What’s The Definition Of “Meaningful Work”?

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I wonder…

Is it simply “Doing well by doing good” as many suggest? So, if I work for an organization that I believe is doing “good work” in the world and/or a cause I believe in, am I then doing meaningful work?

Maybe…  But how meaningful and to whom?

Many others, including Dan Ariely, a well respected behavioral economist, suggest in his TED Talk, What makes us feel good about our work?, that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.

That makes sense. But how much of a sense of purpose matters, or does it, and for whom?

Many people of faith believe, that as long as you are serving God, you are fulfilling your purpose. So, why do so many of faith still feel like something is missing in their lives?

These are the kinds of things I’ve wondered about for years…

Which is why I jumped into a recent online exchange about it, with Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky, who wrote the recent bestseller The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, which is all about how to find meaningful work, and Evan Walden, the President and Co-Founder of Rework, a great organization that is “determined to change the world by helping people find work that they loves.” I absolutely admire them and applaud them in their efforts, but I wanted to know how they defined meaningful work. Because I’ve found that the definition is different, depending on who you ask.

I also believe that this is one of the underlying root causes, as to why so many struggle to find it.

Admittedly, I haven’t found a common definition yet, but I did find a common thread over the years, among those that found an ever-lasting sense of meaning and purpose.

What I discovered is…

It can’t just be meaningful to those you’re working for and/or those that you’re ultimately helping; most importantly, it has to be personally and profoundly meaningful to you.

Moreover, the depth and/or degree to which it’s personally meaningful matters.

But most don’t seem to realize that; which is another reason I believe so many still struggle to find it.

So when we ask people, “What’s the definition of meaningful work?” or “What does meaningful work look like to you?” I believe we really should be asking;

What does your most meaningful work look like?

I didn’t realize this until after doing some volunteer work years ago; while I definitely “felt good about doing good”, it seemed somewhat on the surface, and the feeling never lasted very long. I didn’t feel a deeper sense of purpose, even though I knew it meant a great deal to the organizations I was helping, along with the people we served. It seemed more like their purpose and not personally mine..

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize what was missing until years later. The problem was, I didn’t have a personal connection to the work I was doing – I was simply offering to help people that I believe needed it and would appreciate it.

Again, while I certainly felt good – simply feeling good, wasn’t good enough.

I eventually realized that just “being of service”, and doing good for others, wasn’t enough for me personally, or for countless others.

I always thought they were great organizations and causes to work for, otherwise I would not have offered to help. But, I never lived on the street, so I don’t really know what it feels like to go hungry, and I never lost my home, not yet anyway, so I don’t really know what it feels like to not have one. I can imagine, but its not the same – I can’t truly feel their pain or fully appreciate what they’re going through day in and day out. But others can…

And, even though I didn’t enjoy school, I grew up in an amazing community with a great school district, so I can’t possibly know what it feels like to be a young child experiencing something completely different from my own; growing up in a struggling, overcrowded, inner-city school district, trying to learn and fit in, who’s parents don’t and/or barely speak english, and struggle to understand their homework as result, while their parents also struggle to find and keep work, along with food on the table, as many in their own town, state and adopted country, resent them for even being here, even though their parents are determined to be responsible, respectful and appreciative for their opportunity.

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I can certainly empathize with and understand their pain, but I don’t truly know it. I can’t possibly know and appreciate everything that these children and parents are experiencing and feeling along their journey, because I’ve never experienced it myself. But others can…

And although I may have had personal, meaningful connections to some of the people I’ve helped, I never felt a deeper connection to the overarching problem, even though I truly enjoyed helping them, and I knew that I was appreciated.

Something still seemed to be missing….

How many times have we all heard that?

I didn’t realize what was missing, so I kept searching for answers.

I found this exact same problem with many of the people I’ve helped over the years; while many worked with great organizations, including non-profits and/or their church, doing what is arguably meaningful work, and they very much enjoyed their work and the people they worked for, ultimately, something still seemed to be missing

Smiley Poswolsky, is a great example of that.  What he shared with me personally and in his book is, even though he knew felt like he was doing important and meaningful work for the Peace Corp, something still seemed to be missing for him. But he didn’t know why.

