All this talk about work-life balance has many of us seeking meaningful work. We want to do work that’s valuable, significant, and gives us a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. It’s not something you can take, and it doesn’t exist somewhere for you to pluck.
This is both fortunate and unfortunate.
You see, it’s up to you to create meaningful work. Yes, some systems and organizations make it easier for you to do this. They hire great leaders, build an inclusive culture, and foster a supportive work environment. But ultimately, if you want meaning in your work, it’s on you to create it. Here are some ways for you to do this.
1. Change your perspective
You need to understand that meaningful work is relative and personal. It’s not about status, nor is it what your peers are doing. If all your friends are going into office jobs, but you love to work with your hands, enter the skilled trades (which are in high demand right now). If everyone you know seems to be going into business, but you are motivated by nurturing people, join a helping profession. You also need to accept that as you move through life stages, your priorities and desires may change. What you loved a few years ago may shift, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do the same.
2. Explore your passion (but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to find it)
“Finding your passion” can feel like a lot of pressure, but it doesn’t have to. All it involves is identifying the things you like to do and are good at and that others value enough so you can cover rent and groceries. If you can’t find it by way of a full-time job, there are always ways to explore it outside the realms of your job, whether that’s by way of a side hustle or a hobby. There may be things that you feel an overwhelming intensity to pursue. If that’s the case, great. If not, find the next right thing, and follow that path.
3. Focus on making connections
A big part of meaningful work is our connection with others. Go toward opportunities where there are communities of people you enjoy and from whom you can learn. It’s difficult to excel and find meaning when you feel like an outsider or when you don’t feel supported–even if you love doing the work. Ensure your work embeds you in places where the people are those you want to be with and are those with whom you can grow and belong.
4. Remember your why
In Okinawa, Japan, where there are higher-than-usual levels of happiness and longevity, the term “Ikigai” means your reason to wake up in the morning. It’s one of the roots of longer, happier lives. The easiest way to connect with your purpose is by linking your work to a bigger picture. Let’s say your job is to make hardware on an assembly line. Think about the mechanism that the hardware goes into, the crank it powers, the hospital bed it fits onto, and the way that it facilitates the movement of critically ill patients so their sores heal and they can go home sooner. If you sit at your desk filling out spreadsheets all day, consider how your work contributes to a social need or good. Beyond contributing to your company’s yearly growth, think about how its products and services affect the wider community.
The thing is, when you find or create meaning in your work, you’ll know it. When you have a purpose, you’ll feel like your work has value. When you feel like your work has value, you’ll feel like you’re adding value, and most importantly, you’ll feel like you have value.
Creating meaningful work for ourselves is vitally important. It’s not just about feeling good when we’re getting out of bed in the morning, bleary-eyed and finding our way to the coffee machine. It’s about understanding what we can add to the world. Remember, meaningful work isn’t something you can find. It’s something that you need to create.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.