You Don't Have to Be a Do-Gooder to Do Meaningful Work

Which of the following is more meaningful?

  1. A teaching job at an inner-city middle school.
  2. A real estate job in a well-off suburb.

Did you pick one?

Great. Then you're wrong. (Don't worry, I'm not this sadistic when I teach. Well, pretty much...)

The actual answer is hidden choice #3, the beaut we all remember from our days of multiple-choice agony:  "This question cannot be answered based on the information provided."

As much as I despise that answer choice, in this case it's true.

We can't determine which of these two jobs - or any set of jobs - is more "meaningful." Meaning is defined by the individual doing the work. Without insight into what a person's thinking, we have no more business judging it's "meaningfulness" than we do Kim Kardashian's decision to have kids with Kanye West (although, yea, she's cray-cray).

Worth versus Meaning

I've recently learned that some of my friends shy away from coming to this site. They say things like, "my work isn't that meaningful..." or "what I do doesn't really matter..."

While they may very well be using these excuses to hide their hatred of my writing (!), their comments nonetheless bring an important point to mind:  too often our society confuses meaningful work with worthwhile work.

I suspect this may be holding many of you back, too. It certainly used to be a huge stumbling block for me.

Sure, there may be some societal standards for what's "worthwhile" work. Perhaps we could agree on a rank order for how valuable jobs are to the greater good. In that case, #1 above is the clear winner out of the two.

What matters to our well-being, though - and, in turn, to how kind, productive, and engaged we are in life - is not the worth of the job, but how meaningful our work feels to us.

Perhaps an anecdote would be helpful here.

A Case Study in Valuing Worthiness Over Meaningfulness

A number of years ago I had a student who chose the aforementioned inner-city middle school position.

What a grand gesture of generosity, we say. What a stellar show of service. What a marvelous mark of magnanimity.

What a bum bid for burnout.

This student was not intrinsically motivated to teach. If you'd sat her down and asked her to get clear on her preferred skills, personality type, and her values, the resulting document would've read something like:  "Red flag! Not meant to be a teacher!"

This isn't to say that she didn't have the makings of a great teacher. Oh sure, she was sociable and warm and dedicated and driven. She sailed through the organization's interviews precisely because she put on the great front of what a successful teacher-to-be should be.

Yet this student hadn't chosen education as her field of academic study. She hadn't ever mentioned teaching in our countless advising meetings. Heck, she didn't even like it when I asked her and her peers to teach one another about various chapters of a book. This doesn't make her a "bad" person, no more than her dark hair does. It's just who she is.

Truth be told, she'd rather have been studying landscape architecture, changing the aesthetics of the world one gorgeous, resource-friendly courtyard at a time.

At this point you might argue, what's the harm in someone undertaking a noble effort, even if it's not driven by their core self?

To which I'd argue, the harm is that someone in that position will likely provide service very briefly and in ways that aren't what the recipients genuinely deserve. British proverb check here:  "Better untaught than ill taught."

This former student did try her best at her teaching job, as she had at every endeavor of her life to date, but by mid-year she confided that her "best" was about 60% of what she was probably capable. She just couldn't get herself to give any more.

Meanwhile she began suffering from endless colds, insomnia, and overwhelming fatigue. She felt adrift and directionless, and worried that if she couldn't make a go of this "meaningful job" (her words), what would she ever do of any value in her life?

That's when I said:  "You'll go and design landscapes, that's what."

She brushed me off at the time - silly, crazy professor - but after her two-year stint in the schools, she came to that very realization herself while drifting from one stopgap job to another.

In an email she wrote, "I'm coming to think it's better to do something that matters to me than something that matters to 'the world.' Maybe that's how I'll actually make a difference. As counter-intuitive as that sounds."

You Determine Your Work's Meaning

She was onto something:  as we defined in the past, purpose is about finding something that is meaningful to yourself and that extends beyond yourself.

That means that as long as you're not navel-gazing, any endeavor that has meaning to you will provide you with purpose.

Imagine how incredible our world would be if everyone were wandering around full of purpose and pride? Who cares what they'd actually be creating or producing (as long as it's not brutally detrimental, of course); the sheer energy of humanity taking on purposeful projects would form a greater good in and of itself.

Where that "meaningful to self" element comes from, we honestly don't know - perhaps early experiences, perhaps genetics, perhaps some other source entirely - but it doesn't matter. If you long to create terraced grounds that encourage conservation and cultural identity, so be it. Don't fight that longing. Embrace it.

And if you can't embrace it - if you're stuck in a path that you wouldn't necessarily have chosen but can't readily escape - the distinction between "value" and "meaning" means that you can still create meaning right where you are, one step at a time. Even the least "worthwhile" job can be a source of great purpose and meaning if you let it.

So if you've ever bowed your head in shame when reading articles on this site, or the myriad others that call for "meaningful work" and "meaningful careers," it's time to lift that chin up high. You belong here as much as the next guy.

When it comes down to it, meaningfulness is determined by you and you alone.

So get your meaningful work on already!

Now I want to hear from you:  Do you agree that meaningfulness is self-defined? Or do you think we can determine it as a society?