What’s still missing for most is, they don’t have a personal and profound connection to their work, as a result of their own life experiences. And until they find that connection, something will always be missing. At least from my experiences, research and subsequent work over the years.

Of course, many do find meaning with some of the people they personally help. However, I’ve discovered that more often than not, if they don’t have a personal and profound connection to the overarching problem, they will eventually feel like something is missing. And they eventually look for a different job/organization as a result. Still not realizing what’s missing.

On the flip side, I also discovered that the people that had the greatest, lasting sense of meaning and fulfillment, are those that overcame personal challenges and experiences in their own life, found some answers along the way, along with some wisdom, and eventually turned around to help others overcome those same/similar challenges.

They found meaning and purpose in lending a hand to help pull others out of the same hole they had to climb out of, because they knew exactly what they were going through, and they learned some great lessons along the way, that they wanted to share.

Simple examples are:

  • People that experienced poverty, but rose out of poverty and are now helping others do the same.
  • People that struggled with cancer (any other debilitating medical condition), but triumphed over it, and are now helping others do the same.
  • People that got lost in the school system, dropped out of school and struggled in life as a result, eventually overcame their challenges, got their life together, and have turned around to help others do the same.
  • People that were physically/mentally/sexually abused, worked through and eventually triumphed over their challenges, and are now helping others do the same in some way.

Of course, meaningful work does not have to come from extreme difficulty; my personal challenges paled in comparison to countless others around the world. And one of my favorite related examples comes from Chip Conley’s famous TED Talk about Measuring what makes life worthwhile.

It’s in the first few minutes of his talk, when he admits that “With the youthful idealism of a 26-year-old” he started the hotel company Joie de Vivre, and the first hotel that he bought, was a pay-by-the-hour, no-tell motel in the inner-city of San Francisco. And he wondered how one of his employees, a motel maid named Vivian, or anyone for that matter, “could actually find joy in cleaning toilets for a living?”

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However, as he spent time with Vivian, he realized that she had a very different perspective; she didn’t find joy in cleaning toilets.

“Her job, her goal and her calling was not to become the world’s greatest toilet scrubber. What counts for Vivian was the emotional connection she created with her fellow employees and our guests. And what gave her inspiration and meaning was the fact that she was taking care of people who were far away from home.”

Because Vivian grew up in Vietnam, but was now working in a no-tell motel in San Francisco, more than 7000 miles away from home, so she knew exactly what it feels like to be far away from home.

People can find their own meaning in all kinds of work, and it doesn’t have to be for a “cause” or for an organization committed to conscious capitalism.

But that’s the key; people have to find their own meaning and then find work that most aligns with that.

Moreover, regardless of whether or not our challenges seem big to others, our greatest challenges are difficult for us personally, because it’s the only real experience and reference we have, so they’re a big deal to us!

One of the greatest lessons I was surprised to learn was; there are millions of others around the world that still struggle with many of the same challenges I did.

Consequently, when I eventually overcame my own demons and challenges, I realized the profound significance of it; I realized that I had gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about the problems I faced and all of the reasons why, because I worked hard to understand the problems and figure out the solution.

In other words, I often wondered about what happened to me, and I became very consciously curious about my most profound challenges. 

As a result, I walked away with many new insights and perspectives to the problem, from many others going through and/or working on the problem, along with many of my own. I also had numerous epiphanies and new discoveries on my journey, because I kept digging for better answers.

Most notably, I also realized that I gained a little bit of wisdom, once I truly triumphed over my greatest challenges to date.

And that’s when it all hit me!

I finally realized that there couldn’t possibly be anything more rewarding and meaningful for me to do, than to help others overcome some of the same challenges that I did!

I finally realized that there couldn’t possibly be anyone, any cause or any organization, that could benefit anywhere near as much, from the knowledge, experiences, insights, perspectives and wisdom I gained from my own journey, as people that are dealing with the exact same challenges I went through!

