A job does not give life meaning

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People would be a lot happier with the job they had if they were happier with themselves outside of their job. We have seen steady decline in job satisfaction, no matter if the employment rate is very high or very low, and even when most people have control over their time and their workload, they still report that they are unhappy in their jobs, according to the Harvard Business Review.

People do not like work because they don’t like their personal life. And the key to being happy at work is not so much finding the perfect career as it is finding yourself. The more self-knowledge you have the happier you will be. So stop looking at your job to solve your problems and instead look inside yourself. Make friends with yourself and with other people, and your job, whatever it is, might start looking better because you’re not asking so much from it.

If you are looking to your job for the meaning of life, forget it. Even people who feed starving children with the Peace Corps have crisis of meaning. (For example, What is the point of feeding one child when six will die?) The meaning of life is elusive and you must put in a lot of time and energy to find meaning in your life.

The job hunt is separate. The job is something you have to do to support yourself. Since you’re going to be doing it for a good portion of your life, you should look for some basics: People who respect you and your personal life. A company that is honest. A job that uses your skills and experience. A job that challenges your abilities without overwhelming you.

Work does not need to give your life a grand purpose in order to be a good experience. The most pleasurable work provides a perfect balance between too much and too little — in terms of both amount and difficulty, according to Diane Fassel, the chief executive of workplace survey firm Newmeasures and author of the book Working Ourselves to Death.

A career is like a mate. The relationship is limited by what you bring to the table. If you are not happy with yourself, you won’t be happy with the match-up. Here’s an analogy a friend once told me: You have to have the cake, and then the relationship is the icing. It doesn’t matter how good the icing is if there’s no cake to put it on. Who eats icing by itself? Gross.

The part about you is the most important. What do you do when you’re alone? How do you feel about yourself? What are your core values and do you lead your life according to them each day? Do you numb yourself with food or TV or alcohol? It’s very hard to be honest about this stuff. Yet amazingly, people spend lots of time on locating a job and a mate and very little time locating themselves.

“Employees should not demand that companies imbue their lives with meaning,” writes E.L. Kersten in the Harvard Business Review. “Employers and employees have something the other needs. One of the keys to a mutually beneficial relationship is a realistic understanding of what that something is.” A job is not a life.

In fact, online dating is not a bad model for evaluating a job. For one thing, you should never write that you want a mate to make you feel fulfilled — that’s asking much too much from a single person. Yet we complain all the time that our jobs are not fulfilling.

Dating services ask that you be as specific as possible in your desires. So try that for a job. Here’s what I would ask for in a job, and it’s the same thing I looked for in a spouse:





Consistent with my values

Leaves space for the other parts of my life

And here’s another thing about those lists: You are probably going to have to be your list to get your list. That’s why interesting people are at interesting companies. So be who you want to be instead of looking for a mate or a company to make you who you wish you were.

26 replies
  1. J.R.
    J.R. says:

    Work/Career Only is not life. I have seen too many men and women whose only life focus seemed to be “The Job”. It seems to me that within six months of retirement those folks are on their death beds. For those of less than retirement age, six months or so after “The Job” is a life cusp that can either go on to a new an better life, OR
    Marital/relationship issues, financial trouble, addictive behaviors or other crash landings.

    Stop and smell the roses, while you still have the job. Get some outside interests, hobbies and friends. Don’t be so consumed by doing “The Job” to the exclusion of all else. If you do so, you will find that it consumes you, and you become nothing but a hollow shell of a person.

  2. andree
    andree says:

    After reading your article I am realizing that I do need more activities to occupy my free time. I sure do have the time to get involved, but I keep thinking I need to make more money, so what do I do?

