What Does It Mean To Do Meaningful Work?


As far back as I can remember, I have known that I wanted to do meaningful work, which for me has always involved both writing and making the world a better place.

My desires were often downplayed by well-meaning people who encouraged me to abandon my hopes of a meaningful career in favor of something more practical (can’t you at least minor in business?), as though the idea of work that was both personally fulfilling and made a difference in the world was a pipe dream, or worse, a luxury reserved only for the tremendously wealthy or the tremendously lucky.

This is a very impoverished way of thinking about work. Of course we can’t all have careers as poets, painters, and travel writers, but it’s a shame that in a time when we are so collectively hungry for work that feeds our souls (nearly three out of four American workers are disengaged from their jobs, a trend that is also present worldwide), we continue to dismiss the notion that meaningful work should be possible and desirable for most people.

Perhaps this is because we don’t fully understand what it means to do meaningful work. For those of us whose primary source of income is seemingly unrelated to the pursuits we’re most passionate about, how can work possibly be meaningful and enjoyable, much less make a difference in the lives of other people? This is an idea I’d like to explore in much more detail in another post. (Spoiler alert: I think the idea of “following your passion” usually does more harm than good.)

In the meantime, Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, has some wonderful insights into what makes work meaningful. Watch his TED talk and if the mood strikes you, I’d love to hear your ideas on meaningful work in the comments.

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8 Responses to What Does It Mean To Do Meaningful Work?

  1. Peter 09/18/2012 at #

    I think the problem here is the gulf between what we value and what the economy values. Providing for needs like food is unquestionably important to both society and individuals, but as the economy grows and becomes more efficient we have fewer people growing food and more people working on fulfilling wants. Eventually there aren’t even enough wants to go around, and we people working to create wants, in a progression that goes from subsistence farmers, to opera singers, to marketers, to the guy who makes those little “love match” ad banners that you click on, enter the name of your crush and your mobile phone number to be subscribed to a grotesquely expensive premium text service.

    A sane civilisation would see the amount of work necessary to maintain that civilisation dropping steadily over time, divide that work up so that everyone did something toward it, and then give all the resulting free time to the people, allowing them to decide what was meaningful work for themselves.

    Instead what we do is resent those who consume goods and services without working, while at the same time aggressively competing with them for work. The only way to resolve this hypocrisy is to demand the endless production of more jobs, busywork invented by a deified class of entrepreneurs.

    Which isn’t to say that new businesses and ideas and products don’t frequently enrich our lives, but I believe that many of those would happen anyway if people just had the freedom to work on them for the accomplishment and the joy of it. A lot of the most socially useful work, such as childrearing, has historically been unpaid, but people still do it because it is meaningful to them.

    Conversely, if you’re a marketer working for Coke then 90% of your work is undoing the work of a similar guy at Pepsi, and vice versa. Given a vast and much needed, surplus of time, we’ve come up with some really innovative ways of wasting it.

    So I think this tension between well-paid work and the work you love reflects an underlying tension between work that is necessary, work that is beneficial, and outright busywork.

    • robin 09/26/2012 at #

      Thanks, Peter! Living in such a consumption-based economy does make the pursuit of meaningful work more difficult, which is a big reason why I don’t care for the many self-help gurus espousing to help you “discover your passion” and “follow your dreams” (and often implies that if you don’t like your work, it’s your own fault for not having the guts to take the plunge). Our current definition of meaningful work focuses too much on the individual and far too little on the many institutional forces and contexts that shape our ways of living and working, both consciously and unconsciously.

  2. Brian Driggs 09/18/2012 at #

    I’ve only got a minute because I’m one of those people who lucky enough to be engaged at work and need to get back. I think Peter makes some very solid points, above.

    It’s almost an extension of “the things you own end up owning you.” As if the bulk of the modern, global economy is built upon consumption of more things. Since so much of society relies upon consumption of goods, it gets increasingly difficult to pursue betters. (And what does that do to the rarity of bests?)

    To me, meaningful work is like success. True success means helping others be successful. We can’t take it with us, so what do we leave behind? I would offer that the acid test for “meaningful” is whether or not something outlives us.

    Some people start businesses, court venture capital, and seek the buy-out/flip.
    I’d rather my business makes a difference in peoples’ lives and outlives me when I’m gone.

    Press on regardless.

    • robin 09/26/2012 at #

      Hey Brian, I love your insight about the relationship between success and meaningful work – both concepts are very impoverished in our current society. Indeed, I’d say our accepted definitions of both success and meaningful work wind up distracting and deterring us from the authentic pursuit of either!

  3. Katy 09/26/2012 at #

    The notion of meaningful work is an important one, and one that I spent most of my adult life preoccupied with. In my circles it’s more often spoken of as life purpose. Or “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Which may not be how it’s configured in your mind. But somehow it usually seems to end up in roughly the same place…

    For me, the whole question of life purpose always had these heavy expectations (and spiritual connotations). But sometime this past year, I just realized that one’s life purpose may actually have nothing to do with work. That life purpose might be simpler (but no less profound) things like learning to be a good friend or raising a family or dealing with one’s personality quirks (I’m working on patience at the moment, ha). Or being that person who, just because they were there, influences relationships and events in a way that ripples out, maybe in ways they never even see. Or it might be other extraordinary things. But that to pigeonhole one’s life purpose into a job might actually be to demean it!

    These days, I think that for some fair number of people–not all, and maybe not you–that this notion of work & career as an expression of life purpose, calling, or unique personal passion might actually do them a disservice. That it puts all this pressure maybe in the wrong direction (on work). And also assumes that we KNOW what we want and who we are, when life, it seems to me, is so much about discovery.

    Most of my thinking derives from my current experience of work — in sales, project management, marketing for a custom lighting manufacturer–which I have found to be enormously rewarding and really the best work experience of my life. Which was a big surprise for me. I never saw myself in manufacturing, resisted business fields, had no interest whatsoever in lighting. But somehow the combination of corporate culture, the people, and a constantly changing project roster that requires all my creativity and problem-solving skills, while dealing with very concrete things turned out to be just right for me. So here I am, doing work I never imagined, and developing myself as a person in ways I didn’t know I needed while having a grand time. I have no illusions that decorative lighting is going to save the world, but it has made a difference in mine.

    Most of the interests I pursued for years are still there and developing at a different pace. Miss writing, but I think that’s okay…next book brewing…

    So this is my experience. I know that it may change and may not be true for others like it is for me. I definitely don’t have a formula for getting one’s life dialed. But trying to come up with that formula seems kinda like a control fantasy anyway… ha ha ha I’m gonna design a seminar, write a book, and give a TED talk… lol

    • robin 09/26/2012 at #

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Katy. I completely agree that the idea of “following your passion” can do more harm than good. While it’s wonderful to have passions, the idea that we need to find and follow some predetermined passion can end up boxing us in. My own thought is that meaningful work is made, not found, unless perhaps it finds us in some unexpected way – like at a decorative lighting company, or for that matter, in the tech industry in San Francisco. :)

  4. Katy 09/26/2012 at #

    Oh my sack! I didn’t watch this video first…!

    • robin 09/26/2012 at #

      Isn’t it great? One of my all-time faves…

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