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.

68 replies
  1. Anna
    Anna says:

    I agree. My sister was let go from her event planning job over three months ago. I’ve watched her turn away countless job opportunities because the hours are too long, it isn’t the kind of work she wants to do, she’s overqualified, she’s under qualified, the start date conflicts with her trip to Las Vegas, etc. Meanwhile she’s losing what little savings she had and spending her days watching what’s on her TiVo.

    I’m not advocating settling–but I do think there’s value in taking a job that may not be exactly what you think you want or need. After all, as human beings, we’re not terrible good at knowing what we really want.

    Though you do make me want to work for you!

  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    You are so correct on #s 1 and 2. People may think that money shouldn’t matter, but until you can support yourself your idealistic pauper-job is literally unsustainable. And when your job sucks, no matter whether it might be working for a great cause or something, it makes your life suck–again, unsustainable.

    The sooner we get past 1 and 2, the sooner we are free to discover what is truly rewarding to us.

  3. Bill Genereux
    Bill Genereux says:

    “…help people to figure out what they are good at…”

    This is the essence of good leadership. So-called leaders whose primary concern is their own success still don’t fully understand what it means to lead.

  4. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Wow, great post. Always thought it was best to worry about everybody else to overcome tendency to worry about self most. It’s worked for me anyway.

  5. Steve Errey
    Steve Errey says:

    I think there’s a confusion here. What’s important is doing work that’s meaningful to you, which doesn’t have to be the same things as doing work that’s meaningful to others or the world.

    Sometimes the two might go together while at other times they might not. The whole point is to engage with something that has a personal relevance and meaning, no matter how big or small, short term or long term it is.

    No man’s an island, so while I agree that it’s the impact of our work that makes the difference thinking that meaningful work has to benefit someone else is starting from the wrong place.

    It starts with you.

    • robert
      robert says:

      What if YOU are a misanthrope, are greedy, and/or are violent? People need to question their own beliefs, values, and actions and CORRECT their own selfish and misanthropic tendencies.

      You need to check yourself against how other people behave and then act in a socially humane manner.

      We live in communities and yes you do have to do work that others (who are enlightened and socially progressive) would approve of. you cannot do whatever you want just because you think it is meaningful.

      This process of “checking in with others” is called being a reflective and conscientious person. IF your selfishly-defined “meaningful work” causes harm to others and/or the planet and/or the creatures on the planet then your work is NOT meaningful.

  6. Juki Schor
    Juki Schor says:

    Great post. It also shows a possible difference between the US and some European countries I got to know where it is still practice to mainly point out to people what they cannot do well in the hope they will improve. The good stuff doesn’t need mentioning, it is good already, although mentioning would help people to get to know what they are good at. But one shouldn’t need help in the first place and finding sanity is for therapists; and of course you have to dedicate your life to that work…The most difficult part seems to be for more and more people lately to “find someone (who) values the level of skill you have to pay you a wage with which you can support yourself”.
    Not sure about the helping, though, it kind of gives me the feeling of “continuous plane crash” situations and that is not a real sane starting point for a successful working place environment I feel (but I know Americans like this “helping and saving” stuff a lot). And I thought you had posted earlier that being “kind” would be better than being nice. But otherwise, stimulative.

  7. mamaworker
    mamaworker says:

    I have 3 of the 4 but no goals or challenging tasks. I’m working on that internally but also looking for something new as a backup.

  8. Jessica Bond
    Jessica Bond says:

    I agree – giving your life meaning comes from within not from a job. Great customer service and team work are opportunities we all have in giving meaning to our current job.

    But I must confess, those of us who are fortunate to work in healthcare have the opportunity every day to make a difference in patient lives and their families and friends. Healthcare is a wonderful place to find a great job and leave a meaningful legacy.

    Cheers,
    Jessica Bond

  9. Dale
    Dale says:

    Penny,

    At first I thought that the title of this post was misleading. I thought it should read, “Tips on how you know your job is meaningful” or “How to recognise that your job is meaningful.” But after reading it again, I recognize this post as encouraging self knowledge. It suggests that before jobhunting, you should know what you like to do, then find a way to do it and make the lives of others better, and pay the bills. This creates motivation and inner fulfillment.

