The Problem With Meaningful Work
I write this as I fly to Las Vegas to be part of Catalyst Week curated by my friends atRework. The the theme for the week is "Finding Meaning And Purpose In Our Careers," so I figured why not dive head first into that topic in this post and stir up some feathers?
Everyone wants to be involved in some kind of “meaningful” work. But the big question is: Meaningful to whom? You or the end user?
Obviously, the easy answer is “both,” but there is always an internal preference that we end up leaning towards.
When The Driver Is Your Needs...
It’s about what you’re going to get out of it, emotionally
It’s about the company name you get to tell everyone you work for
It’s more about the perception of the work you’re a part of, than the work you’re actually doing.
When you're looking for meaningful work for your own sake, it’s almost as if you’re asking a company to do you a favor. You want a make a difference, you like the idea of their cause, therefore they should hire you. Yay! Look at all the puppies and rainbows everyone!
But just because you want to work for a global NGO, doesn’t mean you’re qualified to fill an open position there.
If the well I was digging in rural Africa had an immediate soil integrity problem, you could be bursting at the seems to help but what I really need is a civil engineer. You might only be qualified to stuff envelopes for the company in the Charlotte, NC office. Is that “meaning” enough for you or would you have to be on the ground interacting with the projects and communities for it to be meaningful in your eyes? Is it about you or the end user?
Because when the “meaning” being sucked out of the moment is solely hoarded by you, that can do more harm than good to the cause. Pippa Biddle’s article about her experiences volunteering overseas highlights this exact point, and was such a joy to come across as I was writing this post.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to work for an NGO or a social good company, and there’s nothing wrong with taking your talents to do just that, but you also don’t have to work for that kind of company to engage in meaningful work.
Because When The Driver Is The End User...
It’s about using your skills and talents
It's about the quality of your work
It's about being an asset to a project/cause
Meaningful work is first about a mindset and how you approach your day and your surroundings. It’s about taking pride in your work. It’s about being respected and being useful to the people around you (your co-workers and end user).
You can create a big impact for others by changing something small in your life (your approach, donating your skills in your free time, moving forward on a side project) instead of being a full-time envelope stuffer at a major NGO.
I never “liked” construction when I got into it six years ago, but I found a ton of meaning over five years working for two companies that continue to build part of modern civilization in NYC. And my job role helped the companies be more efficient.
Is building a hotel in NYC less “meaningful” than building an adobe hut in Bostwana? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how you look at it, I guess.
Finding meaningful work is about feeling a difference. Doing meaningful work is about making a difference.
The first part is about our emotions, the second part is about our skills. We need to balance both of these in our work and the role we play in the world.
I'm curious...how do you define "meaningful" in your work? Chime in below.