A Guide To Finding Meaningful Work (Original Research & Findings)

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If you ever thought to yourself: “There’s got to be more than this…” read on.

Chances are, at some point along the way, you thought what you were doing didn’t really matter.

Sometimes it’s a fleeting moment, and sometimes it festers for a while. It makes you question all your decisions, and what the future holds if you continue on this path of inconsequentiality.

There comes a point when making more money, getting a promotion, or spending more on frivolous things doesn’t add any more satisfaction or happiness to your life. It’s a boiling point when you realize that you’ve been chasing someone else’s definition of success. And you start thinking “Is what I spent my life doing… worthwhile?”

It turns out there a lot of us wondering the same thing. Almost every day, I meet someone who is asking the same questions, from veteran entrepreneurs and tenured professors to tradesmen and C-level leaders.

My moment of truth came in late 2012. Since then, I invested significant time and effort to find ways to make a positive, lasting impact with my work. To leave a legacy of some kind. This investigation led me to interview over a hundred entrepreneurs, professionals, authors, and regular folks like you and me — about legacy, life, joy, and fulfilling work.

This is the first set of findings from that original research.

The pattern was impossible to miss.

Meaningful work exists at the intersection of Values, Talent, and Service.


#1: Values

We look at values in different ways.

For most organizations, it’s a thing you put on a plaque on a wall in the office. It stays there, largely ignored by the leadership and employees, because the management team is only interested in meeting quarterly budgets.

On a personal level, it means being clear on who you are, and what you stand for. Our personal value system guides our actions and decisions. For example, if one of your primary values is family — that means if you have to make a decision between working late in order to finish a project or going to your kid’s soccer game — you will be on that soccer field without hesitation AND it would feel like you’ve done the right thing.

People who do meaningful work understand their core values, can clearly articulate them, and consciously use them to guide their decisions.

This is something I’m still discovering for myself. Just the other day, I came across a great article on MindTools that walks you though the process of determining your values. I will be working through it next week, and share the results on the podcast.


#2: Talent

Almost every single person that is at the top of their field identified their natural talents, and invested the time to develop them into a unique ability. It’s immediately clear when you talk to someone like that, they’re tuned in and they know exactly what their gift is.

Most of us (at least those of my generation and older) have been taught to work on our weaknesses and build up a well-rounded skill-set. This came at the cost of dulling our natural advantages in order to fit into a more “standard” role at whatever company.

The more contemporary school of thought is to develop your strengths. As researchers studied top performers, they found that instead of working on their weakness, they would focus on their strengths, develop them even further, and eventually rise to the top of their field.

Talent is a core element of strength. It’s a unique gift that only you have, a natural aptitude for certain things. It’s encoded in your DNA. Sometimes it’s evident from activities you excelled at as a child, and sometimes you discover it later on in life.

For a lot of us, this mean rediscovering those natural talents we suppressed for years.

Here is how to go about (re)discovering your talents:

  • Take the StrengthsFinder test (use a new e-mail if you’ve done it before).
  • Take the DISC test (here is a free version).
  • Notice what your friends and colleagues come to you for advice on.
  • Look for patterns.

You can take a million more tests, like Myers-Briggs, Kolby A, or whatever kids are doing these days, but these two along with some awareness, will give you enough actionable insights to start.

Once you discover what your talents are — the question becomes how do I use this unique gift to make a meaningful contribution?


#3: Service

When you think of high performing, high impact individuals, people you look up to (living or dead), people who are genuinely happy and content doing what they do — chances are their work helps someone, and most likely a specific group of people.

Almost uniformly across the board, there is some kind of an emotional connection between them and their group. It could be by a shared experience, world-view, or a particular purpose.

If you were to think about this as a marketer, this would be your target market. People or organizations whose lives you want to improve. People you want to see benefit from your hard work.

It might be the elderly, young entrepreneurs, middle managers, or it could be coal miners in Pennsylvania. You get to decide.

These are people you naturally emphasize with. You understand them. They could be a past version of you that you want to help so they don’t make the same mistakes you did. Or it could be a group of people from all over the world who need your specific talent to help them take the next step.

I struggled with this until last year, when I decided to start tracking who I enjoy working with, and who genuinely benefitted from our work together. I thought back through the last 5 years, and noticed the clients, friends, and acquaintances I enjoyed spending time with, and I wanted to help succeed. I thought about their personalities, and traits.

I ended up building a profile to represent the group. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Experienced professional or entrepreneur.
  • Held or currently hold a leadership position.
  • Lifelong learners.
  • Generally over 35.
  • Want to make their mark, and leave a legacy.
  • They read a lot, and listen to podcasts.
  • At this point in their lives, they prefer unique experience over stuff.

This might change over time, but it really helps clarify who I write for, and build projects for.

I would encourage you to do the same. Think back through the last couple of years, and identity the people you most enjoyed working with, and for. Then look for patterns: what do those people have in common?

I hope you found this article helpful. This was the first concrete set of findings from interviewing and having conversations with over a hundred people from a variety of industries, backgrounds, and experiences.

Meaningful work is something we all want on some level, As organizational and psychology researchers are starting to find out, meaningfulness is more important to workers and entrepreneurs than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.

This doesn’t mean marching into your office tomorrow and quitting your job to go build orphanages in South America.

But if you currently feel like you’re not doing fulfilling work, try starting small. Think about what your core values are, what your natural talent is, and who you would like to benefit from your work, and build a small passion project, that meets those criteria.

Maybe that means writing about something you know, printing it off, and shipping it to a few colleagues. Maybe it means taking an afternoon with your family to go clean up a local park. Maybe it means going to a local Maker shop and 3d printing a prototype for a prosthetic you designed.

Doing small projects like this on the side, will help you figure out what meaningful work is to you, what you enjoy doing, and what you find fulfilling much more reliably than any other method.

In a lot of cases, it can lead to promotion, career changes, and new business opportunities.

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