

If your job simply is not enabling you to produce the type of good that you want…either through the work itself or by enabling you to build or work towards something on the side, you may ultimately need to look at finding another job.

Again, your job itself doesn’t need to be your source of meaningful work, but it does need to fit into a life of overall positive good. And if your job does not enable that, you need to find another one.

Conclusion

We all crave a sense of meaning and contribution in our lives. But many of us feel that is lacking.

So a way to get that is to find a focus area and a problem to serve in your work. With your work being the energy you put forth to generate good.

And your work and job don’t need to be the same. Your job just needs to give you the space to do the work that you ultimately would like to do.

I hope this has been helpful, and best of luck in pursuing your meaningful work!

About the author

Dan Slocum

Dan is the founder of Best Fit Work and a marketer and business professional with over 10 years of experience. Dan writes to share content, tools, and resources to help people discover and thrive in their own best fit work.

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