  3. sandra
    sandra says:

    very interesting post. thank you! i need that new perspective because i’ve been feeling unfufilled at my jobs for a very long time. thus the reason i keep job hopping. and the reason i keep job hopping is because i keep ending up at a badly matched company.

    i’ve recently been on that lovely self-discovery journey (that’s how i found your post). and what you write resonates because it’s soo true in that we need to know who we are before we know exactly what company is the best match for us … just like a mate. i found my relationship mate. with a little more self excavation, i think… no, i CAN find my vocation mate. why is it harder to find the perfect job than it is to find the perfect husband? ;p

  4. Annie
    Annie says:

    Thank you for this post Penelope. Being fresh out of college and getting into what I had envisioned was my “dream job,” has left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled. I think you hit it right on the head why it’s been unfulfilling – it’s not my job but life.

  5. Linda
    Linda says:

    Thanks for a good post, really interesting and thought-provoking.

    I love my job, probably because it’s as you say – the right amounts of interesting and challenging, as well as the right amount of time every day. I teach English as a second language, and although I sometimes feel like pulling my hair out (that’s the challenging part), there’s a lot of job satisfaction.

    I’m also on short contracts, which I find helps a lot too – if a job is terrible, I know exactly how long I’m there for, and if it’s wonderful, I appreciate it for the short time I get it.

  6. Johnny
    Johnny says:

    I let my job consume me. Status meetings every Monday morning 8am. My kiss ass coworker makes sure to be a half hour earlier than everyone and never waits to start the meeting.

    I neglected having fun with my girlfriend on the weekends or spare time for my job.

    My father passed away in July 2008. I turned 30 in Nov 2008. I was not sure about my girlfriend and our relationship. She left me four days after my birthday. Started lying to me about trips she was taking with her pregnant friend to go visit her husband in Ft. Benning, GA. I freaked out. Now we don’t speak.

    Now I resent my job. I resent my work life. My coworkers. My boss with absurd ever changing feature requests and get Venture Capital quick schemes.

    I’ve been on a string of bad dates. Some really nice cool creative smart girls, then a few dumb bimbos. Nothing has panned out. I’m drinking, smoking, etc more than I used to.

    I still have dreams about my father where he is alive. My girlfriend also. I don’t know what to do and very depressed when I go visit my 27 year old brother (who has never had a real job) at the skatepark on my lunch break wishing I could be skating, playing music doing something like that instead. These people (a lot of hipsters and dirts around here) seem a LOT happier.

    Not sure what to do. Sometimes I feel like hitting eject, but then again I just want to complete the project I was hired to do, but its impossible with ever chaning features when they really need to replace a 10 year old access database application.



  7. Rashmi
    Rashmi says:

    Keep the faith Johnny. It is better to realize late than never. Time vs. money/status is a trade-off, but now that you seem to have a good education and job, you can choose to downshift or downsize (there are many amazon books on this – Goal-free living is one) and work fewer hours perhaps as a freelancer or consultant….in any case, you cannot make up for the past 10 years of your life, but think of it as inevitable….all of that had to happen for you to come to this turning point in your life…now you can prevent further damage and take control of your life and live the way you want to. I know, it is nerve-wracking, I’m going through this dilemma myself and there are no easy answers, but when you look within your heart, the answer seems crystal clear doesn’t it? We just have to trust that the universe will find a way for our or we will find our way in the big backyard we call the universe.
    You could even communicate this with your ex and she might be sympathetic to your earlier dilemmas. If not, that’s ok too. Maybe it is for the best, the universe might have a different plan for you. Trust it and enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

  8. Paul
    Paul says:

    This is a very good article and for me it really hit the spot. I have found myself realying on my work and relationship to feel complete in the past many times. If someone thinks this way they are lined up for dissapointment. It all starts with being in the right frame of mind, understanding who you are and what you need. Then happines will follow.

  9. Harshad Bahl
    Harshad Bahl says:

    I am 30 years old.I have done jobs in different fileds.But still I am not able to get a good job where I am able to sustain myself.what should I do?Kindly reply.

