At its core, meaningful work is helping people. But that makes you think you need to save children dying in Africa. But, really, you can push papers for multinational conglomerates and feel like you’re doing good for the world. Here’s how:

1. Take care of yourself—have the basics covered.
The most important thing about making meaningful work is that if you are always worried about paying rent, it’s very hard to add goodness back to the rest of the world. Giving back to the world requires a sense of personal well-being and stability that only people who have a roof over their head can manage.

Back when I was doing what most of you would call meaningful work, I was totally preoccupied with budgeting my meager salary to make sure I didn’t run out of money at the end of the month. At the end of that stint, when I landed in the hospital for a kidney infection, it turned out I was severely anemic, and I’m sure it was because I had such a poor diet from making so little money.

So before you worry about meaningful work, you need to be able to support yourself. Your first job in life is to figure out how to do that. It takes a while. You actually have to figure out what you are good at and what you like doing. This doesn’t mean you have to dedicate your life to that work. But it means that you are learning and growing, and someone values the level of skill you have to pay you a wage with which you can support yourself, and others you might need to support.

2. Take care of your work—make sure your job doesn’t suck.
Work doesn’t give your life meaning. The idea that your happiness correlates to your satisfaction with your work is misguided. What you need from work is to make sure it’s not undermining your ability to create sanity in your life. Work is a way to get sanity, to make sure you are growing and you feel secure while you do it. Here’s what you need from a job to get that:

  • A short, predictable commute
  • Workflow you can manage
  • Clear goals that are challenging
  • Two co-workers you’re close friends with

Once you have those things in your job, then it is not up to your job to create meaning in your work, it is up to you.

3. Make a difference in peoples’ lives—from any type of job.
The most competent managers are doing meaningful work every day. Management is one of the best perches in the world for doing meaningful work, because you can help people to figure out what they are good at, what they are doing with their days, and what makes them tick. You can help people craft a life.

One of the most rewarding moments in Brazen Careerist is when I read this post by Monica O’Brien. She wrote about the teamwork and personal growth that went into our most recent (and sort-of-shaky) launch. The biggest difference I made in someone’s life that week was to give everyone the opportunity to do something they had never done before, and watch them learn.

The other thing you can do at work is help your co-workers. The best workers in corporate America are people who get their work done fast—probably not perfectly, but in time to pick their head up and wander around the office and figure out who needs help. Lots of people will need help. Someone will be lost, someone will be lonely, someone will be overwhelmed. Then look at your own arsenal of talents. Which one is well suited for one of the problems you see people facing? Use your skills to help people overcome their obstacles.

It’s true that it’s not exactly part of your job, but this is the office politics people have been talking about forever. The office politics that gets you ahead. You see, office politics is about being nice, and being nice is about infusing meaning in work, and everyone around you will get more meaning from their work if you are making your own work more meaningful.

So the bottom line is that any work can be meaningful if you understand that it’s your job to help people.

The meaning will come after you help yourself first. Think of what the flight attendant tells everyone before takeoff: if you are traveling with someone who needs special assistance, put your own oxygen mask on first, and then help someone else. But if you don’t get your own mask on, you can’t help anyone.

So stop using your search for meaning as an excuse for not getting a job. Life is loaded with meaning, if you would just start living it. And, as an adult, that means engaging in ANY kind of work that we can do well.