Meaningful work and job dissatisfaction.
I’m skeptical when it comes to job dissatisfaction, but not because it’s fake news. I completely buy into the results from the 2012 survey conducted by Right Management, where 65% of the workers surveyed were either somewhat or totally unsatisfied with their jobs.
Also, I don’t want to downplay how disappointing it is that over 60% of people in the country are frustrated about the thing that they’ll spend 33% of their life on (an average 80,000 total hours). If we can address this effectively there is an opportunity to solve a major problem in our society.
What I’m skeptical about is the object of our dissatisfaction being a job. I believe it stems from a much deeper issue. What it reminds me of is the story of how I left a job I didn’t like and moved to the Caribbean to work on a boat. I left the mainland United States because I was always feeling bored and frustrated.
When I got to the Caribbean, I still found myself constantly bored and frustrated albeit with better weather.
Sometimes it seems like the external circumstance is the problem. Yes, of course, don’t stay at a terrible job. But let’s make sure that an unrealistic belief does not keep us changing jobs repeatedly forever. In my case, I believed “I deserve a job that makes me happy.” With that belief, I was doomed to a cycle of unhappy job changing.
When I started to connect with the real root of the frustration I found a craving for work that was more meaningful. It wasn’t the day-to-day work or details of the job that made me frustrated. Instead, it was an emotional signal to align my efforts with projects that got me fired up and excited.
Enter the 2013 book How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric. This book was a game-changer for me because it taught me that I needed to seize my own agency when it came to making meaning. Instead of passively waiting for some dream job to come along that would fulfill my every desire at work, it helped me to define what fulfilling work actually looks like. This gave me the framework to cultivate more meaningful work in the opportunities that were already available as well as the new opportunities that have arisen since.
Since 2017, I’ve personally worked with dozens of Praxis participants and seen them go on similar journeys.
In this article, I want to help you diagnose the same problem and investigate if a lack of fulfilling work is at the root of your current frustrations. Next, I’ll walk you through the five dimensions of meaning at work that Krznaric unpacks in How to Find Fulfilling Work.
Lastly, I’ll show you how you can apply what you’ve learned to unlock your next career opportunity in a position that generates meaning.
Buckle up and let’s get started!
Diagnosing the Problem:
There are three common challenges that can prevent us from finding meaningful work.
Unrealistic expectations for work
Too much choice and FOMO
Focusing on status and not values
Unrealistic expectations for work
Something that jumped out to me from How to Find Fulfilling Work is that our current expectations are much higher than they’ve been in the recent past. Krznaric discusses how attitudes have shifted from a place where work was viewed as a necessary means to provide food and shelter and meaning was generated elsewhere notably in the family and through religion.
Modern workers are after a feeling of purpose in work and we want to be paid to express our values, passions, and unique talents. With this in mind, there are two obvious solutions to the problem that a majority of workers say they’re unfulfilled with work.
A. Lower our expectations
B. Take up the challenge to find work that expresses our values
I suggest a blend of both strategies. When it comes to expectations there are numerous examples of people from all walks of life that have found meaningful and fulfilling work. It is reasonable to suggest that this is possible for anyone reading this blog.
However, I’ve yet to meet anyone who was granted a meaningful career opportunity without going through a period of self-discovery and experimentation. So, if you’re like I was and you think meaning will just be dropped in your lap one day then you have to challenge those expectations and find a new approach. (you’re in the right place!)
Additionally, it’s useful to pay attention to the language we’re using when talking about jobs, money, and the economy. If you find yourself using the following words: should, must, deserve, etc. you probably have an irrational belief on the subject that is worth investigating.
This is incredibly common and it’s a great step to replace them with more rational beliefs.
2. Too much choice and FOMO
FOMO or the fear of missing out on theoretical opportunities that terrifies most people early on their career journeys. By banishing this fear you can grant yourself a tremendous advantage. FOMO stems from the myth that there is a perfect, linear path that ends up with an idealized dream job that may or may not exist.
In reality, awesome jobs are the product of a messy and fun process of experimentation, error, and feedback from the world. We didn’t learn to speak by planning out a perfectly structured essay. We babbled and screeched our way to competence. The real world provided plenty of feedback and context for you to learn and we now find you here, incredibly literate, 1500 words into a long-form blog post.
3. Focusing on status and not values
Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, said that “Our position in social hierarchies strongly influences motivation as well as physical and mental health,” continuing to say that “insight into how the brain processes social standing may have important public health consequences, possibly even paving the way to new stress-reduction therapies.”
