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Find meaning at work and find more career success

16 August 2016

Career has been defined is a continual integration of life and work in ways that are meaningful for you.  For some people identifying the meaning in their career is fairly straightforward.  Providers of front line services can often see a direct link between what they do (e.g. protect people from fires, heal sick people, teach children, rescue animals) and something they find meaningful.  For other people the link is not so clear. 

Here is a story of the process one woman undertook to find more meaning in her role:

As a records officer for a large department Tonia had a very busy role.  And although she worked hard, put in lots of effort and continually looked for ways she could get better at what she did, she still felt something was missing.  She felt her role was a million miles away from doing anything that was significant and she felt she was simply a cog in the system.  The one bit of hope she had held had recently been snuffed out when a workplace reshuffle put her aspirations to move into a supervisor role on hold, possibly for years.  She felt stuck and motivation was low. 

Exploring the importance of having a sense of meaning at work, Tonia decided to see if rustling up more meaning could impact how she felt on a day by day basis.  She didn’t find it easy.  She tried thinking about the impact she had on people, after all she made it easier for them to find the information they needed to achieve their roles.  But no, that didn’t do it. She spoke with people about the work they did and tried to get a sense of the greater good trickling down from what they did.  But no, that didn’t cut it either.  For her, the things that the people were doing in her department just didn’t seem meaningful. 

Let me pause here in Tonia’s story to clarify the difference between meaning and purpose.  Sometimes people get these two things mixed up and a need to find purpose can overshadow the benefits of connecting with meaning.  Purpose is about the direction in which you point your life, meaning is about the things along that direction that add value for you and/or for others.  Think about the distinction like this: purpose is like creating a grand plan for a beautiful garden (because the world needs more beautiful gardens) and setting out to create it; where as meaning is appreciating the sunshine on your back as you plant some plants in that garden, the pride you have as a plant grows and wondering at the beauty of nature as a new bud appears. 

My experience has been that a greater number of people feel a need for more Meaning than feel a need for greater Purpose, but we are all different.  Tonia didn’t feel a call for a higher purpose, she liked her work and the shape of her life – it just felt ‘ho hum’ at the moment, and didn’t herself believe it was meaningful.  And the important thing in meaning is that you feel that it is meaningful – the meaning that others take is not always meaning for you.  Here is an empirically based questionnaire developed Michael Steger, a key researcher in the area of work and meaning that can give you a peek into the level of meaning you take from your work.

So Tonia started to think about the sorts of things that she found meaningful.  She did a couple of things to do this.  The first was to identify her values, which reminded her of the things that are really important to her and give her self worth.  Then she kept a nightly journal in which she wrote about the things that might have been meaningful that day, and bit by bit it dawned on her that one of the things that was really meaningful for her was good relationships.  This was one of the reasons she was keen to become a supervisor. 

As soon as she identified the meaning she got from good relationships Tonia became excited because she knew she could do things that would bring more meaning into her work.  She decided to focus on purposely building great relationships with all her work colleagues and her clients, even the prickly ones.  She challenged herself to make the day of each person that she came in contact with just a little better.  She even set herself a little goal of being able to rate the relationships she had with each person at work at a minimum of 8 out of 10. 

The impact this had was surprising to Tonia and everyone around her.  She was keen to come to work, she felt a greater sense of meaning and, what was particularly surprising, she was having fun again.  Even the things she had been finding boring didn’t seem quite so pointless anymore.

Tonia found meaning through relationships, but that may not be meaningful for you – innovation might be, or discovery, or fun, or personal growth and development, or a cause, or community, or excellence, or being surrounded by beauty, or a myriad of other things and combination of things as it is rarely just one.  The thing about meaning is that it is individual.  The more you know yourself, including your values, strengths, dreams, goals, attributes, personality and beliefs the easier it will be to discover meaning – even in role that currently feels mundane.  

As ever wishing you a Flourishing Career



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