Work and the quest for meaning

This was not the person I wanted to be.


Had I really almost yelled at my boss in a public café?


Surely not.


I was the mild mannered home-schooled girl who always did everything "right".


I packed up my one-too-many bags, plugged my headphones in with music to distract myself, and jumped in the elevator.


I stared out at the last glimpses of a sunset over the cityscape of Perth. My gym bag hung particularly heavy on my shoulder.


I should’ve gone for a run. My mood was always better when I got a run in. But the day had just left me with no mental energy to get those shoes on and force myself out of the building for a run. I’d kept myself busy with fine tuning some report or other until it was too dark for a run.


The music failed to do its job to distract me.


I kept replaying the meeting over in my head.


The meeting had been to discuss my business case for manager.


It wasn’t very manager-ly to slap my hand on the table in a café.


I’d never get the promotion now. No matter how well crafted my business case was.


Sure, I could accept my boss’ decision not to put me forward this round. Although her oblique comments about someone else “needing” to be put forward instead of me left me suspicious. No one else in my team had been working on their business case for the last two years.


But I could get over that.


The real question is whether my boss would even still want to work with me after my reaction to her decision not to put me forward.


I walked across the foyer for my building, shoulders bowed under the weight of three bags. They kept me ready for any business scenario or wardrobe malfunction a day at work could throw at me. Except, apparently, being told I wasn't ready.


My tired, breakfast-starved, exercise-deprived brain quickly jumped to catastrophising.


If my boss didn’t like me, I’d never get promoted.


This place was pretty much up or out.


If I didn't get promoted, I couldn't stick around for long.


I’d better find a new job.


I pushed the door release and the doors took a moment to respond.


Waiting for those doors to open was the first moment of not being "on the go” my brain had had all day.


But what would I even do if I left?


What would drive me if not climbing the career ladder at my big corporate job?


If you don’t grow, you die right?


Right?



Who cares about meaningful work?


That hangry breakfast meeting was just one such moment of reflection about meaningful work that I had during the first chapter of my career.


Other moments that stand out to me include standing at church listening to stories of overseas and local missionaries and questioning whether I could really be so serious about my faith if my job involved helping rich companies stay rich.


Or another where I was sitting with an audit partner in a tiny, cramped meeting room at a client, debating the finer points of an accounting treatment disclosure in the late hours of the night. Surely there had to be more to this career than that?


During these moments of frustration or questioning my life choices, my gut instinct was to blame the way I was made. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this line of work. Maybe I was a bad person because I didn’t want to work on the frontline of human services or climate change or another high impact cause. Maybe I was just meant to be a stay-at-home mother and wife, like I’d always said I wanted to be.


Now, it is definitely possible to show up for work for the pay check and find richness in life outside of work. However, I believe there’s an importance in pursuing work that matters. That is because the pursuit of meaningful work is inevitable. We will pursue it whether we recognise that desire in ourselves or not.


And that is precisely why the career ladder is so alluring. We expect to find at the top of that ladder the meaning and validation we feel is missing from our life right now.


We believe if we pursue climbing the career ladder it will give us things like:

  • Identity

  • Meaning

  • Recognition

  • Money

  • Freedom

  • Autonomy

  • Control


It will make us feel:

  • Valued

  • Important

  • Legitimised

  • Accepted

  • Included

  • Justified

  • Respected


We don't seek these things from work because it's work, but rather because work is such a big part of our life and we can't find these things elsewhere.


So it seems our pursuit the top of the career ladder is an expression of a search for meaning. But unfortunately for many careers, it’s not a path that ends with achieving that goal.


The next promotion doesn’t leave us feeling valued and respected. A new pay bracket doesn’t give us the freedom and control we’re looking for. Leadership and influence does reshape our identity into one we desire.


To get those outcomes we’re seeking, we need to flip the script.


Instead of looking to our career path to find us meaning, we need to look to work that matters to find us our career path.


By intelligently and strategically identifying what it would mean to you—personally—to be doing work that matters, then you will build a career that you enjoy. You will feel more energised at the start of the day. You will feel more satisfied at the end of the day. Work will feel more balanced with your life. Work-life balance will no longer be a nebulous goal that’s hard to define and even harder to grasp.


What is meaningful work anyway?


I believe our most meaningful work—work that matters deeply to us personally—lies at the intersection of our purpose and our strengths.


Our purpose is a deep desire that drives our decisions and motivates us to participate more fully in some scenarios than others.


Our strengths are the combination of personality, skill, experience, capacity and capabilities that either energises us when we use them, or enables us to do something really well.


Work feels most meaningful when we can use our strengths in pursuit of our purpose.


But we don’t necessarily need both all the time to enjoy satisfaction in our work. That’s why you can feel satisfied using your skills to solve complicated problems for companies whose mission you don’t believe in. Or do menial, repetitive, boring or unpleasant tasks for a charity that you are passionate about.


You can have either a strong purpose or opportunity to use your strengths and feel somewhat satisfied. But when you get both together.


Well, that is meaningful work.


 

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