I first started thinking about the role status played in my life when I read this epic tweetstorm by Naval. He talks about focusing on creating wealth as opposed to moving up and down social hierarchies. Let’s look at what he means by status and wealth.
Status is a zero-sum game and it’s very old. It’s hierarchical. Who’s has the most status? Who has the 2nd most status? For number two to move to number one, number one has to move out of that slot. So, status is a zero-sum game.
Sports are an example of a status game. To be the winner, there must be a loser. Politics is another example.
On an evolutionary basis, if you go back thousands of years, status is a much better predictor of survival than wealth is. You couldn’t have wealth before the farming age. This was because there weren’t effective ways to store things yet.
If we remember that the world of work has shifted so greatly in a couple of generations, imagine how it’s shifted in the course evolutionary time. However, we still carry some of the same habits from a cognitive and behavioral standpoint that aren’t as effective in the new context.
Naval suggests that we play wealth games. He describes wealth as businesses and assets that earn money while you sleep.
Examples are software code, blogs, podcasts, and businesses. For the discussion of meaning at work, I would slightly amend this excellent idea and suggest playing value games.
Values are basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate our attitudes or actions. Often, we pick up ideas about how to act and operate in our careers from learning and mimicry. This means we might learn how to work from an authority figure or culture that operates from a fundamentally different value system. This is likely to cause frustration and a lack of fulfillment.
Ask yourself the question, what are my core values? Now, you can look for ways that your career can express those values in sustainable ways. If we bring value games and wealth games together in synthesis you can create wealth assets that express your core values. This process is likely to bring meaning and fulfillment to life.
Dimensions of meaning (why your career can unlock new sources of meaning in your life)
Now that we’ve diagnosed some of the potential problems with a lack meaning at work, let’s explore how to create it. In How to Find Fulfilling Work Roman Krznaric unpacks 5 key dimensions we can use to generate meaning.
- Dimension 1: Earning Money
- Dimension 2: Achieving Status
- Dimension 3: Making a Difference
- Dimension 4: Following your passions
- Dimension 5: Using your talents
Let’s investigate them one at a time.
Dimension 1: Earning Money
In most articles on best career choices, the lists are reduced to which fields pay the most. This is not a terrible thinking process. It is crucial to consider future income when thinking about getting a degree, exploring a coding bootcamp, or applying to Praxis.
However, reducing career decisions to earning power is an excellent way to end up in the bucket of frustrated workers we talked about earlier. Here are some questions to consider:
- How much income do you want?
- Where did you get your ideas about money?
- What is a comfortable living?
Dimension 2: Achieving Status
I’ve already mentioned status and said that it’s a trap to focus on it. While this is true, I feel that it is easier to work with our drives to attain status using it as a way to help express our values. Frankly, we like social validation and approval. We have innate motivational drives that will help us move towards these interactions. So, if we can align what we find meaning and purpose in with how we communicate socially this is a great way to use the status drive as a way to find meaning.
What this means in practice is that we have to communicate in a social environment that is will validate and approve what we care about the most. The quote attributed most often to motivational speaker Jim Rohn “You’re the average of the five people spend the most time with,” comes to mind.
Ask yourself these questions to check in with where you’re at when it comes to achieving status:
- How concerned are you about the evaluations of others?
- What jobs have the highest status?
- Where did you get the idea that the jobs you selected were high status?
Dimension 3: Making a Difference
“Making a difference”, having a “positive impact”, or “doing good” are all common phrases used by workers seeking more meaning in their career. The felt sense that we’re making a difference is an important component of a job that ultimately generates meaning.
So what do these phrases actually mean? I like the definition from 80,000 hours:
Doing good” or “making a difference” is about promoting welfare, considered impartially, over the long term — without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance.
Welfare includes something that makes people better, encompassing happiness, health, and the ability for people to live the life they want. What’s great about this dimension is that it helps us think critically about the true effects of our work.
Returning briefly to the conversation about status, research has shown that social validation is a huge motivator when it comes to giving charity. There are many religious parables that explore this phenomenon.
The good news is, we don’t need to work on flashy, large scale humanitarian projects to make an enormous difference in our local context.
As an example, I know a bus driver who is an unbelievably positive force in my life. She has remarkable resilience and an uplifting attitude. She manages to motivate most of the thousands of people that board her bus every day. Because bus drivers aren’t awarded high levels of social status she will most likely never win an award or be recognized for this. However, she is worth studying here because she has cultivated meaning in her career.
