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Watch: How to find meaning at work

  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Executive editor of Quartz

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Considering how much of our lives is devoted to work, it’s only natural to try to derive meaning from it. But which aspects of our jobs are most likely to provide a sense of fulfillment? What if we still can’t find it? And once we’ve discovered the meaning in our work, how do we maintain the feeling?

At Quartz’s recent workshop on how to find meaning at work, part of our Quartz at Work (from anywhere) workshop series, our panelists talked about the ways in which they find purpose in a profit-driven world, and offered advice on how to keep the quest for meaning from burning people out.

Read on for a recap of what we learned. And for the full video replay, just click the large image above.

A sense of meaning is key to employee happiness

Along with certainty, autonomy, a sense of progress, and social connection, meaning is an essential ingredient for employee engagement.

What does meaningful work look like? Priscila Bala, CEO of the leadership training company LifeLabs Learning, suggests there are some common features to jobs or tasks in which people tend to find meaning. Meaningful work typically provides opportunities to help others or to find “self-transcendence,” the ability to link your work to something bigger than yourself. It often has a personal connection to your values or your own definition of success.

Learn more: See how your work scores for meaningfulness, along with other key elements for job satisfaction, based on LifeLabs’ CAMPS model of employee engagement.

Meaning is episodic

Those peak moments that create meaning are exactly that: peaks. They are by definition not the norm. And that’s ok, says Bala. “What’s important, really, is getting doses—periodic doses—of meaning to keep your stamina going,” she says.

Besides, as Bala notes: “Chasing meaning in every action can actually be very exhausting and unrealistic. It’s ok to feel that some tasks suck, or that we’re not dedicating all of our time, all of the time, to the issues that we find to be most important. What really matters is feeling that … frequent burst of meaning.”

Learn more: Watch the Quartz at Work (from anywhere) workshop on how to manage burnout.

What you find meaningful can change over time

From the age of five, when his parents gave him his first computer, Amir Nathoo got interested in programming. So an early job at IBM was meaningful to him indeed. But several years in, a mentor asked him if being an adult was as exciting as he had expected. The answer upset him. “I’m working in software,” he remembers thinking, “but is this really the type of software work that I want to be doing? I always wanted to start a company. Where has that gone?”

Nathoo in fact went on to co-found two companies, Trigger.io, a platform for developing mobile apps, and Outschool, which organizes thousands of live online classes for kids ages 3-18. He says he has “a far greater attachment” to the mission at Outschool than at his earlier startup. “I think it boils down to congruence…with my life,” he says. Nathoo started Outschool, where he is CEO, around the same time he was starting a family. On his son’s third birthday, Nathoo took off from work and spent a memorable day with him taking Outschool classes together.

“Your attachment to work and the meaning in your work can change over time,” he notes.

Learn more: Read Quartz’s article on how to turn a liberal arts education into a meaningful job.

Relationships are key to making meaning at work

We asked our audience: How do you find meaning in your work? A few people credited their company’s mission, some pointed to mentorship opportunities or daily tasks. But the most popular response by far was “in the relationships I have at work.”

Learn more: Quartz at Work contributor Cate Huston explains why every manager needs the magic of a work BFF.

It’s possible to find meaning in any sector

Marty Rodgers, market unit lead in the US South for Accenture, our workshop’s sponsor, worked on Capitol Hill and in community service in New Mexico before joining the private sector. He says any organization that supports your goals and reflects your values has the potential to help you find meaning in your work.

“I fundamentally believe that you can have impact, you can have meaning, you can find purpose, whether it’s [in] for-profit, nonprofit, or government. The type of institution really shouldn’t matter,” he says.

Learn more: Read Erica Keswin’s piece in Quartz at Work on how to tell if your company’s values actually matter.

We all have the power to create meaning at work

The social mission baked into the business model at Bombas perhaps gives the trendy sock brand a head start when it comes to creating a sense of meaning for employees. “It’s a values-driven company and it’s just one where it’s really hard to come in the doors here, either the virtual doors or the actual doors, and not feel like you’re really doing something that matters,” says Kerry Chandler, the company’s chief people officer.

But whether your employer’s mission is meaningful to you or not, it’s hard to feel attached to either the work or the organization if the culture doesn’t feel right.

“We are all culture creators,” Chandler says. “People talk about the culture of a company sometimes like it’s a static thing.” But in fact, she says, it’s influenced every day by the decisions we make about how we interact with or make space for others, whether we’re in senior leadership or not.

She also notes that research has found we feel better when we do things to make others happy. “You can do that every day at work,” she says.

Learn more: Read Quartz at Work’s article on the surprising advice psychologists have for people who feel unmotivated.

Meaning isn’t always apparent in the moment

“In many cases it comes in retrospect—it’s not in the moment, it’s a little bit later,” LifeLabs’ Bala says. We’re often conditioned to keep moving forward at work, but don’t shy away from retrospective meetings where you examine what just occurred. That might be when, and how, you find the meaning in what you’ve done.

Learn more: Read Quartz at Work’s article on why you need a decision-making journal.

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