Why does meaning matter at work?

There are plenty of opinions out there about why we work. About how our society has now shifted from work as a means to an end, to trying to get everything we could possibly want from our work. This article in The Atlantic had a field day talking about how we put too much pressure on our work to be the end-all, be-all – the new religion.

While there may be some truth in how far that train has traveled, how much we may have come to worship work, there is still truth in the midst of our desire to feel like we’re having some impact, making some difference at the end of the day.

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Some yearning that our commutes, our full inboxes, our days of meetings aren’t completely pointless.

As a Gen-Xer, I’ve found we have a unique window into the world of work. We’ve seen our parents give their entire careers to one institution – mostly getting rewarded for that with moves up the corporate ladder, fully-funded pension plans, and deep relationships and impact at one place. (Sure, there were also zeitgeist-setting examples of mid-life crises, toxic leadership that never got questioned, and so on.)

As our generation has reached that mid-career point, our experience has been quite different. We aren’t willing to put up with poor leadership, or the same old status quo. We don’t necessarily want to repeat the “having it all” desire that our mothers may have fought hard for. We question whether it’s really worth it to put in all these hours, knowing the sacrifice to our families or community or things we love doing.

We are fueled, in part, by wanting some meaning, some substance behind what we do to earn money. We are perhaps more practical, too – already committed to mortgages and college savings and retirement plans and school districts – and less able to just quit and join the Peace Corps. 

So, it’s important – especially in this mid-career period – to know that we don’t just have to grind away for the next several decades. To feel confident that the hours we spend working give us a sense of satisfaction, purpose, joy, or impact.

And sometimes, it’s important to know that there really are other options out there.

There are different ways of seeking out that meaning, too. I often work with my coaching clients to tap into their curiosity to uncover what that looks like for them. A few questions we explore are:

  • What challenges do you enjoy taking on (at work, or elsewhere)? How could you find or create more of those opportunities?
  • How do you spend your free time? What would you spend more time doing, thinking about, learning, playing with, if you could?
  • What lights you up? How can you create more time for those things in your day or week? How can you build some routines or habits that incorporate joy?
  • What’s taking up your time that isn’t truly essential – either to your work, or your life? What can you say no to, or delegate, or outsource, so you can do more of what you love?
  • What do you get fired up about? What problems in the world make you mad? How could you get involved, explore new career paths, or other opportunities?

We all know that work is essential in providing for our needs. So, why not figure out how to make time for meaning, whether directly through your work, or in creating a different kind of “work” outside the office?

What do you think?

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