“Is this it? Is this all I’m meant to do with my life?” Have you wondered about the meaning of life? The combination of working from home caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and social inequalities has caused some to question the work they do and the companies they work with. “What am I doing this for?”
Whether one leads a group division or brings home a six-figure paycheck, the questions may eventually come up: “How did meeting last quarter’s targets help those around me? Was it worthwhile missing the weekend with the family to complete that report? Am I making an impact?”
Before anyone decides to pack it in, travel to a remote village, and work with a non-profit organization, I’d argue that there is no need to change your job to find purpose at work. Tiny shifts in the way we lead our lives can help us feel engaged and have more meaning in the workplace.
What Will You Give Up Sundays For?
Google “what is my purpose?” and you will see pages of results of books and how-to recommendations. Many struggle with pinpointing what they want to do with their life and what they are passionate about. Some may not even be sure what they are good at. Many say they want to impact and help others but don’t know how to do that.
Identifying our life’s purpose may be a daunting exercise because it’s like identifying our calling or the reason for our existence. And by not going through the journey of finding out the answer, perhaps we can avoid finding out that we are not so important after all...
But perhaps the better questions to ask are: “How should I be spending my time? Where should I focus my energies?”
Reframing the questions may shed more light on how we can find purpose in our work. Following the article on finding flow, ask: what would you struggle through to achieve your goals? What tasks would you do even if you were not paid to do them? What would you give up Sundays for?
Knowing the things you would still do even though they are challenging is part of understanding what makes you flow and helping you know where to spend your time. In publishing The Altruistic Capitalist, I faced different fears common to authors including imposter syndrome. I’ve given up many Sundays, stayed up late in the night, or woke up early to write and made sure I met publishing deadlines.
I didn’t think that I would be an author. But in publishing a book, I’ve found the process of learning and connecting through writing meaningful.
What Do They Say When You’re Not in the Room?
Imagine your obituary or retirement party. The people closest to you from home and work are celebrating your life. What do they say?
They probably won’t say they remember you for making that additional sale last quarter or saved $5 million on a contract negotiation.
We may chase a higher title or salary because we see others in that position who seem to command respect, and we want that special treatment too. But these leaders may be treated differently temporarily because society is paying respect to the title they hold rather than who they are. The special treatment may also go away when they no longer have the title.
To have an impact:
Be conscious of the relationships you build.
At a basic level, be competent and pull your weight at work.
Appreciate and give credit where it is due, and be respectful and inclusive.
Be consistent and maintain integrity. You could be placed in the “never-on-time” box after showing up one too many times late to meetings.
To be respected even when you’re no longer the boss, find ways to serve others at work. When you’re not in the room, people will remember how you always had time to mentor others, stayed behind to help the team finish a project that was not your responsibility, or had a listening ear when someone had a bad day.
How Might You Rewrite Your Job?
We all have parts of our job that are less enjoyable than others. As a researcher, one part of your job is to perform the analysis and produce the report. The other part is to present the insights and sell the report to clients. The latter may be less enjoyable than the former—but for the analysis to have an impact, the latter may be a necessary evil. Writing is pleasant for me, but editing is less so. Looking at the tasks and your job in this way could make some tasks more bearable.
Another way to reframe your perspective is to try out the task mapping exercise. Along two axes, one for the time needed to complete tasks and the other for value created, plot your tasks across the four quadrants. When all the tasks are mapped out, you can visualize where you are spending your time and re-design your workday to focus on meaningful work and reduce tasks that don’t add value.
Are there projects that are more aligned with your core values? Raise your hand for more of such tasks, and you may find flow at work. If you are relationship-focused, work more with those who share the same values or invest time in developing junior team members. While we may not avoid tasks that we don’t like, doing one or two things a day that brings us joy could make the difference between a good day and a bad one.
Reframe and Shift
Task mapping can also help you see where your tasks align with the organization’s goals. You may not be accountable for growing sales or improving profitability. But perhaps the weekly reports that you produce could help others in making the right decisions that impact the P&L. Connecting daily tasks to the organization’s bigger picture can also help you feel more engaged.
It may be difficult to pinpoint one’s life purpose. But finding areas we want to improve and master despite challenges can make work feel meaningful. Second, one can create an impact at work by focusing on our relationships with the people around us. Third, crafting tasks and collaborating with others that align with one’s core values can change whether we see our work as worthwhile.
A bit of reframing can change the entire picture.