What Is A ‘Meaningful Job?

By Tricia Liverpool

What Is A ‘Meaningful Job?

​Over the years there have been millions of songs written about Love. More recently self-help books centering around career advice have spawned a billion dollar industry. Given we spend more time at work than anywhere else, our professional direction should therefore in theory be addressed even more so than our romantic ideals.

It may be because we are freer than we were years ago when more than ten years in one job was the norm and even the goal. Nowadays, if we’re fed up of “soulless” work we are told to take charge of our career, find our vision and carve our own path. But what if we can’t see clearly? What if a path that looks promising actually leads nowhere?

It may be because we are too focused or not focused enough. We feel stuck on a narrow path and we wonder what lies beyond it. Or we hop between jobs without commitment or a clear direction. The more we reach for meaning, the more elusive it becomes and paradoxically thinking about meaning only deepens our longing.

When you look at it that way, meaning is like love.In adulthood we tend to have given up the fantasy that a Prince or Princess Charming will show up one day to sweep us off our feet. We know that finding love takes more than hopeful waiting. It takes building a relationship with somebody to share love with.

When it comes to meaning, however, many of us still believe in a version of the handsome prince and perfect princess. Whether it is the “dream job” or “fulfilling life” we imagine them to be out ready to understand us perfectly and delight us ever after. That very belief keeps us confused and stuck.

Meaning, like love, is a consequence, not a destination. It is the sentiment we experience, usually in passing, when we’re engaged with activities, people, or purposes that keep us busy and make us feel alive. If meaning is what we seek, then, the best we can do is to find something so engaging that we stop thinking of meaning. How? The same way most of us go about finding our somebody when we are looking for love.

Yes, fantasizing, getting advice, and taking to the Internet are all well and good. But sooner or later you have to play the awkward, exciting, unpredictable dating game.

On a first date you rarely ask yourself, “Is he or she the one?” In fact you are more likely to wonder, “Is this going any further?” or more precisely, whether and how you would like it to. The latter question is far more useful, for three reasons.

It is (more) answerable. It is impossible to know in advance if a job you are considering will be meaningful. You can tell if it is attractive, which does not hurt — but this offers little real guidance. It is possible, however, to sense from a project, an internship or even just a meal with potential colleagues if that attractive job may be worth pursuing further.

It reveals what you want (and what you are prepared to give). Considering a concrete option, as opposed to a fantasy, puts your expectations to the test of reality. If you went further, what might you have to invest, rearrange, give up? How much work are you prepared to put in to make it work?

It exposes you (or makes you withdraw). It is impossible to love and learn without making ourselves vulnerable. From rejection, hurt, disillusionment or exploitation. To surprise, affection, understanding and transformation. Dating won’t help you assess those risks and opportunities accurately, let alone prevent them, but it gives you a chance to entertain them and maybe take the plunge.

Any job, like any relationship, brings out some parts of yourself and demands that you put others aside. At best, they free you to express more of who you want to be. At worst, they make you feel unsafe. When flirting with a job, you may feel freed up or want to shut down. That is a sign of how the job may change you.

There are as many kinds of meaning as there are kinds of love. Claiming and liberating us at the same time, both elicit the full range of feelings that come with being alive. Our “meaning lives” are as complex and messy as our “love lives.” Both can be frustrating at times and gratifying at others. In fact, it is the possibility of experiencing a broad range of feelings, in relation to someone or something that matters, that makes them meaningful.

A meaningful job has boring moments, scary moments, angry moments. It is not a flat line of unvarying personal fulfillment. Nothing is great if it is monotone. There is no job of your life out there, waiting to be found. There are only jobs that may, if you allow them to, make you feel more or less alive.

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