Articles > The Tyranny of Meaningful Work

The Tyranny of Meaningful Work
Globe & Mail, May 23, 2008

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

There is a new career obsession: Call it the quest for meaning in work.

Over the past decade, the pursuit of meaningfulness - and its cousin, passion - has grown steadily. Now it is one of today's hottest commodities - the career equivalent of getting the latest "it" bag.

The yearning for meaningful work isn't new. But only recently has it become such a widespread preoccupation.

In part, it's a reflection of relentless work demands, and the feeling of never really accomplishing anything. It makes sense to ask what end is served if the means is abandoned loved ones or compromised health.

In part, it's because some people are motivated to do values-driven work that serves a purpose beyond generating profit or paying the bills, such as improving the planet or helping others.

And, in part, it's because many people simply don't know what to make of it, or even how to define it.

But the concept has come to carry such emotional freight that some people feel inadequate if they are not doing what they consider meaningful work - or guilty if they don't care whether their work is meaningful at all.

Another problem: What's really behind this quest? For every person who honestly yearns for meaningful work, there is another flirting with a fashionable buzz phrase.

At a recent workshop I held, for example, a young accountant asked: "I am not contributing to the betterment of people or the planet, so what's the point? I want to find meaningful work, something I can be passionate about."

But he described this desire with all the verve of someone reading a grocery list.

I couldn't help wonder if this was simply middle-class self-indulgence. Was this person just trying to keep up with a friend who had jumped on the meaningful bandwagon after a session with a career coach? Or had his employer adopted meaning as the new flavour of the month?

Do people such as the accountant really want meaningful work, or are they merely looking for that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from expressing noble aspirations - and the articulated desire then becomes a substitute for actually doing something?

When I dissect data from thousands of people who have completed motivation exercises in my online career-planning assessment tool, I discover that only a small percentage are actually looking for work that serves a higher purpose. Values such as community, making a difference and spirituality take a back seat to others, such as learning, family and personal happiness.

Then again, what constitutes meaningful work these days? It's a question that comes up in nearly every workshop and speech I deliver. It always leads to spirited debate.

One person will insist that meaningfulness involves helping others or contributing to society. But, another will counter that what he or she sees as contributing to society, such as boosting a company's profit, another person might consider meaningless. Someone will say that meaningfulness is in the eye of the beholder; yet another will insist that work doesn't have to be meaningful, it just has to pay the bills.

Who's right? In a sense, they all are. Meaningfulness is subjective. We all construct our own meaning from our own values and desires, and what is satisfying to one person may be a source of distress to another.

Yet, people persist in searching for some greater meaning outside themselves, as if it were a commodity that could be objectively quantified. And when they don't think they've found it, they become distressed.

Yet, when I ask those who complain that their work isn't meaningful whether they enjoy it, they will respond positively, although with the caveat, again, that it isn't meaningful. This is the tyranny of meaningful work - that simply enjoying your work is not enough.

So what should people aspire to? Is it enough for people to simply enjoy their work without finding it meaningful or being passionate about it?
I think it is.

In fact, I would prefer to completely rid the concept of meaningful work as the gold standard, and replace it with a new one: doing satisfying work that meets one's needs.

And these needs are constantly changing. At one point, work may be the centrepiece of identity; at another, it may take a back seat to personal interests and responsibilities.

The relative importance of work in our lives, and whether it needs to be meaningful, is often related to what is going on outside of work.

Take, for example, the many ambitious people who scale down their career in favour of family responsibilities. On the flip side are those not in a personal relationship who look to their work as a major source of life satisfaction.

I've also heard mid-lifers talk about the diminution of work's importance in their lives. Take this 52-year-old male journalist's comment: "I'm from a working-class family and I feel like recently I've become like my dad. I used to really care about what I was doing. But for me now, what's important is that it pays the bills. I'm not looking for anything else out of my work."

People such as this journalist don't care if their work is meaningful or even interesting. It's simply a means to an end. As long as it's not horrible, they're okay. Their real life is what occurs outside of the office, whether as a parent, caregiver or in another role they deem important.

Sometimes, you just need to put in your time and tolerate unsuitable work for financial or résumé-building reasons. Or work is a means to subsidize a passion or a vocation. Many artists and writers fall into this category.

Did T.S. Eliot love working on foreign accounts at Lloyds Bank in London, or did Kurt Vonnegut love being a flack for General Electric? I doubt it.

But even if your work doesn't need to be meaningful or deeply satisfying, the corollary is not that it's okay to have a job you hate. As anyone who has ever had a bad career experience will attest, there is nothing quite as soul-destroying as bad work. It undermines our effectiveness in all of life's domains and affects how we feel about ourselves at the most profound level.

At our core, we all want our lives to have counted for something. For some, this may constitute doing work that serves a higher purpose. For others, it may mean doing work that stretches them, or allows them the opportunity to express creativity. Others derive meaning from other life arenas, such as family or community.

So what do you want and need in your work? You decide. And be content with your choice.

A MEANINGFUL ACTION PLAN

Are you bemoaning the lack of meaning in your job? Consider ways to rethink it:

Figure out what's missing

Do you feel badly that you aren't taking a direct role in helping, say, to end world hunger? Or do you feel your work doesn't get the attention from your boss that it deserves? Take specific action: If it's the former, for instance, find an employer whose mission is compatible with your desires. If it's the latter, start lobbying louder, or find an employer who cares about the work that you produce.

Isolate your goals

Do you want to save victims of sexual abuse? Be there for your kids? Make managers better leaders? Focus your activities and attention accordingly.

Look at your core values

Consider what gives texture to your life. Friends and/or family? Being part of a work team? Making a difference? Being able to express your creativity? Typically, when people say they want meaningful work, they really mean work in tune with their values.

Find meaning elsewhere

If work isn't fulfilling your need for meaning, look outside for sources of fulfilment, such as from family or the community.

Work as a stepping stone

Realize that, sometimes, you have to tolerate a meaningless job to get to one where you will find more meaning.

Put meaning in its place

Does your work hold your attention? Do you enjoy it? If so, take comfort from that.

Put up or shut up

Simply talking about wanting to do something with a higher purpose doesn't make you a better person. If you are really unhappy, do something about it. Otherwise, stop complaining.

Volunteer sabbatical

It's a way to recharge and reappraise. Two places to start: volunteers.ca and charityguide.org.

Stop obsessing

You don't have to love your job or derive deep meaning from it if this isn't what is important to you at this life stage. Consider what needs your job is fulfilling, whether those are working with interesting people, being able to stretch yourself, gaining résumé enhancing experiences, or simply being able to leave your work at the office. Focus on them.

Think life chapters

You can have it all, but not all at once. If you are someone who needs to be enthralled by work but have competing external priorities, accept that you may need to temporarily downsize your ambitions. The important word here is temporarily. Instead of thinking about what you are giving up, think about what you are getting.

Hire a helping hand

Get guidance from a career counsellor, life coach, or if you grappling with bigger existential issues, a therapist. But don't expect them to figure it out for you. You will have to do the work if you want your financial or time investment to pay dividends.

Ignore what others think

Meaningfulness lies in the eyes of the beholder. Divorce yourself from others' views. There is no objective description of meaningfulness.