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Is Meaningful Work Still Possible?

By Dan King and Mark Guterman
Photo of financial newspaper

“Many American Workers Underemployed and Underpaid”
New York Times, June 2012

“Globalization and Social Media Impacting the US Economy”
Forbes, August 2012

“Growing Mismatch Between Job Openings and Skills”
Wall Street Journal, October 2011

“Long-Term Unemployed Facing Discrimination”
CBS News, July 2011

“53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed”
The Atlantic Monthly, April 2012

A glance at recent headlines would make anyone wince. There’s plenty of “doom and gloom” out there — and no shortage of people willing to spread it around. We’re running as fast as we can, trying to just “stay in the race.” But we’re burdened by the nagging feeling that we’re falling farther behind. All the while, our leaders debate competing remedies wrapped in angry sound-bytes and finger-pointing. Our control of our destiny seems to be slipping away.

But amidst all this discouraging news and political posturing, there are some things we can do. For starters, we can rise above the fray and pursue our passions as fervently as we pursue our paychecks. With a little reframing, meaningful work is still a very real possibility. But we need to do more. Or, to put it more accurately, we need to do different.

Based on the pace of change and the uncertainty about which careers will last and which will go away, we need to have two strategies — one focused on “problem solving” for the immediate short term and the other geared to “creating” a vision for the long-term future.

“Problem solving” and “creating” are not the same thing.

“Problem solving” requires left-brain thinking, tending to immediate tasks and projects, doing your job well, learning as much as you can, and preparing for the next step. It’s only a step — not a final destination.

“Creating” calls for right-brain thinking, anticipating the future, dealing with ambiguity, and imagining a long-term vision that can guide you. It’s similar to the process an artist experiences when staring at a blank canvas. He’s not trying to solve a problem; he’s bringing to life a vision of something. The end is not always clear, but the vision pulls him closer.

We need both functions so that we can look at current career decisions and make them in a way that prepares us for the next job, the one after that, and the one after that. Meaningful work occurs when you adhere to a set of guiding principles.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Commit to a direction, not a “final resting place.” In a world where the “jobs” are increasingly at risk and provide little or no security, you will do better to look for the intersection of the value you bring with the problems needing to be solved.
  • Focus on the “light,” not the “noise.” Rather than being discouraged by the statistics and distracted by circumstances, take steps toward meaningful work by choosing to “ignore” the data. In other words, take action in spite of “evidence” that says those steps might prove futile.
  • Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to figure it all out at once. Maintain your focus and take small steps in the direction you want to go. Put your attention and energy toward actions within your control.
  • Make your own headlines. Know what matters to YOU, not just to others. It’s YOUR life. Get straight with yourself that you have value and pursue situations that allow you to shine. Meaning comes from forging your own unique path.

We have choices. We can wallow in the “doom and gloom” perpetuated by the press — or we can remind ourselves that we will have little memory of this two years from now. One mindset will definitely make us happier than the other. Let’s take a page from author Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling book, The Happiness Project, and “choose the bigger life.”


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