Ever wonder how to find truly meaningful and fulfilling work? Or how you’ll know when you’ve found the work you’re meant to do?
Throughout my years as an HR professional, I observed those who had found immense value and meaning in their work. I became fascinated with the topic of meaningful work and read a number of books that discussed how we can pursue purposeful jobs in our lives.
Though there are many routes to finding your path, I’ve discovered three aspects that are always present when we’ve found work that is enriching.
1. You enjoy the journey and process (not just the outcome)
Rather than only caring about achievements, outcomes, or milestones at work, people who find meaning in what they do also enjoy the process of the work. They appreciate and find gratification in the day-to-day.
When I worked in a large health care system, I noticed certain nurses and physicians carried an aura of joy around them — even when they were exhausted or caring for a disgruntled patient. It didn’t matter if they were thanked or recognized for their work. They still found joy in what they were doing. This isn’t to say they didn’t have hard days or always wore a smile on their faces. It’s that they felt content and at peace about what they were doing.
In Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, she writes that when we find our callings, “The journey is the reward. You enjoy the process along the way rather than feeling as if you just have to “get through” the steps to reach the end goal or final stage.”
In the same way, people who enjoy their work often find that the time goes quickly. Perhaps it’s lunchtime on a Wednesday and the day feels like it’s just begun.
Not only does the time seem to pass quickly, the difficulties or challenges of the job are pieces you feel content enduring and overcoming. Elizabeth Gilbert prompts the question in her inspiring book Big Magic: “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?” This question resonated with me when I started freelance writing. I found myself willing to miss out on quality sleep or favorite activities — and rewrite entire articles on a tight deadline. I knew I loved the work because I was willing, and even eager, to do the most undesirable aspects of the job.
2. You feel significance when doing the work
<In his best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shared the concept that one of the greatest human desires is to feel significant.
When we find meaningful work, we feel significance as well. We feel as if we’re contributing to something larger than ourselves — something important, something that makes a difference.
John Maxwell expands on the idea of significance in his book Intentional Living: Choosing a Life That Matters: “To be significant, all you have to do is make a difference with others wherever you are, with whatever you have, day by day.”
If you know you’re making a difference with others, and feel peace about what you are contributing, that’s a positive sign you’re doing meaningful work. If you feel you could be doing something more, or wished you were doing something more, perhaps another path would bring you deeper fulfillment.
“Doing [significant] work feels special,” Mohr shares in Playing Big. “You feel a rare sense of meaning, rightness, and immense energy.”
My godmother works some of her week as a health care provider at a clinic that cares for the underserved. While her days at other clinics are positive, she feels a richer sense of meaning and energy during her days at the underserved clinic. Her feeling of significance and contribution increases even based on location.
If you’re still having difficulty determining if your work is significant to you, ask yourself a few questions. “If I were to only live another five years, would I be happy with what I contributed in my work? Do I desire to make a bigger impact? Are my talents, abilities, and unique spirit utilized fully in my work?”
While you may not have all of the answers right now, simply asking yourself the questions can lead you to the right answer over time.
3. The work aligns with your true self
Truly meaningful work aligns with who you are as a person, and what you stand for. Whether the work offers you joy, utilizes your greatest talents, or allows you to spend extra time with your children, a meaningful job allows you to feel like yourself and do what’s important to you.
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am,” says Parker Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. “This is often the first step we must take when it comes to finding truly meaningful work.”
But how can we “listen to our lives”? What does that mean? How do we know what we’re meant to do?
In Jeff Goins’ The Art of Work, he describes the process of listening to our lives in order to find work that is true to ourselves. He suggests thinking about the major events in our lives and bringing awareness to what’s been important all along. Perhaps that’s been creating beautiful handmade goods, using a musical ability, caring for children, or speaking on topics you’re passionate about.
By taking time to reflect, pray, and meditate — rather than avoid or deny ourselves time in silence — we can begin to see patterns in our lives that have been there all along. When we hold still and listen to the depths of our hearts, we can begin to see the beautiful narrative of our lives and our true selves. We can then discover the work that aligns with our souls.
“Your calling is not a job. It is your entire life,” Goins writes. “We vainly expend energy and effort on pursuits that are bound for failure — all because we’re afraid of being our true selves. But the lucky ones discover a different path. Or rather, they forge one where there was no way, departing from expectation in order to become who they are.”
Our life journeys bring us to different junctions and decision points. If you feel you haven’t yet found truly meaningful work, I encourage you to listen to your heart and explore. After all, you have something beautiful and special and significant to offer this world.