Meaningful work is not brought about by a change in mindset; it is brought about by a change in status. We all dream of doing interesting things at work. Work that is rewarding, meaningful and brings us joy. No one ever thought as a child:
“I really want to shuffle papers for the rest of my life!”
“I hope I can do the same mind numbing task over and over again!”
“I’d love to have no control over my life!’
But many people wind up stuck with just that for their entire lives. Had you known this as a kid, you would’ve never crawled out of bed.
But work that is rewarding and meaningful requires one key ingredient: power. Let’s show the difference in three scenarios.
No one gives power to an entry level worker. You don’t know how the company functions, how the industry operates, or who to even call if things go wrong. Your work product is garbage and people need to constantly monitor you to prevent mistakes. You haven’t earned the credibility to make judgement calls without being second guessed. You don’t know anything – so why would they trust you to make decisions?
However, once you’ve worked for the organization for a while, have fixed various problems, and survived several emergencies, people will trust your work and your decisions. You get promoted in the group with additional responsibilities and can increasingly call the shots. Things start happening because you want them to happen and work becomes more interesting as a result.
2) Public Servants
No gives power to public servants either – teachers, social workers, police officers, doctors, etc. Their pay comes from taxpayers who demand accountability for how their money is spent and weigh them down with rules, bureaucracy and performance metrics. People join those professions imagining visions of glory…and discover reams of paperwork and accusations of deliberate malice instead. Making matters worse, success can be vague and hard to define, so why would the public trust its servants to make decisions?
However, if these same servants can free themselves of the public dollar their work becomes more meaningful. They can create/join independent organizations that impact people’s lives without the overhead that limits them from doing good deeds. They can teach courses online or be tutors; they operate through charities helping people solve their problems; they can lobby the government to have a broader impact on society than they could as a lone specialist. It is harder to be independent than to be a state employee, but more joy can be found there.
No one gives power to entrepreneurs either, especially new ones. You can come up with an interesting idea, but your investment will quickly vanish if the idea is wrong, the product/service is bad, and you can’t turn a profit. Ideally you’d be able to attract enough money or outside investment to scale up, hire employees, and step away from day-to-day work – but who would invest in a company that don’t believe is well managed or will turn a profit? Every dollar you ask for is a mark of control that you lose.
If you’ve tested out your ideas though, and have learned how to make sales and turn a profit, you gain credibility. With more experience you can also spot problems before they occur and take steps to get ahead of them. By becoming a master of your business you can talk with investors with more confidence, and they themselves feel reassured that you know how to make money successfully and are willing to invest. By surviving and growing and hiring, you gain the freedom from everyday work and can do the fun, creative activities that really bring meaning to life.
The Secret Ingredient
So as you can see, every industry can be meaningful or soul-sucking. Nothing intrinsically brings happiness by itself. The secret ingredient is the amount of power that you have to escape the daily drudgery, to do things your way, as a result of your decisions.
If you want a meaningful work then, you need to push your comfort zone. You need to scale up the career ladder to the point where people trust you and will let you do things independently. You need to be daring enough to strike out on your own and cast off the shackles that tie you down to other’s whims. You need to strategically pursue those few activities that lead to success, abandoning the rest, and master them to the point of growth.
Once you have power over your work, you will not have to hunt for meaning. You will not have to philosophize where the meaning is in what you do. It will be in your hands and at your service.