Before you spend any time on this article, heed a warning.
If you’re looking for advice that gives you an easy checklist or simple remedies for meaningful work, you won’t like reading this. Most of the articles today placate to the ego by providing feel-good prescriptions that are easy to parrot. But that’s not the truth. I’m not interested in your ego; I’m interested in arming you with the right tools to rock your journey.
Meaning is an area of our lives that is so nuanced it has taken several millennia and a lot of incredibly smart people chipping away at different actions and insights to understand it. So let’s learn a few fundamentals that, if you have the constitution, will enhance your existence.
First, let’s understand what meaning is and, more importantly, what it isn’t. Bijoy Goswami, the author of The Human Fabric, defines meaning as “the way a being parses its existence.” This definition is stellar because it accounts for both how we interpret the world and how we chose to show up in it. Meaning isn’t emotional discharge that elicits images of unicorns and rainbows. It has a lot more to do with the inner voice that shakes your core awareness enough that you’re willing to struggle to see it grow.
Over 70 percent of the workforce goes to work every day feeling like life is a hampster wheel. They’re repetitively trying to convince themselves that their next job, next promotion or next raise will get them to the place where they can finally be themselves. You hear it all the time, “If I can just get there, then I will be able to…” But it never works out like that, does it? So it’s much more comforting to blame your manager, your company, the economy, the government, capitalism or some existential power that can let you reason away the voice of truth inside with half-baked logic. But in reality, no one else and nothing else can give you meaning. When it comes down to it, it’s up to you! You have to show up, start an honest conversation with yourself and earn it.
I’ve been interviewing people about this topic for over 20 years. On most days, I videotape as many as eight interviews and analyze the content in quest of the relationship between people and organizations and what makes them both great, irrespective of each other. I’ve also had to be brutally honest with myself about this on my journey.
It took a long time for me to learn that there are a lot of people who say they want work to be meaningful, but a small number willing to work for it. It sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? People unwilling to work for meaningful work? The paradox about meaningful work is that the people who won’t work for it end up living that life of drudgery on their hamster wheels. And the few that are willing actually to work for it? They navigate life as free, responsible human beings that are in high demand.
The hard truth about meaningful work is that there’s a fundamental equation to personal well-being and fulfillment that can’t be hacked, skipped or ignored. First, you have to develop a competency with the domain of meaning. What does development of a skill like this require? It’s essential to become familiar with the fact that meaning is in a different domain than many of those we master each day. Science, business and politics, for example, all have different languages, methods and actions in order to deal with them effectively in their respective domains. Meaning’s domain requires language, models and tools to master its process. Learning isn’t enough. Like anything else, you have to engage to have success.
What’s one of the most important things to know about meaning to begin your process? It starts with understanding the “test of truth” for this domain. You have to interrogate your existence at work with questions that aren’t so easy to answer — questions like, “what resonates with me in my work?” “What am I interested in doing if I wasn’t judged or had no accountability?” Remember, this is about how you’re interpreting your work existence and showing up in it. To understand what your meaning(s) are, you have to obtain a proper inventory. You have to dig in and find out what you love doing, where you lose track of time and whether you are living a life that is ratified by you.
If you’re showing up at work for reasons that were downloaded by parental expectations or cultural directives, like “keeping up with the Joneses,” you will continue to fight with your inner self. Abraham Maslow said, “It isn’t normal to know what you want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
Why is this so hard, and what is going on inside us that makes this such a challenge?
Your ego is running the show more often than you think because it doesn’t want you to know. The problem is that, as valuable as your ego is, it’s not the unique or the authentic you. The ego is a cultural program that seeks comfort, safety and validation. It’s an incredibly valuable part of you. But when it’s running the whole show, things don’t go so well for you. It wants to run its programs and get its short-term payoffs. It’s great for things like eating and working out, but it will also lie to you to get you to comply because it has an aversion to your truth.
The real you is buried under numerous redundant cultural programs that the ego has built. The real you is a massive bundle of potential whose essence you continuously mine and channel into the fullest expression of you in the universe. When understood, these energies possess an orientation that’s capable of a personal transformation with your work. It’s not easy, and it takes… work.
There’s only one problem: The authentic “you” scares the living daylights out of the ego. Why? Because this bundle of potentialities doesn’t care about the material comforts your ego seeks. Its core drive is to express its full potential. So to keep “you” under control, the ego calls on a little evolutionary friend — fear — tricking you into an imaginary prison of circumstances that chain you to comfort-seeking narratives.
The silver lining is that there is a tipping point. Which is why real awareness and transformation is a process, not an event. At some point, working through enough faulty cultural programming enables those potentials to actualize. Everyone knows that authentic people are more interesting, magnetic and unique. We also seek out authentic experiences in the companies we choose to engage in through both work and commerce. Asking these questions every day, and adding a little bit of knowledge every day in acquiring meaning skills and mining your essence, will deepen and enhance your meaning inventory and, in the process, refine and define the real you. And the best news is that the bundle of potential buried inside has a real job to do. That job and that package of potential are much more exciting, interesting and meaningful than anything your ego could ever cook up.