What’s the point? Why am I doing this? Why haven’t I found a sense of purpose? Six years ago, I asked myself this when I was unhappy as a barrister at a prestigious set of Chambers. My career looked good from the outside and was all wrong on the inside.
The reality was that I just didn’t care enough about the work I was doing, I had not found a purpose and couldn’t go on any longer. I needed a career change. It was then that I understood the importance of making meaning or finding purpose at work (I use these words interchangeably).
What is Purpose Anyway?
Your big why; the reasons you do what you do. Less about the moment to moment experiences you have and more about your longer term perspective on how life is going. This really matters. Studies have shown that people contributing to a higher purpose are more likely to be motivated. They will have a healthier outlook on life and be more resilient to stress and negative thinking.
There are many different paths to making meaning at work. Find the path to meaning that suits you.
Purpose through Achievement and Making a Difference
Dan Ariely, a Stanford Professor of Behavioural Economics, has shown that our motivation drops off a cliff as soon as we realize we’re achieving little in work. Bad news for those that can be a big contributor to apathy and burnout.
Research suggests that we are more fulfilled when helping others, tackling real-world challenges that make a profound and immediate impact on the lives of others.
Doing the day to day well is enough for many people. Others are more impact focussed. In his book How To Make a Difference, Tim Drake talks about Difference Drivers (passionate antagonists of the status quo on a specific issue), Difference Deliverers (who help make change happen), and Beneficial Presences (who are the positive, healing difference).
Choose a course which makes things happen. It’s the doing, not the thinking where the fruits of achievement lie.
Do you help other people and are you satisfied with the difference you make?
How satisfied are you with the scale of the social and/or environmental impact you’re contributing?
Purpose through Belonging
We are social creatures yearning to belong, be that in a team at work or as part of a social group outside of it.
Millennials are flocking to a host of new organisations which build community. In the book Delivering Happiness, Zappos are shown to have a staff of passionate advocates and they’re only selling shoes! Everyone is challenged to make at least one improvement, every week that makes Zappos better reflect its core values which be humble, do more with less, be passionate and determined, and create fun and a little weirdness. Zappos only wants employees who really want to work for them.
How satisfied are you with the social connections which help you experience meaning and purpose in life?
Purpose as self-expression and passion
Children have a natural ability to live “out there,” fully self-expressed. They’re not yet weighed down by the realities of life or worrying about what other people think of them.
Just being yourself in a state of flow - when you’re fully immersed in a pleasurable activity and time seems to fly by. You're right there in the moment.
To get there you have to be courageous enough to pursue things you really like and enjoy. Professor Vallerand defined passion as a strong inclination toward an activity that is loved, considered highly important, is an important part of one’s self-concept, and in which one invests significant amounts of time and energy. All I would add is you have the power of choice to do this and you have autonomy over how you get it done. According to this conceptualisation of passion, the passionate activity becomes internalised within the person’s identity.
To what extent are you able to bring into the world the ideas that are important to you?
To what extent are you expressing who you are at work?
Purpose through personal growth
With all the hype on millennials changing their attitudes to work, recent studies have shown millennials expect varied challenges, a wide selection of learning and development opportunities, a focus on career development and good financial rewards.
Back to Zappos, they help people how to uncover individual strengths and use them more often at work. They give a variety of development options and let them craft their job role expecting personal and professional growth from every employee.This breaks down the walls that segregate work and life so that . They see people not workers. As a result, people thrive.
Am I developing the knowledge, experience and networks that I can leverage in my future career?
Am I challenging myself the right amount?
No deathbed regrets
For many, a life of purpose is the purpose of life. it runs through and connects divergent experiences, answering the questions who are you and what should you do. One acid test is when you face death, will you look back on your life fulfilled.
The danger is for career changers that they just leap impulsively into the first option they discover that is slightly more meaningful than their current role without thoroughly considering their needs and options. You have to wake up to your reality, exploring and questioning your assumptions about your identity before coming to any conclusions. Then you have to evaluate your reality clearly to choose your optimal meaning-making activities.
Martin Underwood is Head of Career at Life Productions, helping professionals make meaning and find their purpose careers, inside or outside of their current jobs.
Life Productions’ most recent career test, the Career Fulfilment Score, helps you to get clear about what meaning you really want.
To take the free Career Fulfilment Score, click here.