Finding Significance in Your Work

world_significantworkIs it unrealistic to expect your work to mean more than just the next paycheck?

Not long ago, I attended a seminar where the speaker gave an impressive account of how technology is changing our world. His presentation included many examples of the fast pace of change and its impact on our lives and careers as we head into the 21st century. At the end of the presentation, a gentleman rose to his feet and in a tone of voice which seemed to reveal exasperation or perhaps, exhaustion, asked, “How do we manage to work in this world of change without losing our sense of perspective or balance?”

As a career counselor, I believe this question is at the core of my work with people who are making significant career transitions. They want their work to be more than just a matter of economic survival. Yet they question whether that is really possible.

Since I was asked to speak at the next scheduled seminar, I spent several weeks reflecting on that man’s question.

What kept coming to mind was that, amidst the chaotic pace of change in our world, perhaps we have lost touch with what work is actually designed to be.

Work, past and present

History has a great deal to tells us about how the meaning of work has changed over time. It also offers important clues as to how we might return to a more authentic, satisfying work experience in today’s marketplace.

  • First, work has become secularized. Prior to the 16th century, work was seen as a divine vocation, an activity through which people expressed their devotion to God. But gradually, work became a means to an end. The spiritual perspective was put aside in favor of economics.It is interesting to note that many of the clients I counsel are looking to make significant career transitions not because they want to make more money or hope to get promoted, but they want to experience greater personal fulfillment in their work.
  • Work has also become dehumanized. Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, workers had a greater sense of control over their work. Large scale factories, however, created meaningless, repetitive jobs in which workers had little if any connection with what was being produced.Today, many people feel exploited by their work. Many of my clients also express concerns that their work is not giving them an opportunity to express themselves. They wonder whether or not it’s possible to find work that will allow them to develop their natural potential instead of simply putting in time.
  • Thirdly, work has become compartmentalized. When we were still a primarily agricultural society, work was organized around the family. Work did not take people away from their homes and neighbourhoods but the manufacturing movement did.Workers today are concerned that their jobs are taking them away from their families. Many of my clients seeking to make changes in their work are motivated by an even greater desire to make lifestyle changes. They want to find a better balance between work, family and community and are prepared to go to great lengths to find it.

Over the past 200 years, the meaning of work has changed drastically. History tells us that work has moved away from its emphasis on spirituality and vocation to a focus on economics and status. Also, the business of work has seemingly created fewer opportunities for personal expression and made it increasingly difficult for people to develop a lifestyle that includes work, family and community values. Today, career counselors are seeing more clients who are prepared to make significant changes in order to enhance their quality of life. Meaning, expression and lifestyle are priorities among those facing career decisions. If this is what people really want from work, the next question is how do they get it?

Learning to work from the inside out

Creating a quality work experience in a chaotic marketplace requires more than simply thinking differently about work. It requires learning to work differently. If the history of work teaches us anything, it’s that we have forgotten the importance of working from the inside out. The power of technology and a global marketplace have created a workforce that is working from the outside in. Our careers have become market-driven instead of person-driven.

Working from the outside in causes us to be more concerned with being what the marketplace wants rather than who we really are. It also reflects a preoccupation with finding security at the cost of significance.

Working from the inside out, however, is all about personal development. It’s about finding security in who you are and finding meaning in doing what is most important to you.

Learning to work from the inside out means recognizing that you must do your inner work before you can effectively respond to the barrage of demands that exist in the marketplace. The goal of work should be to find the best vehicle through which you can be your best self. It is when we allow the marketplace to determine who we are that we lose balance and perspective in our lives.

Writing your recipe for significance

  • The first step to learning to work differently involves writing your own recipe for significance. What do you really care about? What matters most to you? So many of us have been operating in a survival/security mode for so long that we’re out of touch with our own values. Discovering what you really believe about yourself and life in general is the foundation for designing a blueprint for a new kind of work experience.Try making a list of the 10 most significant achievements of your life. For each one, make a note of why it was significant. The point of this exercise is to get you thinking about what really matters to you. Work means different things to different people and it can take time to identify what we consider essential to achieving satisfaction in our work.
  • Another part of writing your recipe for significance is to identify what makes you unique. Everybody has abilities and qualities that make them who they are. I believe you can’t be truly happy in your work if you have not taken time to discover your gifts. Evaluate the feedback you’ve received over the years. If you haven’t received any, start asking.
  • Staying connected is the third ingredient for finding significance. The marketplace tells us that it’s who we know that counts. That may be true, but it’s who cares about us that really matters. We need to stay connected to people who really care. The marketplace will continue to promote a “survival of the fittest” mentality, so building authentic relationships with people who believe in you is critical to realizing your significance.
  • The final ingredient of finding significance in your work is combating your fear of failure. Many of us are hesitant to make changes for fear that our plans will not be realized. But the only way to discover what you really want to do is to do something to the best of your ability. By trying your hardest, you will learn the most. Not trying, on the other hand, will tell you nothing. The real question you need to ask yourself is not, “Can I afford to make a change?” but, “Can I afford not to?” If you spend your life playing it safe, you will never realize your fullest potential.

Finding significance in your work is not a matter of choosing the right career or working for the right company. Whether you work at home, in a full-time career outside the home, or both, maintaining balance in today’s world comes from understanding that careers will never offer the security that personal significance does. Work is one part of a lifetime journey of self-discovery. Once we know who we are on the inside, we can begin building a balanced and fulfilling work experience on the outside.

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