I recall my conversation with Patrick, who had spent most of his career in retail and human resources across three continents, about his motivation to work. "It's hard to explain" he said, "I just seem to end up working for CEOs at the time where they need to do a major organisational change." He paused for a moment. "I love it. The intensity of the work, the positive impact it has on people despite the pain some have to go through. And I learn something new every time. There's never a dull moment!"
All of us, like Patrick, derive meaning from our work, even if we find it difficult to describe. We may refer to it as satisfaction, enjoyment or purpose but regardless of the words we use, this meaning provides the motivation to direct our energy to what matters the most to us.
But for many of us, unlike Patrick, we can’t articulate what meaning looks like. However, time spent searching for meaning is not time wasted, but time gained. Through the process of searching, meaning appears.
Which naturally leads to the bigger question of how our work contributes to the sense of meaning we derive from life itself. Meaning in life is “the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives" . The context of work provides opportunities for us to use our skills and attributes to make a difference and, in doing so, derive a sense of meaning. For Patrick this was the opportunity to guide people through change and help them learn and grow at the same time.
So, from where do we derive a sense of meaning?
The Four Sources of Meaning
There are four main sources from which we derive meaning in our career: the self, other people, the work context, and our spiritual life .
Source #1. The self, or more accurately, our self-concept is the thoughts and feelings that we hold about ourselves which continuously change in response to experiences. Our self-concept contributes to meaningfulness at work through multiple mechanism especially our values and motivation. If we feel our values are being compromised at our workplace then the sense of meaningfulness we derive from work decreases to the point that we are likely to consider changing employers.
When we are intrinsically motivated we feel a sense of meaning in our work. Motivation arises when a particular activity is aligned with our self-concept. For example if we see ourselves as a leader and we are in a leadership role then this close alignment allows us to see work as an expression of ourselves and therefore more meaningful. When this alignment is particularly close we may hear someone say ‘I as born to do this!’
Source #2. The second source through which we experience meaning at work is through our relationships and interactions with others. There is an old cliché that people join companies and leave managers, however, this can be extended to leaving co-workers, clients, suppliers or any people we interact with on a regular basis. Humans have an inherent need to belong and people identify with, and feel part of, the organisations they work for. Have you noticed how often, when asked for a highlight of our day, we share a story of a great interaction we had with someone?
Source #3. The work context - as opposed to the work activities - may also provide meaning. Some people enjoy fast-paced busy roles where they run on adrenaline every day while others enjoy variety in their day-to-day work not knowing what may happen next. For others it might be complexity of the work or the risk involved.
Source #4. The final source of meaning at work is from spirituality. The past few decades has seen an increasing interest in secular practices in the workplace taking the form of mindfulness training, reflective leadership and giving back. The trend toward organisations as catalysts for social good and contribution back to society is part of this movement. For us as individuals, we derive a sense of meaning when we see how our work contributes to this greater good, to making the world a better place. For most it’s not a religious overtone but rather a sense that through our work we are making this world a better place in some small way.
Finding meaning in the everyday
Identifying, and then finding, meaningful work is a journey. In fact, it might take our whole lives. As we mature through the years our definition of what is meaningful may change and the good and bad experiences we have help to further refine what meaning looks like for us.
Along the way we will experience meaningfulness. These are the moments where we feel connected, positive and that things are going well. In these moments we feel a sense of small 'm' meaning. If we string these moments together across our career then this could perhaps be the meaning we were searching for.
There are pathways to experiencing small 'm' meaning in the everyday. The first of these is to experience positive emotions. It’s surprising how many opportunities there are in our day to day work to experience positive emotions when we start looking. Usually these are in conversations with our colleagues or when we say thank you to someone for a job well done. Positivity can be found when we find an opportunity to share our knowledge or skills with someone. The more we look the more we'll find these moments across our day.
The second pathway to experiencing small 'm' meaning is hope and gratitude. When we reflect on what we have, rather than what we do not have, then the world around us changes. There is no end to the things we don't have and even when we do get something we want there is always something else we then want! Gratitude takes many forms but at its simplest - and perhaps most profound - is looking back over your work day and being thankful for the simple things: having a job to go to, being able to help clients, or the opportunity to learn something new.
Admittedly not every day is going to feel grand but most days there will be something to be thankful for. All we need is to pause briefly amidst the haste and acknowledge these moments.
 Steger, M. F. (2009) 'Meaning in Life', in Lopez, S.J. (ed.) Handbook of positive psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H. and Wrzesniewski, A. 2010. On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review, Research in organizational behaviour, pp91