Moving America Forward

How to Find Meaningful Work

May 18, 2018
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How to Find Meaningful Work
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How do you find work that fulfills you? Career experts weigh in. Photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
We asked the experts for advice on securing a job that inspires, no matter where you are in your career.

If you’re anything like the average American, you’ll spend over 90,000 hours — or about one-third of your lifetime — on the job. Given that astonishing amount of time, it makes sense to find a position that doesn’t leave you filled with dread, but with purpose. Whether you publicly announce your #CareerGoals or keep your dreams to yourself, we all want to feel like we’re making the world a better place.

Which begs the question: how do you find meaningful work? Or is the secret to simply find meaning in whatever work you do? Here’s what the experts say.

TRUST YOUR GUT

Before you accept a new job, do your due diligence, suggests career and executive coach Tammy Gooler Loeb. Seek out opinions and information that give you a realistic view of the work you’ll be doing and the atmosphere you’ll be doing it in. Keep an open mind and take some time to consider what you’ve learned. “There’s always an element of trusting one’s instincts,” says Loeb. Any red flags? “You may not want to take the risk, or do further research before going forward,” she says.

FOCUS ON MORE THAN YOUR STRENGTHS

Just because you’re good at math doesn’t mean you should become an accountant, says Loeb. Talent’s only one factor to consider when searching for a job that inspires you. “People are more engaged and motivated when their values, preferences and interests are aligned with their work and the culture of the workplace,” she explains. Of course, you want to see that your efforts have impact, but just as important, says Loeb, is that you’re getting positive feedback on the value of your contributions.

LOOK BEYOND YOUR OWN ROLE

Focus less on salary and title, and more on the mandate and mission of your organization. For instance, “a custodian in a hospital isn’t hands-on with patients, but their role is still helping sick people get better through ensuring the cleanliness of the facility,” notes Lisa Sansom, a leadership and organizational development coach and consultant. Identifying — and connecting with — a purpose that’s bigger than you will help you “get through the tough days, difficult clients or whatever setbacks you may encounter,” Sansom says. “It also allows you to retain your optimism and hope, and be more resilient.”  

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Forming bonds with coworkers can help mitigate stress and increase happiness in the workplace.Photo by Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images

FOSTER FRIENDSHIPS AT WORK

You get to choose your friends, but when it comes to coworkers, you usually don’t have much say on who you share an office with. That makes it crucial to actually like the people you’re surrounded by each day. “Social support has been widely demonstrated as one of the greatest buffers of stress and strongest predictors of happiness,” says Michael Woodward, PhD, an executive coach and the author of The YOU Plan. “The reality is that most people spend most of their waking hours working, so the stronger and more positive those workplace bonds, the better off you are.”

DO GOOD OUTSIDE THE OFFICE

Some workplaces offer paid time to do volunteer work, either coordinated as a team or individually. Many also fundraise for worthy causes. Take these opportunities whenever you can. “Volunteering is excellent for your mental well-being,” says Sansom, “but what’s really meaningful are real-life experiences that are done at the volunteer location with others.”

PRIORITIZE YOUR PERSONAL LIFE

How you live your life outside the office can impact what happens inside of it. When you’re stressed, your brain and body switch into defensive mode; your instinct is to get distance from any problems and retreat into yourself. On the other hand, “when you’re in a positive mind-set, you’re more open to new ideas and possibilities,” says Sansom. Make cultivating your time outside of the workplace a priority. Pursue hobbies, hone talents, spend time with friends. “When you’re content in your personal life, you’re more open to new opportunities and seeing the bigger picture at work,” Sansom says.

REFINE YOUR DEFINITION OF MEANING

Not all jobs have the same type of meaning. “‘Meaning’ with a capital M is your purpose, the ‘What do I contribute to the world to make it a better place?’ sort of meaning,” Sansom explains. “Small-m meaning is, ‘How do I make a silver lining out of this situation?’” While capital-M meaning jobs are ones where you typically feel you’re contributing to something larger than yourself, a position you hate is by no means worthless. Rather, it falls into the lowercase-m category. You do the best you can, learn something about yourself — “Hey, I’m more resilient than I thought!” — and move on …

Hopefully to a capital-M position that means the world to you.

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