Making Work Meaningful

Recently, I overheard a conversation between two young working professionals. One had just returned from a rainy golf vacation. When he was asked how it went, he replied with something like, “Well, you know, a bad day golfing is better than a good day working.” As a group of mostly young working professionals discussed with me at a University of St. Thomas Power Lunch this week, one problem with that attitude is that most of us need to work to live, and we will spend most of our waking hours working. So, instead of looking for meaning in life away from work, it’s also worth trying to make our work meaningful. What does that mean?

Well, philosophically, meaningful work means different things to different people. For some, it means self-realization – that is, “What work would I do if I could do anything I wanted?” For others, it means serving others, as in, “What work contributes the most to general well-being?” Most of us would like to do both, ideally in the same work.

But pragmatically, there’s also the economic problem of whether our skills fit the marketplace for work. Studies show that many zookeepers love their work but sacrifice salary and social esteem, and avid musicians tend to overrate their own skill levels. To find the intersection of supply and demand, we have honestly to answer the questions, “What am I good at?” and “What will the market reward?”

Answering these four questions will not alone yield meaningful work, but thinking about them may help you prioritize which questions matter to you the most, plot your current situation, and plan how to find or make more meaningful work.