The Meaning in Work

One of the ways I keep myself motivated to go to the gym is the promise of listening to great podcasts (from this Freakanomics podcast episode I now know this is called temptation bundling). One such podcast is the TED Radio Hour. This week I listened to the episode on the Meaning of Work, featuring highlights of TED talks by entrepreneur Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely, and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this episode is that the ways that we’re so used to talking and thinking about the concept of work—completely separate from all other parts of our lives—have a negative effect on not only our happiness but also our productivity. Identifying and fostering meaning in work is as important as as in all other parts of our lives.

Being a language lover, I wonder if talking about “the meaning of work” can be so challenging because “meaning” can signify “definition.” If I change that preposition to “in,” although it’s a very slight change, it shifts the direction of my thinking to a more creative route as opposed to a technical examination of the possible meaning I can find in what I do. The phrase, “the meaning of work,” also suggests that the meaning itself is the (or a) purpose of work, whereas “the meaning in work” suggests that value can be found in the process of working itself.

Because that’s part of what the struggle is about, right? Finding meaning in the actual process of working, as opposed to the final result? It can be easy (sometimes, anyway) to see the purpose of work as delivering a great product, helping someone achieve their goals, or solving a problem. But when those end results take a long time to achieve, or the part you play in achieving those goals is removed from actually seeing the results, the daily challenge then becomes seeing the meaning in the work you are currently doing at this moment. 

So how DO you find the meaning in work? In the day-to-day tasks, the drudgery, the things you don’t want to do but have to in order to make a living?

For me, it helps to first think carefully about what brings me joy, excitement, and inspiration; being mindful of when I am really happy in the moment of doing work, and what are the moments when I am feeling particularly inspired or excited about my life and work overall. Some tasks I absolutely love doing, and of course I love the result of helping people learn. There are also some tasks that I enjoy only partly, but avoid doing because they’re challenging, or difficult, or frustrating. One of the ways that have been the most effective in helping me find meaning in work is to maximize my enjoyment of those tasks.

An example of this is creating visuals, whether it’s for a blog post, Facebook, or other content. It’s not something I always used to enjoy because I would spend so much time searching for stock photos and fiddling with fonts and dimensions and programs that I didn’t understand (ahem, Photoshop). But then, I discovered Canva, which has saved me so much time and frustration by making it really simple to create images for multiple platforms (and with Canva for Work, it’s even easier). I also discovered resources like Unsplash, Death to the Stock Photo, and Stocksy, where I could find beautiful, creatively inspirational, high-quality images for no to low cost (Stocksy images are paid). With these tools, I could easily create visuals without all the hassle I was struggling with before. I found a solution that would allow me to focus on the part of this task that brought me incredible joy: finding inspiration in beautiful visuals. While working with visuals is not contributing directly to the results of the services I provide, it helps me find joy and creativity in the process, which has done so much for my overall happiness with my work.

Since experiencing the benefits of maximizing my enjoyment of work-related tasks, I now try to apply this concept to any other task that I find challenging, frustrating, or just tasks that I tend to avoid for no particular reason.

Have you explored the meaning in the process of working? What are some ways you’ve found joy, inspiration or significance in your day-to-day tasks? Please share in the comments!