Careers and Finding Meaning

In Nick Dewilde’s article, Your work and its meaning, he explains three different ways that work plays a role in finding meaning:

  1. Work as a source of meaning
It’s hard to create meaning without facing challenging obstacles and achieving worthwhile goals. For many of us, work is the easiest place to find those things. Whether it’s investing the hours in mastering a craft or getting a life-changing product into the hands of millions of customers, work can be a tremendously fulfilling endeavor.

We’ve all heard this in the form of idioms such as do what you love” and follow your passion”. There are TV shows, documentaries, and biographies written about those that get paid to do what they love.

Most of my early heroes, even many of my current ones, fall into this bucket. For a while, I fell into this bucket too. I was career focused because I genuinely enjoyed what I was doing. As a result, I didn’t mind working longer hours and spending my free time working on my craft. I took a lot of pride in my work and I always tried to go above and beyond.

I find that many of my peers at my university derive work as their main source meaning. Where it gets toxic is when career becomes a measuring stick in how one measures themselves and others.

Before, I didn’t understand why others would want work life balance. Especially since I found so much meaning from work. Taking a sabbatical to focus on writing helped me gain that perspective. Here, I experienced that work can be an enabler of meaning.

  1. Work as an enabler of meaning

For most of history, people did not see their work as meaningful. Instead, they saw activities like raising children and caring for relatives as the stuff that made life worth living. Work simply supplied the resources to make those things possible.

However, as work has gained more prominence in our modern lives, personal pursuits can easily get overshadowed by the professional sphere. Part of work’s power comes from the incentives it offers. Earning higher salaries and promotions often provides more immediate rewards than the longer-term joys of child-rearing. Our modern society also gives people more status for their work milestones than what they accomplish outside of work. These rewards will make it tempting to surrender your time to work or turn your extracurricular activities into economic pursuits. Keep in mind what matters to you so you don’t allow it to become subservient to work’s powerful draw.

In my sabbatical, I found more meaning and fulfillment from writing than I ever did from work. However, writing is quite difficult to make a living on.

Reading this Derek Sivers’ piece opened up my mind that work does not have to be the source of meaning. You can have a job, and an artistic hobby and live a fulfilling life:

Don’t expect your job to fulfill all your emotional needs. Don’t taint something you love with the need to make money from it. Don’t try to make your job your whole life. Don’t try to make your art your sole income. Let each be what it is, and put in the extra effort to balance the two, for a great life.

I’ve thought about that piece a lot since reading it. But reading Dewilde’s article showed me a third possibility:

  1. Work as part of your portfolio of meaning
This is both the most common strategy and also the hardest to pull off. If you allow it, work will overtake everything else in your life. There is always more money to be earned. Always more status to be gained. Some days you’ll feel like you are competing with those who derive all their meaning from work and falling short. On other days you will be jealous of people who find their meaning from activities outside of work. However, just like when investing your money, a portfolio strategy is likely your best option.

This semester I realized that having a portfolio of meaning has made me more resilient. I’m not reliant on work as my main source of meaning anymore which means I don’t identify with it like before. I can find meaning in my writing after work. I can find meaning in friends and family.

November 13, 2020

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