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Why Meaningful Work? And Why Now?

by Mark Guterman and Dan King

Photo of woman searching for meaningThere is an “emptiness” that pervades many careers and workplaces today — a thirst for meaning, a yearning for a worklife that is more than a financial equation. As career coaches, we witness firsthand the unhappiness of people who, in order to acquire funds to live, sacrifice their values and beliefs, hoping that somehow they will achieve success and happiness along the way. Their stories have one thing in common: “something is missing.”

At the same time, many leaders and managers, in Fortune 500 companies, private enterprises, and small not for profits, are striving to create a progressive culture, to develop and retain top talent, but have neither the expertise, nor the inclination, to do so in a way that satisfies the innermost needs of their employees. Amidst reengineering, globalization and outsourcing, employees often feel “imprisoned” by 24/7 technologies, making their work seem like a “life sentence.”

The desire to contribute to something worthwhile spans all ages and spectrums of the workforce. It frequently remains unspoken, but it is there — in the frustration, in the anger, and in the tears. Even when we break the silence, it is not always articulated in simple, straightforward ways, but rather in conceptual terms like “contribution,” “purpose,” and “legacy.” One thing is clear: the pursuit of a higher purpose is embedded within the career aspirations of growing numbers of people today.

Meaningful work is, of course, as is one’s appreciation of art or music, in the eyes and ears of the beholder. What constitutes meaning, how we think and feel about it, merges at the crossroads of our values and the needs we carry with us. And this construct is influenced by situation and surroundings. We generally don’t give it much thought until we notice its absence. And then it’s often articulated as “I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not this.”

So, then, what is it? And how do we find it?

To figure this out, we must be able to define our values and act on them. That is, we must become thoroughly familiar with what we want from our work above and beyond a paycheck. This requires reflection, action and feedback. Through discussion and dialogue, we can identify ways to bring more meaning to our work.

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