There’s a quiet revolution going on in the workplace. Something fundamental has shifted in our attitude. Instead of money and status, we’re increasingly looking for meaning and purpose, work that’s truly worth doing.
Just ten or so years ago, work was either about ambition, promotion, status and money, or it was just something we did to pay the bills. Now, more of us care less about classic career ladders or getting our own office and more about what we do, how we do it, and why. We now require a sense of purpose in the workplace.
Jeffrey Garton, author of a new book, Career Contentment, says most people find happiness at work when they feel connected to the core purpose of the organization.
“When we are able to find work that uses our capabilities and allows us to address important values in our life’s purpose, it is the best way to find happiness at work,” Garton said.
Career contentment is something deeper than mere job satisfaction, according to Garton — it’s “a state of mind about one’s direction, fulfilment, calling, engagement. Job satisfaction comes and goes with each job, but career contentment is a lifelong quest and mind-set.” But how did so many of us end up feeling unfulfilled?
For some, it’s a gradual realization that what we’ve worked so hard to achieve was ultimately of less value than we believed. And it’s not unrealistic to want meaning alongside a decent salary. Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that once basic needs, such as food and shelter, are met, people naturally start to strive for self-actualization — the final level of psychological development when all other needs have been met and the person can realize his or her full potential as a human being. If we’re lucky, we’re engaged in some way with the end result of our work, but many of us feel distanced from and take no satisfaction in it.
The quest for meaningful work, like all the best treasure hunts, can be an unpredictable journey. We may feel an undefined sense of “is this all there is?” without knowing what else we want. Or we may feel trapped in one role, looking longingly at a different one but not believing it is possible to cross over. Either way, we long for a sense that what we do all day goes beyond the money we earn.
There are many paths to meaning and the one you choose will depend on what motivates you. For some, “meaning” comes from the relationships and interactions of everyday life. It might suit you to work in a small team which feels almost like a family, where you genuinely like and admire the people you work with. This situation may offer more personal support during difficult times in your life outside work.
For others, “meaning” is about being part of an organization or profession that exists for the good of humanity rather than just for profit. But not all meaning has to come from virtuous work; it can be found in an important job which requires you to show strength of character and a range of other positive personality traits, such as people skills, financial skills, and retail expertise. A large salary may help you feel valued and rewarded. So meaning can come from a sense of continual personal and professional development, and from the satisfaction of its acknowledgement.
A few lucky people know from a young age what their true calling is. But what if you don’t?
People typically begin with an undefined longing for something more, often talking about “wanting to make a difference.” The first step is to identify your key motivators, the aspects of work which will provide you with purpose.
One approach to this problem is to identify your “drivers” from a list that includes power, influence, affiliation (feeling connected to a particular group), creativity, autonomy, security, and material rewards. If in doubt, consider the hobbies and interests you spend your leisure time on. This will help you focus and develop an action plan.
You have a choice: do you need to change direction and find a new career, or could you change your attitude to the way you work now? Sometimes there are ways of making less drastic changes, taking a course or moving sideways to a role which suits you better. Enlist help from your boss or someone working in a job that interests you. Could you ask for a short-term job swap?
It may take going back to school, moving to a different geographic area, or other significant steps to get you on the path you ultimately want to take. The question is not whether a change will bring complete happiness tomorrow, but whether it will keep nudging you toward the path of your true calling-
Reference and other resources
Garton, J. Jeffrey. Career Contentment: Don’t Settle for Anything Less! 2008: ASTD Press.