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Why finding “meaningful work” is overrated

You shouldn’t feel pressured to follow your passion or find purpose in your job.

Why finding “meaningful work” is overrated
[Photos: Andy Holmes/Unsplash; Christina Morillo/Pexels]

For decades, the American Dream has been defined informally as holding down a stable job, owning a home, and raising a family. But somewhere along the way, we decided that work couldn’t just pay the bills—it also needed to mean something. “Coupled with social pressures and the amount of time we spend in classrooms, prioritizing work and talking about the future, people just somehow decided, ‘I guess work is the main thing I’m going to focus on and hang my hat on in life,'” says Jane Scudder. “‘And if I’m spending all my time here, I better find meaning.'”

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But perhaps we’ve set the bar too high in our pursuit of passion and purpose. Can a job be so many things at once? A Gallup poll last year found that no more than 13% of adults with full-time jobs found their work meaningful. As a career and leadership coach, Jane Scudder says she sees people constantly seeking a meaningful job that meets all their criteria, from a six-figure salary to flexible hours to the perfect manager. “That doesn’t exist,” she says.

If you feel pressured to derive purpose and meaning from your job, here’s why you should reconsider your approach.

Meaningful work can’t always be your top priority

Your priorities change over time, and as that happens, it’s unrealistic to expect your job to tick all the boxes and then some. If you have young children and need a job that offers more flexible hours, it may be harder to find meaning and purpose in it, too. Imposing those expectations on your job can be “narrow and one dimensional,” Scudder says. “If we subscribe to the idea that this is the context through which we make all of our professional choices, that’s really limiting.”

Sometimes, compensation or job function may be more important to you than meaning, while at other times location and flexibility may take precedence. Scudder urges people to think about all the things that matter to them in life and at work—something she believes we aren’t always encouraged to do. “People can get into the one track mind of ‘Work is supposed to be everything,’ rather than stepping back and asking, ‘What’s the kind of life I want to live? How do I want to spend my time? Am I someone who wants to spend 60 hours a week at work?'”

Scudder points out that women and people of color, in particular, are fed many different messages about what they’re supposed to seek out at work. “We tell people, work is about meaning and passion,” she says. “But at the same time, women and people of color are told, ‘You better be getting paid the same amount!’ Those are not conflicting things, but those are two different values and priorities, and it can be confusing and overwhelming for people to reconcile those things.”

Pursuing your passion requires privilege

Something that can get lost in the conversation around meaningful work is that even pursuing it takes privilege. “If someone’s job is earning minimum wage, then they are very likely not currently on a career path that many people would call meaningful work,” she says. “If you tell somebody who is making minimum wage at McDonald’s right now ‘Hey, you should go pursue your passion,’ that’s a wildly insensitive comment. That’s reeking with privilege.”

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The same may be true of people who have, say, large amounts of student loan debt or medical bills. “When we’re talking about meaningful work, it’s often targeted at this single, young professional who is unburdened with other realities of the world,” Scudder says. “When Steve Jobs famously gave his speech about pursuing his passion, he wasn’t talking to everybody.”

Your job isn’t the only way to find meaning in your life

Some of the people Scudder coaches are uncomfortable even divulging that their top priority isn’t the meaning behind their job. “People can feel like they’re doing something wrong when they say, ‘My salary is the most important thing to me,'” she says. “But the reality is for a lot of people, a job is a job. And even for people who do meaningful work, their job is still providing an income.”

Making an impact can also mean very different things to different people. If you feel fulfilled by your family or social life, for example, being connected to your work may not—and need not—be of utmost importance. You might find more meaning in volunteer work or believe you can make more of an impact by practicing effective altruism and putting the money you earn towards charitable causes. “If you’re a copywriter, it might be a better use of your time to do some writing for a campaign a couple of hours a week,” she says, “rather than donating money or framing your entire professional existence within a nonprofit.”

If some people want their jobs to have meaning, it’s in part because work has bloated beyond the traditional nine-to-five. But Scudder says that’s all the more reason to create boundaries for yourself and shore up value in your life beyond the office. “Your job and career exists within the context of your life,” she says. “I really encourage people to consider what their purpose is for their life. And you can then figure out, ‘Does my career add up to that purpose? Or does my career fill a different need that I have as a person?'”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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