But I can’t stop there. I can’t stop learning about the problem, because we clearly don’t have all the answers. We’ve certainly learned a great deal over the years, and we’re doing a better job finding work we love, helping others find meaning and purpose in their work.

Unfortunately though, only a small fraction of our global society, actually finds any of those things… So, I remain curious.

More specifically and importantly…

I’ve turned my most profound curiositymy desire to learn about and from my greatest personal challenge, into my most passionate curiosity, in search of more and better answers to this problem.

I want to help as many people as I can, while I’m here.

So I remain passionately curious.

And I will continue to share my discoveries with the world as I find them. Thus my post and this website.

So I ask you…

What could possibly be more meaningful, more fulfilling and more impactful, than helping others triumph over the same or similar challenges we encountered, as a result of our own journey?

What could possibly be more meaningful, fulfilling and impactful, then helping to find new discoveries and sharing them with the world – ultimately improving the human condition and our experience, while we’re here, and for future generations yet to come.

Of course, I always leave open the possibility that I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine what more we could possibly provide the world, while we’re here…

And, I’m certainly not suggesting that anything less than our most meaningful work, isn’t meaningful.

However, shouldn’t the question really be; what’s most meaningful to you personally? Or more accurately, what’s most profoundly meaningful to you?

Don’t you want to know where you can provide the greatest value while you’re here?

If not, you should never again wonder why something still seems to be missing

In the meantime, I still wonder where you’re most needed in the world, and I wish you would too!

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6 Responses

  1. Jose Antonio says:

    HI Tom,

    Happy to read you’re still curious, never lose that and your life will forever be an unfolding wonder. It’s true that not having lived the life of others will cause us to question or ask how can I help when I have no idea of what they’re going through but that doesn’t mean we can’t have compassion for them or even offer what help we can. You never know what help offered can be the cause of change in someones life. At 55 I’m still a child at heart, I’m still curious, I still question and I still smile at strangers and say hello as we cross paths. And yes, I still ask why; why, when there’s so much in the world so many still have so little? I believe many of us have lost our way, we’ve not only listen to others words but we’ve made them our own without even realizing it and now we ask why, why am I here?
    Thank you for your article, I will pass this on to my friends, family and specially to my children. There are times when listening to others words may be important and it’s with that in mind that I will share yours; who knows maybe my kids will listen.

    • Tom McDermott says:

      Happy to read you’re still curious, never lose that and your life will forever be an unfolding wonder. It’s true that not having lived the life of others will cause us to question or ask how can I help when I have no idea of what they’re going through but that doesn’t mean we can’t have compassion for them or even offer what help we can. You never know what help offered can be the cause of change in someones life. At 55 I’m still a child at heart, I’m still curious, I still question and I still smile at strangers and say hello as we cross paths. And yes, I still ask why; why, when there’s so much in the world so many still have so little? I believe many of us have lost our way, we’ve not only listen to others words but we’ve made them our own without even realizing it and now we ask why, why am I here?
      Thank you for your article, I will pass this on to my friends, family and specially to my children. There are times when listening to others words may be important and it’s with that in mind that I will share yours; who knows maybe my kids will listen.

      Thanks for reading the article, along with your feedback and your wisdom Jose! You’re absolutely right; “You never know what help offered can be the cause of change in someones life.”

      When I talk about impacting the world, that’s exactly what I mean. And that we only need to worry about impacting the world around us – those we come into contact with throughout our lives. And, we can make an enormous difference in the world, simply by impacting one person. That’s all it takes.

      Thanks for sharing the article too Jose! You might also recommend that the kids look at the “Students” page on the site under “Who I help?” if they’re still trying to figure out what they should study for school and their life’s work.

      And happy to hear that you still have your curiosity and childlike sense of wonder! It’s one of the greatest abilities and assets we have as human beings.

      Thanks again Jose!

  2. I was very pleased to find this web site. I want to to thank you for ones time just for this fantastic read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it and I have you book-marked to check out new information in your site.

  3. Tom McDermott says:

    Thanks Gregory!

  1. October 28, 2014

    I love your blog

    I have read this article and enjoyed it

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