    Now, decide how you will recognise such a job, and go get it. The job per se does not matter, as long as these features are covered.

    Right?

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I would add to #2(Take care of your work – make sure your job doesn’t suck) – Find a good, competent manager to work for.
    You were being a good, competent manager in #3(Make a difference in peoples’ lives – from any type of job) by delegating the most recent launch at BC. Thanks for the reminder/refresher about the importance of office politics.

  11. Egyptian Mind
    Egyptian Mind says:

    I used to say and think that if we want to save others, we have to start by being selfish, because I can’t save someone from drowning if I am myself drowning with him. I have to save myself first, then and only then can I save others. I loved this post because it reminded me of this meaning, and other very important things to remember!

  12. Marina
    Marina says:

    I can’t agree with point 2. There has been some major research done into the equation or ingredients of happiness (have a look at Sonja Lyubomirsky for further reading) and one of the things she emhasises is that job satisfaction plays a huge role in your overall happiness.

    Research aside, I found this point to be a little uninspiring. Im young and just starting out and the reason I love your blog so much is that you push me to dicover what I’m really good at, love it and then grow it. Work cannot just be something that allows me to stabilise my sanity.

    It is up to me to create meaning in my work but I understand this to mean seeing every day as an opportunity to discover something, anything, new and therein lies my meaning. I think that if I saw my job as primarily a way to manage my sense of sanity and security I might loose my grip on the possibilities.

    Is it niave to think that possibilities come first and if I work hard at exploring my options my happiness, meaning and security will follow?

  13. Sital Ruparelia
    Sital Ruparelia says:

    Excellent post, thank you

    I do a little bit of improvised comedy and can see a lot of similarities between ‘how to find meaningful work’ and ‘how to improvise.’

    Namely:

    1. In improvisation (or – €˜improv'), you're encouraged to "go with the first idea or comment" that comes to you – instead of waiting around for the – €˜right' comment or the – €˜perfect' moment (there's no such thing)

    – With your career, sitting around soul searching about meaningful work or waiting for your perfect job denies you the opportunity to grow, make excellent mistakes, learn new things and meet new people. It also denies others the opportunity to benefit from your talents – which, as you point, is the key to finding meaningful.

    2. In improv, your job is to be totally focussed on "giving your partner on stage a good time." If you do that, they'll enjoy it, you'll enjoy it and the audience will love it.

    – In your career, helping others based on your unique talents is the fundamental part doing meaningful work.

    3. In Improv – When entering the stage half way through an improv scene, forget your own agenda (and your ego) and instead focus on – €˜adding to' and contributing to what's already going on.

    – In your career, adding to what's already there is more constructive and makes a bigger difference to your employers and the people around you. Which in turn makes the job more meaningful for you.

    Taking these actions on stage is a little scary, but it's also very exciting, satisfying and a lot of fun.

    I think the same applies to your career. Taking the approach you suggest is a little scary, but approached with right attitude, can be exciting, meaningful and a lot of fun.

  14. Roberta
    Roberta says:

    Great post! I agree that your job isn’t the meaning to your life. You also give the link to your post on being happy at work.

    When I started my teaching job this Fall, my superintendent reminded us that this job was one part of our lives. Good advice for a job that many consider very meaningful.

  15. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    “where it is still practice to mainly point out to people what they cannot do well in the hope they will improve”

    Hum … don’t know what I think about this comment. People seem to be good at some things and not so good at others – and that doesn’t really seem to change much. If someone is stuck doing something they can’t do well, they probably already know it, and pointing it out to them just makes them go home at the end of the day feeling a little worse. It’s usually best just to give them something they’re good at and stop badgering trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. That’s no fun for you or the turnip.

  16. chris keller
    chris keller says:

    I see a theme repeated here: to help others. Whether you are a manager or not, you CAN be a morale person at your place of employment.

    Helping people who are slower than you? Helping people who are not in your generational category?

    And the corollary–thanking those who help.

    Geez! It sounds entirely civilized and polite and respectful! As well as generous.

    Thanks for reminding us . . .

    CAK

  17. Jean Gogolin
    Jean Gogolin says:

    I strongly agree with Dale that having a good manager is important to finding your job meaningful. My smart older brother told me once that if I had one good manager out of 10, I could consider myself lucky, and I can say now, after several decades worth of corporate jobs (I now run my own business) that he was right.

