All of us want meaningful lives. We aspire to create meaningful careers, whether it’s the work itself or the lifestyle and activities our careers allow. What makes your life worth living? Makes your career important? Makes your job satisfying and meaningful? We’re not all the same. What someone believes is significant, important and of value varies from one person to another. Meaning is an individual matter. And, what’s meaningful for you today may change a great deal over time.
Why Is Discovering Meaning So Important?
“Meaning serves a number of important functions in human lives. Firstly, meaning provides a purpose for our lives. Secondly, it furnishes values or standards by which to judge our actions. Thirdly, it gives us a sense of control over the events in our life. Lastly, it provides us with self-worth. When people are unable to find meaning for any of these functions or when they lose or outgrow the meanings that they once had, they become distressed. Many emotional problems result from a failure to find meaning in life and can be resolved only through finding something to make life worth living.” Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., “Man’s Search for Meaning; Introduction to Logotherapy,” Beacon Press, 4th Ed., 1992
Anxiety, depression, pessimism and a lack of enjoyment of daily activities have all been found to be associated with higher rates of disease and a shorter lifespan. People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier, feel more in control and get more out of life. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression. But where do we find meaning and purpose? It might be our religious faith, being a parent, helping others, developing others, building a company that flourishes or doing a job that makes a difference. The answers vary for each of us, but they all involve being connected to something bigger than ourselves.
There have been times in my own life when I’ve not been true to what gives me meaning and placed other values ahead of my important ones. The result was suffering from depression, unhappiness and resentment. Meaning may come from your work, your family, your community, your hobby, or many other circumstances. The bottom line, though, is that you have to continually re-invent a career that allows you to have meaning in your life – wherever that may come from – and only you know what gives you meaning.
Does Your Career Foster a Meaningful Life?
The true life stories below illustrate several different people’s search for meaning in their own lives and where they stand on a continuum of meaning. Each is quite different. Read them and see where you are.
Find meaning in your current work & career
Are you in a job, profession or organization that gives you meaning? Does the mission of your organization or your day-to-day work immerse you in issues and actions that you care deeply about?
My life has been made more meaningful by helping others achieve their dreams. For almost 40 years, my job has consisted of helping people design, develop and manage their careers. I have met and coached thousands of people and sometimes need to be reminded of the profound affect my job has on others. At a recent career development conference, one woman walked over to me who I had not seen in many years. “Remember eight years ago,” she said, “when I was in your workshop. I told you I wanted to work with horses? And you encouraged me and we put together a long-term strategy. Well, I’m doing it. I have a horse farm in West Virginia and help children gain their confidence.” Her words reminded me of the satisfaction and meaning I have found in my work.
Redesigning current work to better accommodate what’s meaningful
Do you know what gives meaning in your life? Are you pursing different work arrangements that better support what’s really important to you?
Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote eloquently about her own struggle with the question of meaning and made a major change in her life and career. “I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.”
“When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.” She is proof that our notion of meaning is in flux - requiring redesign.
Find meaning in outside activities
Do you balance your time and energy at work so you can pursue things that you love – family, hobbies, community projects, volunteer work, etc?
Madison “Peach” Steiner is the founder of Peach’s Neet Feet, a grassroots custom shoe donation project. “I hand paint and donate canvas shoes for children battling cancer, serious illness, and lifelong disabilities. We customize each shoe to complement the deserving child's life and interests.”
“I have always been driven to help others, to make a difference in the world some way. With Peach’s Neet Feet, something as small as a pair of shoes painted with a child’s name can bring a smile to their face and it gives them something that is theirs and only theirs.”
Changing direction and preparing for a more meaningful career
Are you are currently developing skills and experiences that will better qualify you to move in the direction that will give you more meaning in life? Preparing for a new profession, getting a certificate or degree, or volunteering for projects that will open doors to meaningful work?
The son of a friend of mine always dreamed about helping to improve the quality of life. When he finished engineering school, the young entrepreneur built and sold revolutionary energy based bio-medical feedback devices. As profits soared, his partners began fighting over control, the medical community questioned the technology, the FDA and the FTA demanded proof of efficacy and licensing authorities started sending registered letters. In the end, the young man walked away in frustration.
But he did not give up on his dreams. He chose a different route. He spent the next year becoming certified as an EMT fireman. One night shortly after he went to work on his new job as an EMT, he was called to the scene of a horrendous auto crash where he crawled into a car to stabilize the driver crushed in a rollover while other fireman used the jaws-of-life to extricate the severely injured man. “His femur was crushed and he had arterial bleeding. I talked to him and kept him going until they could pull him out. It was at that moment I realized I was living my dream of making a difference and finding meaning and self worth in my job and my life. You start helping to make the world a better place one person at a time.”
Unclear about what gives me meaning
Have you devoted enough time recently to ponder what gives your life meaning?
• What gives you meaning in life today? In your job? In your career?
• What are the most important facets of your life?
• What do your talents and skills call you to do?
• When do you feel happiest and most fulfilled?
• Are you working on something that stretches you and provides meaning and fulfillment?
Review your answers and see if they satisfy your innermost dreams. If not, keep searching for what gives you meaning.