Finding Meaningful Work

March 13, 2020 |

In an interview late in his life, famed psychologist Sigmund Freud was asked to expound on what he felt were the most important constituents of life.

His answer? “Liebe und Arbeit.” Love and work.

This is hardly surprising.

After all, for most of human history, the meaning of work and the meaning of life intersected at survival. Work was life.

When cheap energy and mechanization started us down the path of staggering increases in productivity, some philosophers and visionaries began speculating about how we would use the extra “leisure time” we would gain from all this productivity.

The reality has proved much different than projected. How do we spend the “extra time?” We work.

Yet for most, work that we’d call “meaningful” remains elusive.

We can’t always pinpoint what’s missing or what it is that would give our work lives meaning.

Finding Your Genius

Ultimately, meaning isn’t about where you work for or even whether you work for yourself.

For some, meaning has to do with how closely the work you perform is in alignment with what author Dick Richards labels “your genius.”

In his book Is Your Genius at Work?

Richards uses the term to mean that unique intersection between what you are good at (your gift) and what you love to do (your passion).

Richards believes we all have this one genius, this positive talent that can be described in a two-word phrase such as “engaging the heart,” or “optimizing results.”

To me, this notion that if we can find our one true genius, our one true calling is a trap that causes people to endlessly search for the work equivalent of their soul mate.

The fact is we all have multiple gifts and talents. And we can all get better at things that don’t come naturally to us.

Still, Richard’s bigger point stands.

Once you get clear on your gifts, interests, and the skills you actually enjoy it’s a matter of then connecting the dots between what you enjoy doing and an “unmet need” in the world.

By engaging in the simple act of identifying and labeling your genius, Richards says, you’re better able to see how you might help meet those unmet needs so someone will actually pay you for your gifts.

Once your heart gets into alignment with your work says Richards, suddenly work feels more like play.

Work vs Play

Will you be happier when you quit your soul-sucking job to do work you enjoy? Absolutely!

But here again, I differ on this notion that when you find work you love that it will always feel like play.

Why? Because sooner or later the work you do is going to feel like… well, work.

Suddenly you realize you have to get a website or ask someone to hire you or attend meetings or do any number of things that for you, may feel nothing at all like play.

At which point you decide it must not be your genius after all… and you abandon what could what might have been a perfectly wonderful livelihood.

I speak from experience here.

As a professional speaker, I get to travel the world talking to interesting audiences about something called impostor syndrome.

In the last three months alone I’ve had engagements in Denmark, Switzerland, San Francisco, southern California…

(Here’s a photo of my side trip to the Swiss alps. Yes, I walked across those two peaks at 10,000 feet!)

And I’m blessed to be paid good money to do it.

But there are parts of the speaking business that definitely don’t feel like play, like…

  • arriving home in the middle of the night because of a flight delay
  • going through TSA
  • dealing with contracts or the sometimes staggering amount of “administrivia” that goes into getting set up in the company or a university or an entire state’s new supplier/vendor system
  • staying on top of the constant plagiarism of my work

The thing is, you have to do the joyless parts in order to do the parts you DO love.

For me that’s…

  • standing on a stage speaking to hundreds of people at organizations like Google, Boeing, Microsoft, the National Cancer Institute, NASA, and MIT
  • meeting interesting people – sometimes sitting next to me on a plane
  • getting to visit interesting places like Japan, Portugal, Oxford, England, and many others
  • reading emails or book reviews from people who took the time to say that my work matters

Since no work feels like play all the time then maybe what we should be searching for instead is meaningful work.

Of course, this, begs the question: What does “meaningful” mean?

The answer, of course, is different for everyone.

For one person that could mean cleaning carpets or landscaping.

For others that could mean training dogs or deftly dealing with customer complaints or teaching or cooking the perfect meal.

One way to find the answer for yourself is to apply the Alarm-Clock Test.

If the alarm clock rings and you’re already out of bed getting ready for work because you feel good about whatever it is you’re doing.

When that happens, chances are pretty good that you’re somewhere near that sweet spot.

One of my very favorite things to do is brainstorm.

More specifically, I love connecting the dots between what someone loves to do and how they can make money doing it.

Turns out I’m not alone.

So sometime in the near future, I plan to re-open my highly popular program teaching other “idea people” how to get paid to brainstorm like I do.

If you’d be notified when that happens, click here to add your name to the list.