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The Search for Meaningful Work

By Dan King and Mark Guterman

Word cloud with meaningful work termsOver the past few years many of us have reflected on the meaning that our work has in our lives. The horror of September 11 disrupted our sense of normalcy and, as a result, we have become profoundly aware that something vital may be missing. What is it? What would bring real meaning to our work lives?

This reflection and questioning process takes patience, persistence, and courage. In a culture that thrives on instant gratification and quick problem solving, the time it takes to ask the important questions – and wait for the answers — can feel painfully slow. Most of us are not used to flexing our reflection muscles this way, so it is difficult to even articulate the relevant questions. Additionally, when we go into this questioning mode, people close to us often become very anxious. The changes affect them too. It can be scary for everyone.

My co-founder, Dan King, and I are currently writing a book on how work and meaning come together in our lives. We’ll be sharing stories from people who have explored the intersection of work and meaning. In order to help them write their stories, I gave them a process by which to think and write. You may find it helpful to follow the guidelines as well. To begin with, take some time to imagine yourself in one of the following scenarios:

  • You are at a gathering attended by all the people who have ever been important in your life. They eagerly await hearing the story of how work and meaning have intersected for you.
  • You are the featured speaker for next year’s graduating class and have been asked to tell them the story of how work and meaning have come together for you.
  • You are at the end of your working life and it has been everything you hoped for and dreamed about. As you look back, what is the story you’d most like to tell?

Now, in order to create and tell your story, reflect on any or all of the following questions:

  • What meaning does work have in your life?
  • How have you dealt with the issue of making a living and having meaningful work? Easy? Difficult? Challenges along the way? What methods and strategies have you used to help you with this issue?
  • How is your soul enriched and enlivened through your work?
  • How does your work contribute to the future?
  • How does your sense of God show up and inform your work?
  • For whom do you work?
  • How has your relationship with work changed over the course of your life?
  • What role has serendipity, coincidence or luck played in your work life?
  • How have fun, play and humor brought meaning to your work?
  • Do you have a philosophy, mission or vision that guides your work life? If so, what is it and how did you come to it?
  • What poetry, quotes, sayings, prayers, music, spiritual writings, pictures, photographs or paintings represent and/or guide your work life? How do they inform your work?

Take 15-30 minutes, three or four times a week over the next month to revisit and write your story. Find a quiet space where you will not be interrupted. As you work through the questions, make note of any action items that emerge for you. In essence, you will create a roadmap for what you need to do to find greater meaning in your work. Share your process with someone close to you.

September 11 was the kick that many of us needed to look deeper at the meaning of our work and lives. It is an all-too-human characteristic that change takes place in reaction to pain or crisis. Now it’s time to find the answers we need. By following the guidelines and questions above, you’ll move toward greater purpose and meaning in your work and life. Let the journey begin …

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