How to Find Meaningful Work

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The definition of meaningful work differs from person to person. While the what may vary, the how you obtain it and the why it matters are essentially the same. Typically, meaningful work feeds your interests, has an impact on various stakeholders, and sparks continuous learning that causes the cycle to repeat. 

Meaningful work is not some elusive ideal that requires a grand quest. Chances are you do it already, just in the wrong location. The trick is to build elements of your passion projects into your current position to get paid and promoted for what you’d do for free. If you want to get more of what you love in your day job consider these tricks of the trade:

  • Take Stock of Your Interests: Knowing what you enjoy is a crucial first step but one that people often overlook. Before approaching your manager about a new or expanded role or chucking it all for a fleeting interest, consider what you are genuinely passionate about. Ask yourself: What would you do for free? (Click here for a detailed career assessment.)
  • Look Beyond the Job Description: Understand how your role impacts the department and the company’s mission. Sure, an accountant may not invent new medicines, but their work does enable the health of the healthcare company. Once you know your core values, you can look for ways to apply ancillary skills to your work to have an even greater impact.
  • Build Bridges: While no one officially wants to work sans compensation, most do so at least part of the time. Consider your hobbies and the skills you employ to take them on. In most cases, there’s a link between what you love to do in your free time and your current profession. There are endless examples and opportunities:
    • Spend the weekend teaching kids? Start mentoring new employees and develop a reputation as a rock star manager. 
    • Follow sports with the specificity of a statistician? Offer to take on that analytics project or leverage the relevant soft skills by organizing company events. 
    • Do you find meaning in the longer-term impact of work? Before you begin a project, help your manager design business cases that demonstrate ROI. 

Of course there are times in every career when you come to a crossroads. Facing the Durante dilemma of should I stay or should I go is a tough one, and in the end, there are only two choices:

  1. Rekindle the Passion: Every relationship goes through changes. The newness of a young romance fades with time, but that doesn’t mean the profession you fell for isn’t the career of your dreams. Often experts lose interest in an endeavor when they feel there is nothing left to learn. But that’s rarely the case. Take time to become a student of your chosen field. Simply seeing your role with a fresh perspective can stir up those old passions allowing you to succeed in new ways.
  2. End it Amicably: If you’ve truly fallen out of love then it’s wise to date new careers before jumping headfirst into a long-term commitment. Changing professions can be a lot like marrying for a second time. Resist the temptation to rush into the next “sure thing.” Chances are you’re a different person than you were the first time around. Take your time. Play the field. Then select a career that satisfies both the head and the heart. 

Of course, if you do decide to move on, do so with style. While the technologies surrounding job hunting may have shifted over the past few years, integrity and old-school decorum never go out of style. Approach all relationships, be they online or in the real world, with class, and you’ll stand out. Case in point: cover letters and thank you notes get noticed simply because the average candidate couldn’t be bothered sending them. Don’t be average. 

Seeking Balance 

Regardless of your passion and where you pursue it, try to balance work and play. If you work to live, try to expand elements of your job that you enjoy so you can build more of that into your career. If you live to work, have the courage to downshift now and then so you can take advantage of the creativity and productivity enhancements that come from giving yourself a little white space. It’s as easy as putting down the phone and going for a walk.

Ultimately, the forces of work/life balance come down to personal preference, but one thing is clear: If you don’t have both elements in your life–something to do and someone(s) to do it for—you’re out of alignment, and there’s no passion for that. 

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