Working With Purpose
Bringing More Meaning to Your Career
Does this sound familiar?
It's another Monday morning, and despite your best efforts at being cheerful, you feel dragged down as you get closer to the office. You walk to your cubicle, sighing at your co-workers, and you drop your briefcase with a thud that sounds like prison cell doors closing behind you.
As you sit down, do you wonder what it might be like to really love what you do?
Do you consider the possibility of working with a true purpose rather than just moving papers around on your desk?
Another sigh. In your dreams, right?
Now this may sound a bit extreme – and hopefully you're not at this point yet -but believe it or not, it IS possible to love what you do and find new purpose in your everyday tasks. We're not talking about changing careers to become a skydiving instructor. Sure, it would be fun, but you have to pay your bills.
No, we're talking about finding purpose in what you do NOW.
How Do You Find Purpose?
When you set out to actively look for purpose in your life, the harder you try, the harder it can be to find.
Remember chasing butterflies as a kid? The more you ran, the more they flew to escape you. But sometimes, when you just sat on the grass and watched, they'd come to rest on your leg – if only for a moment.
Finding purpose in your work can be very much like this. Don't run forward frantically, trying to find meaning. Instead, do a quiet, more thoughtful search. The meaning and purpose you seek may come to you when you least expect it.
Tip 1: Change Your Mindset
Finding purpose in your work can have a lot to do with your attitude. Happiness and meaning often result when you focus on something or someone other than yourself.
There's a classic story that illustrates this point rather well.
A man walks on a beach one day, and he sees another man up ahead acting strangely. As he gets closer, he realizes the other man is picking up starfish and throwing them back into the water. The starfish have been stranded on the sand by the tide change, and there are thousands of them on the beach.
"Don't you think you're wasting your time?" asks the first man. "You can't possibly pick up all these starfish. What you're doing isn't going to make any difference."
The second man just looks at him, then throws yet another starfish into the water. "I just made a difference for that one," he replies simply.
What does this story show us? One of our most basic human needs is to make a difference to someone else. We often fall into the trap that to "make a difference," our actions have to be huge or substantial. If we can't save the world, we think that we might as well do nothing.
The man throwing the starfish into the sea obviously couldn't save all of them, but he could save a few – and to those few, it made all the difference in the world. If we want to find purpose in our day-to-day work, then we can start by making a difference to the very people who we interact with every day.
Think of these situations:
- If one of your colleagues is struggling with a project, offer some advice or try to help the person complete it.
- If one of your co-workers is having a rough day or going through a bad time, do something small to cheer up the person. Take the co-worker to lunch, or just offer a hot cup of coffee and listen to his or her problems.
Practice small acts of kindness every day, even if no one will ever know that you're the one doing them. You might be surprised at how much these little things will impact your mindset and sense of purpose.
Tip 2: Examine Your Situation
It's very easy for us to get wrapped up in our day-to-day "to do" lists or the next big project. We tend to focus forward on what we have NOT yet done, and we rarely stop to look back at what we HAVE done that's made a difference.
Keep a personal "boast book," either on your computer or in a special notebook. Use this book to keep track of "good" things that you've done. Mark your calendar, perhaps once a month, to spend five minutes adding what you've achieved since you last wrote in it. Try to express what you've done in terms of outcomes and results, rather than activities. For instance, you could write "Helped Helen with Project Beta seminars" rather than "Booked meeting rooms and took meeting minutes for Helen."
Within just a few months, you should build up an impressive list that will help you realize how much difference you've made.
Tip 3: Rediscover What's Truly Important
When you try to rediscover purpose in your career, you need to understand what's truly important to you. Step back a little. It's possible to see that, no matter what you're doing, you can incorporate meaning into it.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What are your values?
- What task do you do that truly "lights you up?" What makes you feel alive and engaged?
For example, let's say you work in sales, and you really value honesty and helping others. At first glace, working in sales might not seem to fit those values. But if you dig more deeply, you may find that it actually does.
No matter what you're selling, chances are high that your product somehow helps people. If it didn't, it probably wouldn't exist. Most products serve some want or need. Find out what your product helps people do.
If you sell clothing, then that clothing helps people stay warm, or look beautiful, or "make a statement" about themselves. If you sell office furniture, those products help people perform better by giving them a practical, comfortable place to work.
Your next step is to help others see the benefits of what you offer them, and honestly inform them why your product can help them. Instead of being "sales-y" and going into your "pitch," just be yourself. Don't focus on how this sale is going to help YOU (for example, with a commission or recognition from your boss). Focus on how this sale is truly going to help your customer.
You've now gone from being "just a salesperson" to being an honest, direct person who helps customers purchase products that are going to benefit their business or day-to-day lives.
This subtle shift, simply applying your values to what you do every day, can make a big difference in how you feel about your work.
Tip 4: Apply the "5 Whys" to Your Job
Ask yourself "Why?" at least five times to discover the true meaning behind your career. If you'd like more information about this exercise, read 5 Whys: Quickly Getting to the Root of a Problem.
Here's an example. Adam is a manager at a cable TV station. He starts by questioning why he even has a job in the first place:
- Why do I have a job?
Answer: To make sure that my co-workers do their jobs correctly and well.
- Why must my co-workers do their jobs?
Answer: So that the cable TV company continues to provide excellent services to the customers in our area.
- Why do customers want to watch excellent television?
Answer: So they can be entertained and learn new things.
- Why do customers want to learn new things and be entertained?
Answer: So they can relax after a long day and become better human beings.
- Why does that matter?
Answer: Because by learning and being entertained, customers can lead fuller, more enjoyable lives.
Through this questioning process, Adam starts to look at what he does in an entirely new way. Yes, he's a manager at a TV station – but in the end, he's helping people live better lives.
Most careers can be broken down in this way. Just keep questioning what you do and why you do it.
Finding purpose in your current career is a journey, not a destination. It's not something that will happen overnight. If you question your values, and if you're willing to look at what you do in a new way, you can find meaning in your work. Sometimes even small acts can make a difference to your co-workers, and many times these actions will bring even more joy and fulfillment to you than to the person you're helping.