Find Meaning and Purpose at Work – I Don’t Think So
The biggest mistake we make about meaning and purpose is believing it is outside us.
You could be a medical missionary in the jungles of Brazil and still feel like you’re missing something.
Purpose is about who you are, not what you do.
We live purposeless lives because we’re looking in the wrong place.
You don’t find purpose. You bring it with you.
Work doesn’t give you purpose. You give purpose to work.
Why are you showing up for work every day? That’s your purpose. It might not be noble, but it’s your purpose. Or it might be benevolent or self-centered, but it’s your why.
Suppose you show up so you can buy a new car, home, or vacation. If you work for vacation, pleasure is your purpose. Perhaps you show up to take care of your family.
Purpose is your reason, not simply what you do.
Feelings and purpose:
Purpose doesn’t make everything feel good. Parenting is meaningful work, but it isn’t always fun. Sometimes it drives you nuts.
Purpose and power:
You might hate your job, but you put your head down and pull like an ox because it serves a higher purpose.
Purpose and freedom:
A person with noble purpose is free in every situation, even if it’s painful.
Circumstances don’t give meaning and purpose. Incompetent people, for example, are an opportunity to a leader whose purpose is people development.
Find or Bring:
We live purposeless lives because we’re waiting for the “purpose fairy” to tap us on the head.
Don’t wait for purpose to find you. Bring it through the door with you.
Choose how you show up. Some people show up to make things better. Others show up angry and frustrated. It’s all about what’s inside.
You find meaning when you bring purpose to work with you.
What is the difference between finding purpose and bringing it with you?
Happy Friday Dan! The last section of this message (Find or Bring) is a wonderful summary of this important piece. While we all occasionally fall into the trap of expectation entitlement (my job should make me happy and fulfilled) I see more people showing up to work with an attitude of almost wanting to find something to complain about, and they never seem to have a part in that ‘something wrong’. That the Purpose Fairy doesn’t exist is going to be like a lump of coal in a stocking…..or it may be a bright shiny gift. This is where we get to choose the gift. Me….I like bright shiny gifts. 🙂
Thanks Mary. When we look for purpose in the wrong places, we end up disappointed. Plus, I think leaders misplace their energy trying to give something to people that they can’t give.
Obviously it’s good to help work feel meaningful. But, ultimately, we are each responsible to instill purpose into our own lives.
Dan–love your comment. “The biggest mistake we make about meaning and purpose is believing it is outside us.”
Finding purpose is an inside job. You need to spend alone-time thinking, reflecting, meditating, and finetuning your mission and purpose. You can get help and guidance from other, but ultimately it’s your decision to define your purpose.
Bringing your purpose with you is what happens on the outside. How do you apply your purpose at your job and at all the other situations you encounter.
Thanks Paul. Love – “Finding purpose is an inside job.” That’s a great way to put it.
“ Circumstances don’t give meaning and purpose. Incompetent people, for example, are an opportunity to a leader whose purpose is people development.” This is such a timely message for me. The three weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break are the longest weeks in a school and I’m finding myself focusing on external challenges. Thank you for sending me back to the reasons I show up for work and the reminder to bring my purpose with me.
Thanks Bardohn5. Glad you chimed in. I work with several school leaders and you are right. This is a challenging time of year. Frankly, this whole COVID thing adds huge stress to your sector that many of us outside your world might not appreciate.
Great post – we do need to intentionally decide how we’re going to show up …each day and before each interaction or encounter. Thanks for putting it so clearly great reminders!
Thanks Cindy and best wishes for the journey.
As children we are asked about what we want to do. All of the suggestions are imbued with a sense that they had greater purpose — firefighter, nurse, astronaut. Then we grow up and become accountants, front desk clerks, project managers for mortgage technology companies (raises hand here), and wonder where the purpose is in that. Then I watched a colleague struggle with a severely ill child while continuing to come to work and realized that working for a paycheck and health insurance is as heroic as hunting a mastodon and bringing meat home to the tribe. Her family’s survival depended on it.