  10. carak
    carak says:

    Fair and respectful managers and colleagues can make or break a job. All of my managers have had no respect for other people’s time or personal values. While I am younger and work under them, it doesn’t mean my responsibilities and commitments outside of work are meaningless. I’m good at the challenging work I am given, but despite it, I’ve been unhappy with my job and career. I didn’t realize how much these qualities alone can affect happiness and interest in the job itself.

  11. SoonToBeCollegeGrad
    SoonToBeCollegeGrad says:

    Sorry all but I can’t totally agree with this article. I do agree that your job shouldn’t consume your life but I do believe that it is an integral part of you. I know I would not be happy with a dead-end job that does nothing but pay the bills. Your job should contribute something to your life. Not everything, but something. But this is just my perspective. I actually want to do something with my job but at the same time not let it totally define me. Is my viewpoint compatible with this article?


    • ItIsWhatItIs
      ItIsWhatItIs says:

      Notice this comment was posted by someone going by “SoonToBeCollegeGrad.” Need I say more? Let’s hear what you have to say in 20 years after experiencing real life.

  12. SoonToBeCollegeGrad
    SoonToBeCollegeGrad says:

    Sorry all but I can’t totally agree with this article. I do agree that your job shouldn’t consume your life but I do believe that it is an integral part of you. I know I would not be happy with a dead-end job that does nothing but pay the bills. Your job should contribute something to your life. Not everything, but something. But this is just my perspective. I actually want to do something with my job but at the same time not let it totally define me. Is my viewpoint compatible with this article?


  13. Dan Wohlslagel
    Dan Wohlslagel says:

    Great Insights. I would recognize these as influential currents with the workplace, but not necessarily as permanent or ubiquitous. Our ideas about what is cosmically “right” is subject to change from generation to generation. Additionally- it takes no more than a single generation to forget what social conformity can make appear “real” in the present tense.

  14. Cynthia Dettman
    Cynthia Dettman says:

    Oh Penelope, I agree and disagree! I agree that happiness is an inside job, and that one’s work is only a piece of life satisfaction. I also agree that workaholism is not good, and that too many are obsessed with work. But….. most of us spend 40 or more hours per week at work during the peak years of our lives. That’s a heck of a lot of time to just be OK or moderately satisfied. I propose that passion and purpose ARE available at work, and that it’s reasonable to pursue and expect a significant amount of meaning in one’s job. At a minimum, let’s encourage folks to seek this out, to leave jobs that are not satisfying, to change careers when they have not been able to create the purpose and meaning they want at work. OK, I confess, I was raised by a liberal missionary educator (gawk, it’s embarrassing to admit the missionary part, but he really wasn’t trying to convert anyone, honest) and have spent my life serving poor people, women and minorities in various roles- attorney, journalist, social worker, now career coach. So I was raised with a burning social ethic. Now, I see a world that is itself burning/suffering/going downhill. In my new practice as a career coach in Portland Or, I’m focusing on “make a difference” careers. I would love your comments on my new blog- yes, white haired 60 year olds are capable of learning new tricks! Cynthia blog.cynthiadettman.com

  15. Tim Lau
    Tim Lau says:

    Wow! This article really stuck out to me!

    My favourite line, which sums it all up for us: “A job is not a life.” It is only a materiel means to an end. Nothing more. Nothing less.

    Actually I have been living the ideal-Job-life you describe but never bothered to mark it into words.

    Nowadays most people see hard manual labour as “below their dignity” or merit.

    This is the result of too much Hollywood and too much television.

    No labour is below our dignity. Not one.

    We do what we must, not only to support ourselves, but to readjust, reassure who we are as earthly human beings. That’s why the Men at construction have a love-hate relationship with it. It’s a man-made job with a motherly nature twist. They just don’t know it….yet. (more about this later)

    Construction is/was the last thing I expected to work in—and I am the last person to be working as a construction worker, seeing that most Americans relate an asian to big business, lawyering or doctoring. Worse yet, I am only 5’6″, slim frame with little mass—still I manage to lift (very) heavy objects and the like.

