What we’ve lived through – together and apart – since March, 2020 has given most of us reason and opportunity to pause and reflect. And while some things are feeling a bit more normal, for many this personal reflection continues.
The early stages of “re-opening” or attempting to recover some sense of normalcy have been a relief for some people. For others, it’s a stressful time in new ways (social anxiety, fear of infection, belts and “hard clothes“…). And for yet others, there’s a new sense of pressure to make everything “count,” to ensure that we aren’t “wasting our time” doing work that doesn’t gratify us or deliver against some higher calling. But how much pressure should we be putting on how we earn our living? And is it fair or even possible for the majority of us to find that elusive “thing” we feel fulfills our destiny?
Early on in my career I was a junior level marketing person at a large food manufacturing company. Idealistic, inexperienced and zealously determined to change the world for the better, I was feeling disengaged. I was feeling that my work – promotional campaigns for and package redesigns on products that weren’t critical to human thriving – lacked meaning. I felt I wasn’t making a difference, that my work lacked social value. The CEO offered me a different perspective. He pointed out that our factories kept employment high in towns that might otherwise be struggling. He reminded me that our products were considered fun and reminiscent of good times with families. In other words, he reframed my perspective on what we were doing. He found meaning where I had not.
“Meaning” is different than “purpose.” “Purpose” as we’ve come to understand it (most often in North American privileged circles) is a luxury not everyone can afford to pursue. It’s been marketed as the ideal, the pinnacle of the human experience, something we should all aspire (and pay good money) to find. It’s been described in lofty terms, as if all of our days will be filled with rainbows and sunshine if we are “aligned with our purpose.” And of course the implication is that we should not settle for less, that any work we might consider doing that doesn’t qualify is somewhat lesser and can’t help but be unsatisfactory.
Make no mistake, if you’re one of the few who’ve found true purpose in your work, that’s wonderful. I’m just saying that it’s the exception rather than the rule, and finding purpose isn’t a necessary condition for job and career satisfaction. Meaning, on the other hand, is.
The good news? “Meaning” can be found in lots of places, and is much more accessible – and reasonable – than “purpose.” In fact, you can ascribe any meaning you like to anything and everything. We actually do it all the time. So why not make choices about what means what that increases your chances of being happy?
You can choose to find meaning in doing anything well. You can find it in putting a smile on one person’s face. In picking up some trash from the sidewalk. In opening a door for someone. In finishing a project, sending a difficult email, smoothing a difference with a colleague. Meaning doesn’t have to be lofty, and ideally you are able to connect with it in big and small ways all the time.
Be on the lookout for meaning and you’ll find it. And don’t put so much pressure on your work to make you happy. If you’re happy, there’s a better chance you’ll enjoy your work.
If you’d like to have more clarity about what kind of work is most likely to fulfill you (because doing work that aligns with your natural interests, tendencies and abilities WILL help), check out the new version of the Sparketype assessment. It describes the “essential DNA” of your best work – and also identifies work that is almost assuredly NOT going to make you happy. While you’re there, if you pre-order copies of “Sparked,” Jonathan Fields’ upcoming book about the Sparketype you can get lots of free goodies.