    As to helping other people, that goes back to some of the oldest counsel of all: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Meaning “as much as you love yourself.”

  18. Chris Young
    Chris Young says:

    Thoughtful post, Penelope…

    We all value different things. I it is important to remember that “meaningful work” means different things to different people. Some people want to make a difference in the lives of others – others want to make money – others want to be boss… However shallow that may seem – that is the perogative of some people and ultimately that has to be respected. When we respect one another’s values at work – we get ahead.

    I absolutely do not agree with the thought that work does not give your life meaning. There is deep common sense (and scientific) evidence that suggests that if you are unhappy at work that your home life will be unhappy. If you are unhappy at home – your work life will be unhappy. Balance must exist. It is a misguided notion that a person can go to a place of work 40 hours out of the 168 hour week and that major amount of time will not have some type of meaning. If it does not – find work that calls you.

    Lastly… The only office “politics” that I think anyone needs to really worry about is understanding what is expected of them from their boss and their bosses boss and over-delivering. The typical petty office politics that exists does little to really help – in fact I think it most often hinders the careers of those who choose to play office politics.

    Keep writing, Penelope!

  19. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    Penelope–and others–could you provide some guidance on finding such a great manager? I recently (about 1+ yr. ago) started working for my friend as a boss & it’s been horrible.

    He is secretive and hides key information from me and as soon as project (or coverage area) seems like it will get notoriety, he will take it away from me. We experienced a restructuring about 6 mos. ago where his boss was laid off and it’s only gotten worse since then.

    Since he is more than 10+ older than me and has more experienced in the field, I did not expect to be on an equal playing field but he is making the wrong kind of “difference” in my life. I know what a good manager is (I have struggled to be one myself) and he is not one. (In fact, he is well-known clock watcher and yelled at me because I came in an hour late after my one-year-old got violently carsick. I left her in the care of others and marched right into my job but I was still yelled at.)

    Your post struck a nerve with me because of my situation. I have a phone interview with a new company tomorrow morning. Now–how can I tell if the next manager is a decent human being? I couldn’t even tell that my friend wasn’t.

  20. Dale
    Dale says:

    @ anonymous,

    try to talk to others in the company. Pay attention to the descriptors used in describing your potential boss. How does he or she speak of others in the dept? What does he/she say is most important? Ask what happened to the incumbent that necessitates your being hired? Where are they now? what was their greatest challenge in the position. These will all give you clues on the new situation.

    Dale

  21. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Anonymous

    You sound so pained. I have worked with 2 bully bosses and there is no way to like a situation you describe.

    However we can only control what we can control. You cannot give your ‘boss’ a personality implant. So learning to manage up well is the next best thing.

    Penelope has written before about the need to ‘manage up’. You may want to see these:

    http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/category/managing-up/

    Some posts are more relevant to your situation than others but I assume you can find those out yourself.

  22. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Anonymous

    You sound so pained. I have worked with 2 bully bosses and there is no way to like a situation you describe.

    However we can only control what we can control. You cannot give your ‘boss’ a personality implant. So learning to manage up well is the next best thing.

    Penelope has written before about the need to ‘manage up’. You may want to see these in the category ‘managing up’.

    (I posted the link here but the comment went into moderation so I am writing again without the link).

    Some posts are more relevant to your situation than others but I assume you can find those out yourself.

  23. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    Thank you Shefaly & Dale. I feel I’m managing up to a degree but appreciate pep talks, perspective and further information so that I can be more effective.

    I think, in this instance, I may have been hired because I had, on a personal level, been very complimentary to this person and his outside professional projects that he gained notoriety for. I think I may have been seen as someone who would not rock the boat & would worship him no matter what. Especially since he might believe that I owe him because he gave me the entre into the job.

    Dale – I will try to get out some of those questions tomorrow!

  24. Laurie | Express Yourself to Success
    Laurie | Express Yourself to Success says:

    I agree with you that meaningful work is helping people. It's beneficial to keep in mind that – €˜helping people' includes those we work with on a daily basis, not just the – €˜end users' such as our clients and customers. To help the people we work with involves making a positive impact on their work lives – even if it's just to show encouragement, support, and gratitude or creating an environment that makes them want to go to work Monday morning.

