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Finding the Meaning in Your Work

Can you construct a career that will enhance your life?

“What is your current work doing to you as a person—to your mind, character and relationships?”

This quote is from one of my favorite career books, How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric(The School of Life/PicadorUSA, 2013). There’s much to recommend here: I like the way he traces the history of career decision-making (including career counseling’s rather shady history and the failure of career testing) and offers insights as to why many of us struggle with career choices.

I also like his philosophy of “act-first, process-later”—too many people think about their ideal career occurring sometime in the future (if at all) without stopping to consider what they could do today to move toward it. And I especially like his emphasis on our “many selves”—a notion similar to the “Possible Lives” map and exercise I devoted a chapter to in my own book, You Majored in What?. I highly recommend Krznaric’s book for anyone going through or considering a career transition.

I think a particularly compelling element is Krznaric’s discussion of the dimensions of meaning in a career (Chapter 3- pp. 55-93). After considering whether one has the luxury, in this day and age, of even considering meaning in a career (one does, he concludes), he lays out five dimensions of meaning:

  1. Earning money
  2. Achieving status
  3. Making a difference
  4. Following your passions (interests)
  5. Using your talents (skills)

Let's break down these five dimensions and examine them. You might want to start by re-ordering the list based on your priorities. For example, while money might be a key driver for one individual, another might consider the use of his/her talents more important. As you consider these dimensions, consider how much of each dimension you need. How much money is enough? What percentage of time spent with interests or talents is enough?

Try considering each dimension in light of your current (or desired) work situation:

Money. Ever since the recession, money has been the primary driver of articles about “best careers.” Best career choices (not to mention college majors) are reduced to which fields will pay the most—"engineering good, social work bad" goes the common wisdom. This is not an illogical thinking process: one should consider future income when thinking about how much college debt to take on, for instance. But, at the same time, reducing career decisions simply to earning power can cause one to lose the broader perspective. How much income do you want/need? Are you setting your own monetary goals or complying with someone else's? What is a comfortable living, and what careers might fulfill that? What career fields might suit you in other ways from which you could also earn a reasonable (from your perspective) salary? (See my earlier post on should we all become engineers.)

Status. How does status or respect fit into your definition of meaningful work? I like to think of this as a form of pride: do you take pride in what you do each day? Pride is subjective—you can be proud that you simply show up every day and do your job despite obstacles. There is honor in that. There is also honor in teaching children, building a bridge, designing a building, writing a novel, or making a hamburger in a restaurant. Status as defined by others is compelling yet seductive—at what point did you select your current career to please someone else or meet someone else’s definition of status or success? How concerned are you with others’ definitions? As with money, it would be a mistake to rely solely on others’ perspectives: take some time to determine your proudest moments at work and in life. That may give you some perspective of what constitutes “status” to you. Does your current position provide you with the sense of pride and status you desire?

Making a difference is often relegated to the background in those “Top Ten Career” listings. And yet this is a common desire in job-seekers. Treated sometimes as a naïve or youthful pipe-dream, making a difference, is in fact, an extremely important component of a job. What is your definition of “making a difference”? Making a difference isn't always about saving the whales or other large humanitarian projects; you can also make a difference when you compile the payroll for your company. Teachers make a difference every day-- but the results aren't always seen immediately. What does “making a difference” mean to you? Are you perhaps underplaying the difference you make in your current job—or would a different job provide more fulfillment for you in this area? Is making a difference important to you—or do other factors trump this desire? Only you can decide.

Following your passions is a long-running and oft-derided theme in career decision-making. The image that comes to mind is that of a musician or artist off "following their passions" but unable to pay for dinner that evening. (See my post on Can You Really Do What You Love These Days?) Like many things, the truth often lies in the middle. How important are your passions and interests? Have you investigated the variety of careers where your interests could be used? How have other people made a reasonable income out of their passions? Must you be a starving artist or are there other, perhaps better, models to follow? Once again, there are no hard and fast answers here.

Using your talents is closely related to following passions. Presumably many passions are also talents. But here’s where you look behind the passion to find the talents/skills that lie behind it. For instance, you might be passionate about raising orchids, but careers directly related to that passion might be limited. So what talents are behind that passion? Could it be your patience? Or attention to detail? Or the researching skills needed to learn how best to care for the orchids? Or your appreciation of beauty/aesthetics? Consider your top 5 skills or talents. When you are at your all-time best, what are you doing? And how can you find a job that lets you do more of that?

That’s the key to successful career transitioning: you take a job, figure out what you like best, and then look for a job that lets you do more of that.

Now that you've examined these dimensions, which is most important? Which is least? How much of each is “enough” in your work?

Let’s go back to Krznaric’s original question: “What is your current work doing to you as a person—to your mind, character and relationships?” Would making changes in these five dimensions change your life for the better? Is one area neglected at the expense of another? How can you fix that?

I am reminded of a quote from the wonderful movie, The Peaceful Warrior: “A warrior does not give up what he loves, he finds the love in what he does.” Would examining these five dimensions of career meaning help you find the love in what you do?

©2014 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo Credits: Flickr Creative Commons Giumaiolini's Photostream.