Why Does Meaning Matter at Work?
There are plenty of opinions out there about why we work and how our society has shifted from work as a means to an end to work as a means to personal fulfillment. Recently, an 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, our new religion.
While there may be some truth in how far that train has traveled and how much we may have come to worship work, on a basic level, I think we just want to know our commutes, our full inboxes, our days of meetings aren't completely pointless. We want to feel like we're making a positive difference at the end of the day.
As a Gen Xer, I've found my peers and I have a unique outlook on 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, leadership that never got questioned, and so on.)
As our generation reaches that "mid-career" point, we recognize that 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" that our mothers may have fought hard for. We question whether it's worth putting in all these hours, knowing we're sacrificing precious time spent with our families or community or things we love doing.
We are fueled, in part, by having some meaning behind what we do to earn money. At the same time, we are perhaps more practical—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 at this mid-career period, to know that we don't just have to grind away for the next several decades—that the hours we spend working can give us a sense of satisfaction, purpose, joy, or impact.
There are different ways of seeking out that meaning. I often work with my coaching clients to tap into their curiosity and explore questions like...
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 in 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, so why not figure out how to make time for meaning, whether directly through your work or creating space outside of the office?