Three ways to find purpose and meaning at work

Written by
Aoife Keane

12 Jan 2016

12 Jan 2016 • by Aoife Keane

Firstly, a meaningful job taps into the deepest, most sincere and talented parts of us. So different people will necessarily find different sorts of work meaningful, according to what is inside their deepest self. Secondly, a meaningful job is one which to some extent helps others: which fixes a problem that humans have: a job which in ways large and small, serves humanity. Meaningful work provides a service to others. And thirdly, a job feels meaningful when the person doing it can viscerally sense, day to day, the impact of their work upon an audience. In other words, not only is the job theoretically meaningful, it actually feels meaningful as one does it in the course of an average day.

Why should it be so hard to find meaningful work?

Why are we in such danger of doing work that brings in money but doesn’t fulfill the meaning side of us? Three big reasons stand out: Firstly, because it's perilously hard for us to locate our true interests in the time we have before simply paying the bills becomes an imperative. Our interests don’t manifest themselves spontaneously, they require us to patiently analyse ourselves and try out a range of options, to see what feels as if it might have the best ‘fit’ for us. But unfortunately, schools and universities, as well as society at large, doesn’t place much emphasis on this stage of education; on helping people to understand their authentic working identities.

There’s far more emphasis on simply getting ready for any job, than a job that would be particularly well suited to us. Which is a pity not just for individuals, but for organisations and the economy as a whole; because people always work better, harder and more fruitfully when their deep selves are engaged.

Secondly, many jobs are relatively meaningless because it’s very possible, in the current economy, to generate profits from selling people things that aren’t really helping them in any way, but more hoodwink them or prey on their lack of self-command. Most of us have a dangerously loose hold on what really brings us satisfaction long-term: which gives room for entrepreneurs to build huge and profitable businesses selling stuff which no one is particular proud of at the end of an average day. Those who work in these businesses know in their hearts that they haven’t really helped anyone have a better life. The job pays, that’s why they keep doing it, but there’s sadly very little meaning.

Thirdly, a job may have real meaning, may genuinely be helping others, but it may not feel like this day to day because many organisations are so large, so slow moving, so split up over so many continents that the purpose of everyone’s work day to day gets lost amidst endless meetings, memos, conference calls and administration. If you are one of 10,000 people on 4 continents working towards a product that will help humans in 2022, you may well lose the thread of what the real purpose of it all is. No wonder people who work in large organisations often fantasise about throwing it all in - and working in a job with a more tangible sense of the end result, for example, running small B&B or a landscape gardening firm. The very scale of modern enterprise has sapped a lot of work of a sense of meaning.

This diagnosis helps to point the way to what we might begin to do to make work more meaningful for people: Firstly, pay a lot more attention to helping people find their vocation, their real working authentic self; through moves like career psychotherapy, extended work placements and changes to school and university curricula so as to allow students to start to analyse their identities and aptitudes from a much younger age. Secondly, the more we, as customers, can support businesses engaged in meaningful work, the more meaningful jobs there will be. Consumers have an enormous power over what kind of lives we can have as producers. By raising the quality of our demand, we raise the number of jobs there are which can answer to mankind’s deeper needs. Thirdly, in businesses which do do meaningful work, but on too large a scale over too long a period for it to feel meaningful day to day, we need to get better at telling stories of what the business is up to. We need to give work some of the intimacy of a small B+B, even if it’s a giant multinational; we need to give those who work there a more tangible sense of their contribution to the whole.

Ensuring that work is vital for all of us is no luxury: it determines the greatest issue of all in modern economics and politics: how hard and well people will work and therefore how successful and wealthy our societies can be.