I hear from scores of professionals each week with every complaint you can imagine about their jobs, work-life challenges, and their unfulfilling careers. Surprisingly, there is one ingredient these careers are missing that causes the most long-term pain and concern (excluding toxicity, abuse and mistreatment).
The ingredient that’s absent from so many thousands of people’s careers is meaning – the feeling and heartfelt sense that what they are doing has a strong purpose, a positive impact in the world, and offers something to people that will make a difference, and have lasting value.
Most professionals believe that they have to chuck their entire careers and start over, in order to find more meaning in their work. They often fantasize about doing something creative or altruistic (like start a non-profit, join the Peace Corps, work on a communal farm, write a book, start a bed and breakfast, or move to another country entirely) to bring more meaning into their work. But they are often mistaken. You don’t have to uproot your entire life and career to create more meaning and value.?? You can do it literally starting today, wherever you are.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say if you are thinking of running as far away as possible from your current career, to something radically different in order to create more meaning, you should stop in your tracks and do some powerful inner and outer work before you take the next step.
Here are four critical steps to creating more meaning in your work right now:
Dimensionalize “meaning” for you.
Each and every one of us is different in terms of what we care about. What matters to us deeply, and what brings us a sense of being valuable and helpful in the world, is shaped by many influences, including:
• your childhood
• your ancestry
• your cultural training
• the people you care for and respect
• the problems in the world that hurt your heart
• the traumas you’ve experienced and the triumphs in your life
• your special and amazing talents and gifts that come easily to you
• the way in which you operate in the world
• your personality (including extroversion or introversion, positive mindset, action style, etc.)
… and much more.
You can’t create more meaning in your life and work if you don’t understand yourself intimately or know what matters to you personally, at a very deep level.
I’m always surprised when professionals can’t identify what matters to them, or what they’re great at. Often, this lack of self-awareness points to a significant internal block – that they were somehow suppressed in childhood, and/or punished for thinking for themselves. Overly-protective, critical or narcissist parents are highly threatened by children who try to act and think independently. And it can go very badly for the child or young adult who wants to strike out on his/her own.
If you’re blocked internally and can’t get to the heart of what you care about and what makes you you, then the way you were raised might have had a strong hand in your inability to understand yourself and what matters to you most. (Read more on how being raised by a narcissist alters our ability to think for ourselves.)
Don’t wait for meaning to fall in your lap – seize it.
Step 2 in this process involves expanding your own accountability. It’s critical to realize that whatever you want in life won’t just fall in your lap – you have to go out and proactively get it.?? That takes clarity, confidence, courage and connection, and those four elements don’t just happen to us. We have to take the time to build our internal strength, and expand our repertoire of external behaviors in a way that will allow us to create and attract what we want.
So, to build more meaning in your work today, first identify the shortest avenue to doing more meaningful work, in your current situation. Ask to join a new task force at work, start a new project, volunteer to be part of a team that is doing something you care about, research a new direction for the organization that you could oversee. It’s easier than you think. Talk to your manager about what you’d like to get involved with, and get his/her support to pursue a new direction within your role that would excite you and offer something of value to the organization.
If you believe that’s not possible within your role, then start interviewing outside and networking expansively. Identify clearly what you’re looking to be a part of, and talk to anyone and everyone you can find who might be helpful. Get more clarity on exactly what you could be doing differently that would feel meaningful and purposeful to you, and start doing it.
As an example, I’m a trained coach and marriage and family therapist, and I’ve always had a therapeutic lens to my work. But this year, I decided to add a new healing dimension to my coaching, and am making strides to do that. It’s truly not hard, once you realize what you want, and muster the courage to go out and find new ways to bring more meaning into your daily life.
Ask for higher-level help – find mentors and sponsors at a higher level of thinking and operating.
What keeps the majority of unhappy professionals stuck for years is that they’re trying to solve their problem on the level of consciousness that created it, and that’s impossible. You have to ask for help, but the “right” kind of help. We hear constantly about the need and value of finding mentors and sponsors to support us, and this is not an empty cliché. It’s vitally important that you get help from people who are demonstrating a higher level of thinking and behavior than you’re currently accessing.
To find powerful mentors, don’t ask a stranger. Put yourself directly into the circle (either in person or online) where these people are interacting and connecting, and make yourself valuable to them there. Don’t reach out with your hand out – but connect from the heart, and find authentic, generous ways in which you can support their work and demonstrate your value to them. (Here’s more on how to find a wonderful mentor who will open amazing doors for you.)
Finally, stop procrastinating and making excuses, and start doing and being.
In the past four years, I’ve witnessed a phenomenon that blows my mind around fatal procrastination. Here’s one example – I run online career courses and when they’re promoted, there are deadlines for people to enroll. Each time I promote a course, a good percentage enroll within the last five to 10 minutes of the deadline. Five minutes. And still others write me days after the deadline, apologizing for their delay (with all sorts of excuses), asking me to extend the deadline. Then half of those people don’t end up pulling the trigger.
Procrastination is a fatal behavior, because you’re continually killing off important opportunities to grow and become who you want to be. Yes, it’s scary and intimidating to make change and stretch. That’s the human condition. But only when you can act in the face of your fears and insecurity can you ever build a life and career that is full of meaning for you. Why? Because pursuing what is meaningful to you is a heart- and spirit-centered endeavor, and when our hearts and spirits are involved, there’s a lot at risk and we’re frightened of blowing it. But those who have built great meaning in their life found a way to push through the deep fears and resistance, and pulled themselves out of their comfort zones. They finally did something bold. But bold doesn’t have to mean throwing your entire life and career out. Bold can be one small but significant step.
In the end, if you continue to resist becoming more accountable — and taking concrete action — to create more meaning in your life, then you’ll persist in pushing away any chance of having it.