    A few years ago I may have spat at an offer for a construction job, but on a whim (and in need of money) took it up. It never occurred to me to judge the job, but instead to do it. Just do it. That’s why I can view it all objectively and observe for myself many aspects often times overlooked by passerby’s and workers themselves.

    While construction is the polar opposite of writing, instead of viewing it as “just work”, I take the invaluable life lessons taught to me by my peers and apply them immediately to my own life at every chance I get.

    Obviously I can’t say anything about my “skills and experience” with regard to physical labour,–but I can affirm that I have learned more from it than volunteering for “soft jobs”. No doubt the yelling and shouting by my ex-Marine half-German boss has hardened me after the lessons/mistakes so that everything else in life that I once viewed as “hard” has become “easy”. Suddenly non-physical labour feels like playtime and I am the only standing adult at the playground.

    From the little that I’ve gleamed from your posts, farming life has certainly hardened your own character in the virtual world. (I am still looking for a post on its life-changing effect on you!) I believe there’s something about this inborn back-to-nature nostalgia that provides us with a clearer sense of the world and how we connect with people….Finally acknowledging this has had a grandiose effect upon me.

    Physical labour on its own won’t encourage any breakthrough idea in blogging per se,–but knowing where to look within the job–to seek out those golden nuggets of wisdom on the go impels the next step (closer to the Universe) to appear.

    The fact that I feel content with my “below the dignity-line job” proves that anyone can have any job and still live a life with meaning….

    “A job is not a life.”

  16. Barb
    Barb says:

    Tim, I love what you said. Kudos to you. I agree. A job is not a life. We learn from our jobs. We become better people by having to work through and deal with situations and challenges but the whole purpose is “a means to an end”. We do what we have to do to earn the monetary necessities, but use the situation to become and grow and learn. I admire a man who will step up and do what it takes, whatever that may be.

    I know someone very close to me who has jumped around to so many jobs, businesses, entrepreneurial attempts and still cannot seem to find his place. He gets bored, tired of the situations and people and moves on to yet something else, thinking unadmittedly that there is that one job out there that is going to be everything he wants. He gets excited at start up, then dies fast finding everything wrong. I personally think it’s a wrong thinking encouraged by media that everything in life is supposed to be “fun” and if it’s not, move on. He has fallen into this trap.

    I love what I do because I choose to find the growth and challenges in it. I push to learn all I can in the business world, understand the people around me, better myself at every aspect, having nothing to do with this being “what I’ve always wanted to do”. It’s a means to an end and I choose to enjoy and learn and be content on a deeper level. He still flounders, searching for that perfect job – as Penelope states, he’s attempting to find meaning in his job rather than finding meaning in himself and and as you state, needing to use his job as his means.

    Keep it up, Tim. You too, Penelope. Love your blog.

  17. Venki
    Venki says:

    Penelope, you nailed it right on the spot, I got my dream job after long struggle, but it was unfulfilled, challenging is just a work but this was overwhelming of work, i was fired from my dream job as I couldn’t balance my personal and professional life at one stage of my life, since then feeling very uncomfortable and lacking confidence in job and life, I have been feeling very stressed with my new job so quit that as well recently, do not know what to do, I dont know how to figure out what I really wanted and I don’t know what I really wanted even. Very confused, depressed, and in frustrated situation…. The society I live with respects the job I do than what I really am.. The reason I quit the last job is to figure out what I really wanted in life and to know what makes me happy, As and when I begin to feel that everything that had happened was bound to happen for better, as you said, i used to think universe has something better in store for me.. but my past job and results are still hunting me when i apply for new jobs, the kind of questions they ask in the interview is making me very uncomfortable to answer and bringing me back to zero and making me feel ashame of what I did..

    but your article seems to have an answer for this, Thanks a million for touching people’s life… finding self is the utmost happiness one would get than finding elsewhere outside !!!

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