Ask yourself these questions when it comes to making a difference:
- What does making a difference mean to you?
- Is making a difference important to you?
- Where does it rank in relation to these other dimensions?
Dimension 4: Following your passions
The fourth dimension of meaning is fascinating because it has generated so much discussion, debate, and dialogue. For some incredibly smart people including the author of How to Find Fuffling Work Roman Krznaric, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, and Marsha Sinetar following your passion is a crucial strategy for building a fulfilling career.
Conversely, there are fantastic responses, critiques, and clarifications to this philosophy that are crucial for us to understand especially early in our careers. It worth investigating all theses perspectives in greater depth, but I believe there is a greater synthesis that brings these smart perspectives closer to a common ground.
First, following your passions can help you work towards a cohesiveness between love, work, and play. This will help increase motivation, enthusiasm, and enjoyment creating positive feedback loops that will lead to upward spirals of success and fulfillment.
However, doing what we love does not mean doing what we feel like. Remembering FOMO and paralysis by analysis it’s a good idea to not wait around for the perfect opportunity to arise. Instead, we can get in the habit of saying yes and allow new passions to emerge.
Ask yourself these questions when it comes to following your passions:
- How important are your passions and interests?
- Have you investigated the variety of opportunities where your interests could be used?
- How have other people made a reasonable income out of similar passions?
Dimension 5: Using your talents
This is the dimension of meaning that gets me really fired up. It’s a great way to bring together the perspectives explored in dimension 4 and put the wisdom from both sides of the discussion into play. Let’s say you have a passion for playing soccer or violin. The professional opportunities for these passions are limited and competitive. While I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going for opportunities that are competitive it is important to have a backup plan in case things don’t work out.
What are the talents that lie behind these interesting passions? A violinist may have great attention to detail or patience. A soccer player may have awesome discipline and the ability to work collaboratively. These same talents generalize to many domains and activities. Often times, by expressing talents in environments you hadn’t considered it will turn out that new expression of the talent is something better than you ever expected.
Ask yourself these questions when it comes to making a difference:
- Consider your passions, what are the top 5 skills or talents you bring to bear on them?
- When you are at your all-time best, what are you doing?
Your first opportunity on a meaningful career path
Now that we’ve explored why a lack of meaning is a problem and figured out the dimensions where we can cultivate meaning it’s time to land you the first opportunity on this new path.
Ignore long term planning, embrace experimentation.
We often compare real things with idealized, fake alternatives. This phenomenon is known as the nirvana fallacy. It’s a cognitive bias to ignore early in your career. When it comes to unlocking your first career opportunity long term planning can set you up to fall into this trap. For example, say you design a five-year plan to become a UX designer. This causes you to ignore sales and marketing opportunities. The problem with this is you’re trading all the potential upside that’s latent within the jobs your ignoring.
It’s possible that design opportunities materialize within the marketing or sales role like they did for Julianna Carbonare.
Additionally, by crushing it at a gig that’s not directly related to your long term goals you expand your network and increase the possibility of finding a design job through your new connections. Instead of a 5-year plan you could find yourself doing UX design in far less time.
The upshot is to maximize your time creating value and have a bias towards yes when opportunities come your way.
Start learning and working out loud
Now that we’ve explored the values, talents, and passions that are most meaningful to us we can start expressing that online via blogs, social media, making videos, and creating podcasts. This not only builds your personal brand, but it’s a powerful tool for making an impression on hiring managers.
Also, it’s a way to make new connections and help others with the questions they have about life.
There’s a great book the topic called Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. It works because creating new relationships is the foundation of learning out loud. When you show your work online you begin to attract people interested in similar things. This leads to new opportunities. As relationships deepen in your network, they’re more likely to help you or collaborate in some way, creating new possibilities that weren’t imagined before.
In this article, we’ve explored why a lack of meaning in work is at the heart of many of the frustrations we have in life. We explored how we can generate and create the meaning we want through 5 unique dimensions. We then introduced two tactics you can put into play right now to move closer to a work life filled with meaning.
Now, I’d like to challenge you to take action. Email me and I’ll send you a free book. If you put the same effort into encountering the information in it that you did with this article I guarantee 1 year from now you will be in the top 1% of young professionals.
Success follows action! I’m looking forward to talking with you about what comes next.