Even those who’ve known the pleasure of purposeful work can lose that feeling. We may be burnt out from the acute stress of a demanding job or desensitised through the stress of living through the pandemic. We may have lost sight of the big picture. We may have lost our sense of purpose gradually, one setback (or success) at a time. We may be disillusioned or feel undervalued or unappreciated. No matter how lost or stuck you feel, though, you can get your purpose and meaning at work back.
In my last blog post, ‘Finding Purpose at Work. What is it? And why is it important?’, I shared some thoughts from a webinar I had delivered for the United Nations Development programme (UNDP). In this blog post, I will share further ideas from that webinar but this time I’ll focus on the practical steps you can take to find your purpose and meaning at work.
1. Stop thinking of purpose as a luxury
Many people think that purpose is a luxury that requires a lot of resources. This is one of the main reasons why people struggle with it. If you think of something as being luxurious and reserved to a small group of people, you start feeling that it’s not accessible to you. Understanding that finding purpose and meaning at work does not need a lot of resources will help you find it more easily.
2. Change how you think about your daily tasks
The way we think about our daily tasks can alter our relationship to our work. So, by shifting our perspective, we can achieve a greater sense of purpose without changing what we’re doing.
An exercise to help
Try this out by picking one upcoming task on your calendar — it may be attending a meeting, giving a presentation or filling out expense reports. Think about the task, first, as part of a job, then as a career, and finally as a calling. Jot down or make mental notes for each of these states. Reflect on how you approach the task when you think of it as a duty for a job, versus something you do as part of a calling. Does your motivation change? Do you feel a shift in excitement? Practice doing this with a wider swath of your tasks. Take an entire day and reframe it as a calling. Pay attention to how a shift in your perspective impacts your sense of joy and purpose, shifting your perspective and rediscovering meaning at work.
3. Empower yourself
The most important thing to remember is that you can create your own purpose and meaning at work. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you must find the right role to be fulfilled. And don’t be lured into thinking it’s the responsibility of your supervisor or your organisation to create purpose for you. All work has dignity, no matter what you do for a living. Your work matters and you can foster your purpose and create meaning at work for yourself.
4. Connect to the bigger picture
People get into a trap of thinking meaningful work must be lofty (or involve saving lives), but that’s not true. People find meaning in building homes, selling computers, picking up garbage — if they see a connection to the big picture. Sometimes the key to tapping into purpose is to look beyond your daily tasks and connect to why they matter.
You are probably familiar with the story of the cleaner at NASA who was asked what he did and replied:
“I’m part of the team that put people on the moon.”
He was aware of his role in the big picture and how it connected with what was important to him, try doing the same thinking for yourself. No matter how small, you will be making a difference.
5. Understand how your work affects other people
It’s essential to realise that every job provides a service to someone else – if it didn’t, it wouldn’t exist. Keep this in mind as you strive to find meaning in your work.
Make a mental logic train from your work to the things that matter most. If you process applications in a college recruitment office, know that your work matters to the prospective students whose futures you are shaping. If you welcome guests at the neighbourhood fitness facility, know that you’re helping people feel more positively about their health. You get the idea—connect what you do, no matter what it is, to the bigger picture.
“What would not happen if I wasn’t present?”
Ask yourself the question, “What would not happen if I wasn’t present?”
I heard a story recently about a commander in the navy. This base commander saw that the men and women on the base were losing their sense of mission. He needed to light their fire. So, he wanted to connect the individual purpose of his employees to the purpose of the organisation.
He started taking teams of people off-base to the shipyard and gave them a tour of the ships they were supporting. Most of them had never been on anything that big. The commander went through each part of the ship, sharing how it’s used, and why it is essential to the mission. He told stories of how the ships had helped humanitarian, peacekeeping, and combat efforts around the world.
The next step was he had each person touch a part of the ship and think about how their daily work helped to support that big hunk of metal. Maybe one of the employees was in human resources and helped staff the base. Perhaps they were in technical support or training or catering. Every person had to articulate to their peers how their work supported that ship. As a result, you know what happened?
The culture changed. People started seeing the mission behind their daily grind.
6. Know what you value
My work involves supporting people to develop their careers and realise their potential. So, my motivation comes from seeing the difference I make to other’s lives. What about you? When you know what you value, you’re able to anchor any role or activity to a sense of something that genuinely matters. That way, you can bring your work alive with purpose.
If you value contribution, for example, find purpose by looking for ways you can contribute. That may be to a group, or delivering over and above what a client expects, or giving back to a local community. If you value laughter, be ready with a smile in your business relationships and always be generous with your humour. Or, if you value connection, openly connecting and sharing with the people around you will give you purpose and meaning at work.
7. Bring your whole self to work
Sometimes people feel like they won’t be able to find meaning in their jobs if their “real” passion is something they do outside of work. But there may be ways to integrate that part of yourself into the workplace. For instance, if there’s a cause you’re deeply involved in — like environmental issues — look for ways to raise awareness or facilitate change within your organisation. Knowing you’re helping to open your co-workers’ eyes — especially about an issue close to your heart — could give you just the dose of purpose you need.
8. Think beyond your work
Remember that your job or career exists within the larger framework of your life. And for some people, their priority isn’t to find purpose at work — but to earn a living so they can find meaning in other parts of their life. For instance, maybe you’re passionate about teaching yoga to underserved populations — and your steady salary allows you to do that pro-bono. Or maybe your purpose is to share your art with the world, and you’ve made painting your side gig while relying on a conventional job for your financial stability. This simple perspective shift can be a powerful way to link meaning with your work.
Please share your thoughts
What strategies have you used to discover your purpose at work. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. If you’re interested in delivering a webinar for your organisation like the one, I delivered for UNDP, please get in touch.