Dissatisfaction with work affects almost everyone at some point in their career. Even if you’re not actively dissatisfied with your work, maybe you’re in the doldrums of apathy—only about 1 in 10 people worldwide are really engaged with their work. But no matter your age, your job, or the number of useless certifications you’re no longer using, you can find purpose in your everyday work. This isn’t a step-by-step, one-size-fits-all approach to finding meaning or drive—think of it as a collection of tools you can use when you get that discontented itch.
Social media is full of well-meaning platitudes about work. We get constant reminders to “pursue your dreams,” “find your purpose,” “manifest your truth” and the granddaddy of them all, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Designer Adam Kurtz’s edit sums it up perfectly, “Do what you love and you’ll work super hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally.” The point is, when taken at face value, these statements can make you feel like anything short of living in occupational bliss and pursuing your highest purpose is a waste of time. They promise that once you find the perfect job or finally run your own business, you’ll be free of the suffering of boring tasks or clients from hell. There’s nothing wrong with changing careers or looking for work you really enjoy doing. But the truth is that satisfaction and purpose can be found in any line of work—if you approach it with thoughtful intentions.
Ask Yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
Ask this question every time you feel disengaged from work. Maybe some days it’s as simple as “I like a diet that isn’t limited to ramen noodles.” But if you ask yourself “why?” long enough, you start to get to the underlying reasons—helping others live better, a love for your craft, supporting your family, saving for a trip around the world, etc. Remembering the why gives meaning to the do.
When you ask yourself that question, the next step is to mindfully act on the response you get from your inner voice. Steve Jobs famously said he would look in the mirror every morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And when the answer was “No” too many days in a row, he’d find a way to change it. (The other takeaway? Even Steve Jobs had unsatisfying days at work—don’t feel like you’re alone in wanting a situation to be different.)
A wise person once said, “The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without it.” If you didn’t have gainful employment, you’d be worried about your lack of income. Even people with “dream jobs” go through periods of boredom and self-doubt. The preachy, tough-love truth is that discontent is a privilege—if you can find contentment in a job you dislike, you’ll appreciate the work you love all the more.
Remember Who You’re Serving
For some professions, like doctors and teachers, the patients and students they help are right in front of them and the rewards of their efforts are easy to see. But for many “knowledge worker” occupations, a little more imagination is required. This can be especially true for a graphic designer or copywriter who may not even be the one implementing their own work and monitoring its success.
Zappos requires all of its new employees to spend a month as a customer service agent so they know their screen time serves real people. With actual people in mind (not consumers, users, or any other inhuman jargon), mundane tasks can take on heroic qualities. A few extra hours spent refining the UX of an e-commerce site will save hundreds or thousands of collective hours spent in inscrutable error hell for less computer-savvy customers. A humble Google ad copy block becomes a concise poem of marketing clarity to ensure the people who need your product or service understand it at a glance.
There is meaning to be found in the most seemingly inconsequential of tasks or objects of study. George Washington Carver famously spent his entire life studying the humble peanut. Sometimes it comes down to changing the definition or focus of your work by job crafting. There are three ways to job craft and create more passion for your work:
- Give more attention, time, and energy to tasks you enjoy (e.g., a copywriter spending extra time writing anecdotal stories for the company newsletter to fulfill their passion for storytelling)
- Taking on additional tasks related to your passion (e.g., a lead designer taking an intern under their wing because they love teaching)
- Reframing the social purpose of the work (e.g. a developer working for the government sees the writing of a new algorithm as a public good and civic duty)
You Are Not Your Work
Maybe the most important reminder from this article: Your self-worth is not determined by your work. America’s meritocracy promises freedom and happiness and has fostered incredible material prosperity. But it has also resulted in a culture in which our value is often determined by our occupational success, instead of our inherent value as members of our communities and families and as individual human beings. Truly letting go of this mindset is beyond the scope of this article, but the good news is that until you do, faking it is fun and easy. Spend time with your kids, your parents, and your friends. Pick up an edgy hobby like checkers, badminton, or choir. Long story short? Get a life outside of your job.
Whether you’re looking for purpose-driven freelancers to join your team or want to work with companies that make a difference, Artisan helps people find meaningful work they’ll love doing.