Career

Meaningful Work

Something that I say in job interviews, to relatives, and to cats if I can keep their attention long enough, is that I want to do something worthwhile with my life. I want a profession that’s both existentially meaningful, and professionally fulfilling. These are things that are really, really important to me when I’m looking for a job.

To date, I don’t think I’ve hit both of those simultaneously. I’ve had work I would certainly call existentially meaningful, but I don’t know that I’ve ever had work I would call professionally fulfilling. I’ve had projects that were fulfilling, and jobs that I enjoyed, but nothing I craved more of every morning when I woke up.

The question I have for you is this: is professional fulfillment really necessary to live a happy life?

There’s a part of me that shouts incontrovertibly, “Yes, you idiot!” … But then why am I having such a hard time finding it?

I’ve done a decent number of things with my life, but I haven’t found that thing that gets me going every morning without fail. Is something wrong with me?

I think there are three things that hold me back from being happy with my decisions, and it’s up to me to make the difference – not the other way around.

1. Expectations

Somehow I think that there is a job out there waiting for me that will scratch every itch and sate every thirst. My creative impulses will be given just the right challenges, my boss will be the coolest person in the world, and my coworkers will be super-cool geniuses that all want to be my best friend.

I don’t even need to actively point out what’s wrong with this for you, do I?

What I need to realize is that there is futility in every job, and even if I find a “dream” job, there will still be parts I don’t like. We differentiate work and play for a reason, and it’s not because we don’t require you to wear a tie to paintball.

2. Scale

I have ridiculous expectations for scale as well. Not that I voice all of them explicitly, but I somehow imagine I’ll do something with my life that will leave the world in awe. Everyone will be impressed, every woman will fall madly in love with me, and every fist will bulge with cash as the Earth’s inhabitants rush to throw their life savings at me for my genius contribution.

I’m only human, and I can only have so great an effect on the world. Not only do I need to scale things down a bit, I need to more clearly define success for myself or I only guarantee that I will never reach it.

3. Options

Our generation has too many options to choose from. Just head down to the Cheesecake Factory and check out their menu if you don’t believe me.

As Dan Gilbert* has shown in his studies, too many available choices will reduce satisfaction with our decisions. Do you want to work at home? From home? Somewhere else in the US? How about abroad? You could do any different type of job you put your mind to. Just choose one, and if you don’t like it you can change later on down the road.

Studies show that making exclusive decisions leads to greater happiness, but for some reason we like to keep all of our options open. “I can’t choose to do one thing in particular, because what if it turns out I prefer something else?” Stop it!

What it boils down to is that I can’t live every life there is to be led, as much as I wish I could, and at some point I have to make a decision and stick with it. At least for a little while. Yes, a lot of jobs suck, and I can always bail and try something else, but there is a satisfaction in mastery, and mastery takes time. We’re a generation that wants everything immediately (I get pissed when my phone takes more than an instant to load anything), and satisfaction and happiness are not spared our demands.

In the end, perhaps happiness comes from things other than work, and I should use work to support those things instead of seeking them within my job.

What do you think? Should we just pick something and work hard at it, or should we make finding the “right job” a top priority?

*Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4q1dgn_C0AU

By Jay Swanson

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