Recently I met with a colleague who’s done many impressive things with his life and career. Over the years, his company went from a small business to a huge conglomerate through a number of mergers and acquisitions instigated by private equity groups. Today, he works in a big, corner office with a huge team of salespeople under him. He’s doing great both financially and vocationally, but still. . . . There is a “but.”

During our meeting, he turned to me and said something very familiar. I’ve heard the same refrain from friends and colleagues, and felt it myself many times. It goes something like this:

“I love my work but I’m looking for meaning.”

Let’s examine that idea. How do we find meaning in our jobs when we’ve achieved so many other things, and are even happy?

Meaning vs. Happiness
First, it’s important to realize that meaning and happiness are not one in the same. Success in our jobs often brings us happiness. Going for a walk, or grabbing an ice cream sundae, can also bring us happiness. But meaning–purpose–that can be much more difficult to pin down. Meaning is what keeps us engaged in our work and prevents us from being bored, looking at the clock, or dreaming of a new position. In life, meaning prevents us from feeling discouraged. Meaning is something you can’t quite identify, but you know it’s there.

Take this Gallup Poll, which finds that more than half of American workers are not engaged in their work. We’ve all felt this before. The question I want to answer for my friend and all of us is how do we become engaged and find the meaning that can be the key to achieving more than just happiness?

Sometimes, It’s Relationships
One study that holds particular resonance for me is this often cited one on organizational behavior that studied custodial workers in a hospital and the ways in which they craft their roles. The keys to engagement and value for those custodial workers almost always boiled down to their relationships with the patients, even if those relationships weren’t part of their job descriptions and didn’t mean they earned more money. The custodians that valued those relationships were more engaged in their jobs and placed a higher value on what they do. In other words, they had meaning.

So how does this relate back to my friend, the big shot corporate guy? Relationships are big for him, too. In his current role, he’s lost the day-to-day relationship building that used to be a fundamental aspect of his career, and which brought him purpose. He doesn’t see those old colleagues and clients that he once valued so much now that he’s working behind a desk in this corporate setting.

The challenge for him isn’t going to be meeting big expectations for himself, crossing some sort of symbolic threshold (like getting a corner office) or even wrapped up in his paycheck. The challenge for him is finding that meaning and purpose and bringing that back to his life. He’ll have to go out and seek ways to develop relationships, reconnect and engage his team. That’s where he will find purpose.

Ask Yourself These Questions
While relationship building is often the answer, it doesn’t always have to be. These are some of the questions I asked my friend to help him visualize what meaning would look like for him. I suggest asking yourself some of these same questions to identify a path toward greater meaning in your career.

  • What would you like to be engaged in on a daily basis?
  • Tell me about some of the things that resonate with you when you think about work.
  • Tell me about some of the things that you realize today that are true about you that you did not realize in the past.
  • Do you want to be on the move, out in the field?
  • Do you want to collaborate more?
  • So let’s just say you have no job and are sitting home all day but you have to leave the house to do something. What would you go do?

Meaning and purpose extend far beyond the mechanics of what you’re doing. You’ll be surprised once you start pursuing meaning, you might notice something is missing that you never even recognized before.

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