Sometimes we don’t realize that we already have purpose — to care for a family, to act with integrity, to nurture a team, to be mindful of value for the investor. We just think that’s work. Recognizing, though, the underlying values we already bring let us discover that we already have purpose and can help us focus more clearly on our values– which creates a virtuous cycle of satisfaction and thoughtfulness.
Elizabeth, thank-you. I am enriched and helped by your post today.
Thank you Elizabeth. Your comment really speaks to me. It’s so powerful. … Brilliantly put!
This surreal thought boggles my mind. I only recently came to this same conclusion — for myself, looking back at my life and realizing its holistic connectedness; so it startled me to read it in the email subject line, as if it’s a common universal truth. I tried to read between your lines to decipher possible hidden meanings, something I could find that linked purpose to something else in the workplace that enhances and makes the purpose more visible and viable. But I came up with nothing, except the obvious advise of finding particular work that more readily matches and facilitates already learned skills, interests, aptitudes, and inborn talents. I can envisage a thick book dissecting this concept in all its permutations. Maybe someone has already written it.
I’m not sure any of this addresses what you commented but it’s what your comments made me think about.
I think we have this idea that somewhere in the past work was closely tied to the purpose of life. The hunter gather goes forth, inspired by the needs of the family to hunt rabbits and pick berries. Back at camp, they can see their family/band surviving on the food they brought. We on the other make widgets in exchange for money which then allows for us to go to the store and buy the berries and chicken. Only after I prepare the food (a flavorful chicken stew with dried cranberries and organic sea salt) can I feel the satisfaction of feeding my family.
Frankly, though, I’m not sure that a hunter gatherer picking berries worked in a haze of euphoric purposefulness. Likely it was hot or rainy and they were watching for snakes or bears. Some may have carefully picked the best berries and others may have hurried just to fill the basket. Others may have begrudged the time because they preferred to knap flint or weave the basket.
The difference between the hunter gather and the modern human is that all they did was “life.” we segregate work from life and then seek to find purpose in it.
What if, as you say, your life is a holistic connection where work is part of life. Sometimes you thrive in flint knapping and sometimes you are bored with making widgets but your purpose is across your whole life and not segregated. What if your purpose were kindness? You can be kind while knapping flint, or gathering berries, or greeting someone at the front desk. You own your purpose. Work is just another place you practice that purpose.
Thinking about it that way gives me a sense of autonomy. I stand here as my self not as a manifestation of myself that only exists at work.
Thanks for letting me ramble.
Thank-you for your “ramble” Elizabeth Richards. I’ve been struggling with purpose at work for awhile now. Your comments helped me – “Work is just another place I practice my purpose.” I love your focus on autonomy and integrated selves as well. Bravo!
BTW, I’m an encourager. Some people I know are “challengers” – and that’s cool. That’s their gift. But I’m an encourager – helping people make one more step in the right direction brings me great joy and satisfaction. I’ve never said it that way before! Thank-you again for your enriching and helpful comments on Dan’s page. I’m grateful for your perspectives and sharing today!
I just listened to Elaine Welteroth (former editor and chief of Teen Vogue) on GMA talking about her masterclass, building a dream career. I was inspired by her main message, “we are only saying yes to projects when you can find it in you to say “HELL YES!” Find your Zone of Genius!
Thanks Elizabeth. Learning to focus on things that truly express our purpose might help us identify and reject things that are distractions. Glad you jumped in.
Grat post, Dan! I counseled my leadership development classes on these ideas for several years and still find opportunities to work them it into conversations with consultancy clients. Your post is as good a brief summation of these concepts as I have ever seen. Many people seem so addicted to “doing,” “getting” and “having” that they lose sight of “being.” So much richness in life is missed by so many!
Thanks Jim. This really sings for me, “Many people seem so addicted to “doing,” “getting” and “having” that they lose sight of “being.”
The misunderstanding about being is that it excludes doing. When in reality it enables us to DO the “right” things. I’m not talking morally right, but personally right. What’s right for us. Cheers.
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