What is meaningful work?

The most important “I Must” statement on my list is to be “meaningfully employed.”  But what is meaningful employment?

Sometimes it is easier to state what something is not before defining something.  Let’s discuss what meaning is not.

Meaning is not value.  Meaning cannot be sold or traded.  Meaning cannot be gifted.

Way out in West Texas, a Prada store replica sits disconnected from the consumerist culture it’s normally associated with.  It’s a conspicuous reminder that Prada has monetary value, but Prada itself does not mean anything outside of its’ normal context.

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When applied to work, the question becomes, ‘If the meaning of your work lies in the ability to subsequently acquire goods for oneself or others, is the work itself meaningful?.’  To answer this question, I apply the West Texas highway test.  If dropped off on a lonely, deserted highway in West Texas without any ability to trade your work, would the work still feel worthwhile?  If the answer is no, then the work you do is likely valuable but does not contain much personal meaning.

Meaning is also not happiness.

Happiness is comfort.  Happiness is pleasure and passivity.

Meaning is discomfort.  Meaning is an exhausting construction process.  Meaning hurts like the aching pains of a teenager’s knees.

We make meaning.  We feel happy.

Raising kids, or so people say, is the most convincing argument for a split between happiness and meaning.  Parents consistently report feeling less happy after having kids, but report significantly more meaning in their life.  Once again, meaning is an uncomfortable growth process.  Happiness is a passive, blissful state.

Ok, so what is meaningful work?  After reading carefully (see links at the end of the article), I am aware of a consensus.  Meaningful work is both personal and connected to a far-reaching purpose.  It is both intrinsically motivating and in service of the greater good.  I would argue that, strictly when defining meaningful work, it is less important whether what you are doing actually has a net positive impact.  What matters is whether we believe that our work is both personally meaningful and benefits others.  We’ll never know the net positive or negative impact of our actions.  The best we can do is pursue work that we believe to have a positive impact.

Raskolnikov, the complex central character in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, has the abstract notion that murdering a pawnbroker who, in his judgment, harms many people would be a crime ultimately benefitting humanity.  Raskolnikov supports his idea analytically but, upon enacting his plan, descends into psychosis.  His ideas become increasingly nihilistic as he dissociates from society.  This is an extreme example, but the point is that abstract calculations of your net impact (payment of taxes contributing towards infrastructure, groundbreaking research advancing a far-off cure, etc.) is not enough for work, or life itself, to hold meaning.  Supporting others financially does usually hold meaning, but the “others” are people you know or interact with.  At the novel’s conclusion, Raskolnikov, through realization of his love for another, knows he is ready to re-enter society.  Dostoyevsky aptly concludes that for Raskolnikov, “Life had stepped into the place of theory and something quite different would work itself out in his mind.”  Raskolnikov finally believed in something and belief, not abstract notions of “the greater good”, is the foundation of meaning.

Ultimately, determination of whether work is meaningful or not is personal.  You must be convinced it satisfies two stringent criteria:  

  1. The work must engage you personally (West Texas highway test)
  2. You must believe in the power of your work to positively impact others


LINKS:  If you want to read more about meaningful work.

  1. NY Times Opinion- Millennial Searchers
  2. http://www.workingself.com/work/what-is-meaningful-work
  3. Lab for the Study of Meaning




There is a wide gulf between the literal definition of success and how successful people describe success.  Shown below, the top two definitions per dictionary.com describe success as an identifiable moment conferring discrete benefits.

  1. The favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals
  2. The attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.

Compare this to how two cultural icons define success.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Maya Angelou

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

Both figures describe success as a process or a state of mind.  What explains the disconnect between the dictionary definition and how individuals understand success?

The issue is the difficulty of judging others’ success.  Outside of close friends and family members, we must resort to outward symbols.  However, these external markers (“wealth, position, honors, or the like”) may or may not have personal meaning to the person in question.  Because of this, we must separate how society will judge us and how we will judge ourselves.

Dictionary.com is defining how others judge your success.  Personally defined success, if it is to have any meaning, must be fundamentally different.

This misconception is the core of early 20s confusion.  Tossed into a maze of opportunities and people, you are overcome with excitement at the simple idea of just being a credible adult.  But then, before intentionally defining it, you begin craving success.  This version of success is shrouded in relativity.  Relative to your friends.  Relative to your co-workers.  Relative to your parents.  Relative to your own expectations.

This realization motivated me to personally define success.  An instructive exercise was to remember a time when I felt successful and tease out what made that period feel successful.  For me, it was as an adolescent.  I was passionate about basketball.  Don’t be fooled, I wasn’t any good.  I just had a strict set of rules I followed each day.  Make between 300 and 500 jump shots.  This seems like a monotonous task, and it oftentimes was.  However, I was focused and the process felt rhythmic.

For all the drudgery, I cherished the few moments a day where I felt like an NBA player in training.  I was engrossed in the work.  My priorities were sparse.  Finish enough chores and homework to keep my parents off my back and shoot the basketball.

As an adult, it is more difficult to pare priorities down to a few essentials.  However, I did find a useful tool.  The guys over at The Minimalists ask people to make a list of priorities you must attend to each day.

My list is simple:

I must write.

I must exercise.

I must study psychology.

I must actively date.

I must declutter my living space.

I must be meaningfully employed.

I must spend time outside.

I must stay connected to my loved ones.

Creating this list jumpstarts the process of examining daily activities and determining whether they support your priorities.  If success is defined daily through purposeful action, then you have a better chance of “liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”