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How to Find Meaning When You Feel Like a Cog in the Machine

Ways to find meaning at work amid the frenzied spinning.

Key points

  • When one feels that their work lacks meaning, it may help to speak up and offer new ideas or ask for a special project that one can own.
  • Ways to find more meaning at work also include teaming up with colleagues, taking pride in small wins and taking on a side gig.
  • In some cases, it may help to search for a better job within or outside of one's current workplace.
No author listed, no attrbution required, Creative Commons, pxfuel
Source: No author listed, no attrbution required, Creative Commons, pxfuel

A client today said something that a number of my clients have said: “I don’t want to be just a cog in a large machine.”

It’s not that she doesn’t want to work for a corporation. She said something like:

It's not that I need to save whales. I just want to feel like I’m creating something rather than doing research that never gets used or entering unimportant data into spreadsheets. That’s something a high school student could do. (My client has a master’s degree.)

She says that part of the problem is that the company is run not by creators but by businesspeople, whose job distills to one word — sell — even if it means putting lipstick on a pig. She said something like:

I attend meetings, and half the time, they're self-aggrandizing, hyperbolic dog-and-pony shows. Or we discuss how to divide tasks among three managers when one manager would do. Or we spend time on how to format documents or microscopically document everything. Engineers create; businesspeople spin-sell. I want to go back to being an engineer.

Finding meaning in your work

Here are some ways that a person might find work meaningful even if just a cog.

Speak up. Deep down, no one likes turgidity, to look at their schedule and see meeting after meeting, many of which are like those I just described.

Should you offer an idea for streamlining? Should you be tactful or, if you feel it’s worth the risk, direct and therefore more memorable in a work world in which the norm is couching-larded blandness?

Or do you want to ask for a special project, something you can own, care about, and might even boost your career? For example, here are three psychologically oriented ideas. Should you use a tool such as Survey Monkey to anonymously survey your coworkers on how they’re feeling about their job, their workgroup, and the organization? Should you champion a peer mentoring program? Write personal histories of coworkers for the in-house or even the external website?

Team up. Should you develop an idea with someone, perhaps a respected higher-up who has clout?

Take pride in small wins. Might it help to take more notice of your small wins: checking items off your to-do list, helping a colleague, or having a suggestion adopted, even if it won’t cure cancer.

A side gig. Might some paid or volunteer gig supply some of the missing meaning? How might you combine what you're good at and care about to do something impactful? For example, let’s say you are good at helping people one-on-one and you care about helping gifted low-income kids make the most of their potential. Should you ask a local school counselor if you might volunteer, for example, as a mentor or enrichment tutor?

Get a better job? Should you search for a better job, outside or within your organization? Sometimes, within one place of employment, one workgroup is vibrant while another is moribund. Key to your next job being better is to be assertive in your application and interviews. Propose a meaningful idea or two and the right employer will be impressed; the wrong one will deem you unwilling to be a cog. That's good; you'll screen out the wrong jobs.

The Takeaway

My client is speaking up more at work but isn’t overly optimistic that it will do enough good. So she’s quietly putting out feelers: “I'm looking for an engineering job where I’m making a machine, not just being a cog in one.”

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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