  25. PatrickWB
    PatrickWB says:

    Great post.

    I would add that #1 may sound like common sense, but I’m always surprised at how often people get stuck at #1 – which prevents them from ever working to achieve #2 or #3.

    #1 also ties in (in my mind) to a previous discussion in this blog about likability. Being helpful, embracing collaboration and being flexible are ALL important, but self-care is, too. There’s a happy medium in there that is attainable (with some work and communication).

  26. John
    John says:

    I wonder how many of these “raah-raah-Penelope” posts (the number of which has skyrocketed lately) are really just sock puppets.

  27. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    John:

    There is a test. Many of these apparently rah-rah-Penelope people also write posts hugely critical of her. It is called Fairness when the same people express appreciation where it is due. :-) What say?

  28. Grace
    Grace says:

    “a short predictable commute”

    I once thought that it was reasonable to drive for hours or take 8 buses if the job was great. It is amazing how a long or complicated commute can dramatically lower your quality of life.

    I can walk to my work right now. The job isn’t the greatest, but I’m not sure if I’m willing to take something better if it means getting back in the fast lane.

  29. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    Sometimes when you life at home sucks, work is all you have to give your life meaning. Another reason to make sure you are happy with what you do. And if your work doesn’t make the kind of difference in other people’s lives that you hoped for – volunteer somewhere that does. Give what you can. Your time can be worth more than your money.

  30. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    I agree with most of this essay; it’s really good.

    I just find it hard to imagine having a job, even a low-paying one, and being malnourished because of the low pay. Low income can make it easier to fall into malnutrition by making bad food choices, but the right choices can still give you a balanced diet. If breakfast is a doughnut and a can of cola and lunch is a burger and fries, you WILL be malnourished. But guess what! An egg, toast, and a glass of milk cost less than doughnuts and coke for breakfast, and there are many lunches better for you and easier on the budget than a fast-food greasebomb. (Even a vegetarian diet is better for you than food from your local burger joint, and I say that as a confirmed carnivore.)
    And don’t eat out if money is short! One meal at a diner costs the same as two or three home-cooked meals.

  31. Robert Messenger
    Robert Messenger says:

    Most respondents seem to fall into a feel good, Ayn Rand world of self-centeredness. Some jobs really are better than others. The following is an example of this “if it feels good B.S.”:

    “We all value different things. I it is important to remember that “meaningful work” means different things to different people. Some people want to make a difference in the lives of others – others want to make money – others want to be boss – However shallow that may seem – that is the perogative of some people and ultimately that has to be respected. When we respect one another’s values at work – we get ahead.”

    I do not respect another’s values to destroy life or the planet. Greed is NOT good, no matter how you try to dress it up. If the end product of what you do is death and destruction then you are working for the forces of evil. One cannot find meaningful work in the defense industries or working as an executioner. As a society, we need to move the society forward in a more humane and loving way. We need to turn-down those high-paying jobs in the “disaster capitalism” economy and as consumers not buy into the products of this world view.

  32. Paul
    Paul says:

    Meaningful work? I work to live. I think your life should come before your work. I’ve given up many high-paying jobs for a career at a company where flexibility is known to be a big selling point to all it’s employees who find the random schedules of children, hobbies, and life in general to be more important. A job that doesn’t require you to give these things up, is a good job to me!

  33. Stefanie
    Stefanie says:

    Agreed – I think people search for meaningful careers outside of themselves rather than inside. You can make a huge impact on the people you interact with day to day.

  34. JoeKing
    JoeKing says:

    Meaningful work is when you get pay to do what you enjoy doing most day-in day-out. Of course it is always better if the money is good. But to get pay good money for doing something that you don’t enjoy than it is not really worth it. Thats why people like myself are searching to change career and looking to find for something that is a little more meaningful.

    I am one of those people that aren’t happy with my job. I helped others and watched them succeed in their work. I got paid good money doing it. But somehow I don’t feel full fill. I watched those I helped succeed stepping on others to get their ways and I thought to myself. Why in the hell did I help them in the first place? I understand people are being people. But damn, its just a job don’t kill yourself over it.

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