Passion and Purpose: Defining Meaning in Your Career

Rewarding work isn’t always easy to find. Quite often, we face challenging decisions:

Should I leave the comfort of my high-salaried job to pursue work for social good?

I am passionate about so many things, how do I figure out which field to pursue?

I have many skills to offer, what job is best suited for me?

These are all good questions.

So, how do you define meaning in your career?

Meaningful work can mean different things to different people. In “The Meaning of Intelligence,” an On Being interview with Mike Rose, professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, the meaning of vocation is discussed in terms of how we measure intelligence to the meanings we assign to work.

What struck me most about this interview is the suggestion that talk about meaningful work can inadvertently have an elitist tinge to it. The interviewer, Krista Tippet says, “I worry when we romanticize certain kinds of work as meaningful because they are more overtly meaningful.”

She uses herself as an example, saying that people often think she has the greatest job in the world. She responds by saying, “It’s still just a job.”

Asking the right questions about meaningful work

In order to understand what meaningful work looks like for you, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions:

What if meaningful work is found not in a job title or in the tactical day-to-day operations of your job?

Maybe your job title isn’t Executive Director for The Greatest Mission in the World, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t meaningful.

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What if working to put food on the table for your family may, in fact, make work meaningful?

You can find meaning in the results you produce, the co-workers you interact with, the mission you support, or the sheer fact that the money you make allows you to take care of your loved ones and yourself. Even the ability to pay off a large debt can give a job more meaning.

What if meaningful work is only an abstract concept that may elicit any combination of feelings such as satisfaction, comfort, gratitude, or stability at any given time?

Maybe your job isn’t helping save the rainforests or feed the homeless. But maybe it’s helping you feel more secure? In your security, you might find that you’re happier, kinder, and more thoughtful to your loved ones, which gives your life more meaning.

Is meaningful work found in the opportunity to use your best strengths and talents?

Donald O. Clifton, founder of StrengthsFinder, argued that when you do work that allows you to use your strengths, you’re happier, more productive, and feel more satisfaction at the end of the day.

Sometimes you have to live the questions to find the answers you seek, and the longing for meaningful work is indeed a personal quest, unique to you and your own set of circumstances.

Tools to help define meaning in your career

As you live these important questions, use these tools to help you hone your understanding of what meaningful work looks like in your life.

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Visual mapping for your career

One exercise that I’ve found incredibly useful in my own career is visual mapping. To do this, get yourself an oversized drawing pad (like the kind you drew on as a kid) and different colored sharpies. Let your inner child loose by jotting down all your great ideas without any judgment or questions.

Draw bubbles and lines and make connections to ideas. Feel free to let words flow without any guidelines or parameters. The idea is to get all those big ideas on paper!

When you’re done, look back at what you’ve created and where you see connections. In the end, you might have only a few actionable outcomes, but this can be a great way to spark your creativity.

Boost your creativity with bouts of downtime

And why is creativity so important here, you may ask? In order to identify paths towards creating meaning in your work — the goals and strategies that can get you there — it’s important to allow the mind to meander around possibilities, ideas, dreams, and creative solutions.

Dr. Rex Jung, assistant research professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, argues that you can induce creativity by allowing for gaps to occur between the doing so that your mind can meander and make creative connections.

For example, my great ideas don’t normally come when I’m actively thinking through a problem. Instead, I’ll have my “aha moment” several hours later when I’m not actively engaged in creating solutions.

Let your concept of meaningful work become adaptable

When we face challenging questions, our hearts tug us in one direction and our mind takes us in another. Like a pendulum, we swing back and forth between opposing ideas, paralyzed by uncertainty and frozen by the fear of making a mistake.

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To this, I say, live the questions and let the pendulum swing. Rest your attention on the present moment and the information you are receiving from your body and the world around you. Stay steady and aware of what you are drawn to. Take note of what you learn.

Listen to your heart, but heed the thoughts of your rational mind. Let the opposites ebb and flow without attachment to either side.

Find a mentor… or a mentee!

One of the best ways to inject your day-to-day work life with more meaningful interactions is to engage with a mentor or mentee. If you are in the early stages of your career, find a mentor you can ask the big questions. Learn from their hard-earned insights about what makes work meaningful for them, and what they wish they’d known sooner.

If you are struggling to define meaningful work and you’re more developed in your career, taking on a mentee will allow you to share your perspectives — and in doing so, you’ll get a clearer picture of what’s most important to you at the end of the day.