Your Most Meaningful Work - What It Is, Why It Matters & How to Find It
Introduction: Why It Matters
Every adult, no matter their geographic location, socioeconomic strata, or marital status, longs to engage in meaningful work. It’s as basic and primal a human need as survival. But too often we settle for entire careers that ignore our passions and that which we care the most about.
This article is based on the premise that your most meaningful work (MMW) is not only worth discovering and pursuing, but that you will never fully achieve true independence unless you abandon all else.
Your MMW and the Hierarchy of Human Needs
Years ago Abraham Maslow established his hierarchy of needs model that placed survival (physiologic needs) on the bottom of the 5-level pyramid with belonging, safety, esteem, love and belonging forming the middle layers while self-actualization caps the pyramid. (Note: Maslow didn’t use a pyramid, but this is helpful to understand and it appears in most textbooks as a way of interpreting his theory.) Without engaging in your MMW, I maintain that you will never achieve this highest level of human achievement and, therefore, never experience True Independence (TI).
TI is embracing the freedom to celebrate who you are, engage in your most meaningful work, and live your life on your own terms. To do otherwise is to settle for an imitation or photocopy life.
Going forward, it will be helpful if we define a few basic terms that apply to the concept of your MMW.
- Work enables us to meet basic needs related to physiologic survival and
- Current Work is that which you may already be engaged in, but you know it isn’t your MMW.
- Meaningful Work allows us to meet the higher level of needs: esteem, love and belonging
- Most Meaningful Work (MMW) is totally different. It’s work that magnifies our ability to meet and surpass these lower level needs but also allows us to achieve the highest human need, self-actualization
Part I: 7 Signs You’re Not Pursuing Your Most Meaningful Work
There are perhaps hundreds of observable signs and signals that provide insight when we are not engaging in our MMW. At a very basic level, we know in our heart whether or not we are engaging in our MMW.
However, the following are thoughts and experiences that I noticed in my own life while I was not engaged in my MMW. Having discussed these with many people, I’ve found them to be more universal than specifically my own experience.
See how many sound like something you’ve experienced or are experiencing now:
- Your conversation around your current work is mostly negative
- The conversation around your MMW is predominantly positive
- You frequently read about others engaging in their MMW
- You’re afraid engaging in your MMW might be an illusive dream
- You experience periods of bliss when engaged in your MMW
- Your current work isn’t what you’d be doing if you had $10 M
- Your MMW pays you in non-monetary ways upon which you can’t place a value
Let’s talk about each of these in detail.
1. Your conversation about your current work is mostly negative
Because it’s unfulfilling and not your MMW, your current work gets the brunt of your dissatisfaction and disappointment. You may be overly critical of your current circumstances in terms of income, time spent doing what you’re passionate about or the ability to express your creativity. You may feel trapped and under-appreciated. Your current work is unfulfilling because it doesn’t allow you to pursue that which you are most passionate. We all have passions, even big burly he-man types. Passions are those topics and activities that we would pursue endlessly if we already had $10 million in the bank. More on that in a few minutes…
2. The conversation around your MMW is predominantly positive
When you’re engaged in your MMW, your outlook and attitude are up-beat. You may feel a certain sense of privilege when you think of the opportunity that’s in front of you. You feel this way because not everyone is so fortunate. When you realize that many are trapped in current work, you empathize with them because you’ve been there.
3. You frequently read about others engaging in their MMW
Part of the dream of pursuing your MMW is looking to the examples of mentors. You do this to find inspiration, instruction, and guidance. Those who have traveled the trail before you who felt led to chronicle their experiences abound and you can benefit from their experiences. Chris Guillebeau, Ev Bogue, Ash Ambirge, Corbett Barr, and others come to mind in my own experience. If the accounts of my journey are helpful to others, then I know I am following the example of those who served as mentors in my own journey.
4. You’re afraid engaging in your MMW might be a dream
This is perhaps the greatest fear we all share. You’ve heard the saying, don’t die with your music still inside you. It speaks to the fear we all have of never achieving our fullest potential. Pam Slim in her book, Escape From Cubicle Nation, described this fear another way. She stated that her greatest fear was ending up ‘living out of my van down by the river.’ I love that because it’s very close to the fear I envision if I don’t keep exploring, experimenting, and expressing my MMW.
We all have an original song inside. Many songs in fact. Our MMW is like a beautiful symphony and the ways we express our MMW are movements within this greater work. If we never engage in our MMW, this symphony remains silent and only plays through imaginary earbuds in our heads.
5. You experience periods of bliss when you engage in your MMW
In my life as a corporate drone, I traveled a lot. Each time I’d board a plane to travel I’d use that time to reflect on why I was doing it and how I could end the endless cycle. At 40,000 feet, away from all distractions, I could clearly see how my current work was getting in the way of my MMW.
I longed to be free of the corporate office, working from home or anywhere I chose to call home, engaged in my MMW instead of the current work that drove me to experience constant panic attacks and intermittent states of depression and burnout. But when I was engaging in my MMW (writing articles and books, designing and teaching courses) I was truly experiencing a serenity that undergirded every activity. Being in business for myself certainly has its share of pressures and resulting psychological stressors, but I am able to know -at the deepest level- that I am following the right path, engaging in my right work, my MMW.
6. Your current work isn’t what you’d be doing if you won the lottery
Contrary to most stereotypical ideas about the wealthy, most people - even after winning the lottery- continue working if they love their job or they quit and engage in their MMW. If you won a $10 million jackpot and could literally do anything you wished, what would that be? After buying your dream house and car and traveling the world, you’d have to settle into a daily routine.
I’ve heard it said by retirees that you can only play so much golf. Likewise, you and I would quickly tire of almost anything recreational after a time. That’s why so many retirees go back to work; they miss the routine of being productive and engaging in something worthwhile. Those who know their MMW before retirement have something to pursue. But let’s hope you don’t wait until you retire from your current work to embrace your MMW.
Your MMW is what you’d be doing if you had $10 million in the bank and wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. If your current work isn’t something you’d do for free (given the $10 million in the bank), then it’s not your MMW.
7. Your MMW pays you in non-monetary ways upon which you can’t place a value
Your MMW is that work that pays you not only in financial rewards, but also dividends in satisfaction, freedom, fulfillment, even bliss. It’s difficult to place a fiscal value on satisfaction, freedom, fulfillment, and bliss. For a long time I felt as if my employer owed me thousands of dollars for the time I spent away from my son, for the stress-related illnesses I experienced, and the petty office politic that the job included. In fact, they still owe me. :-)
However, my MMW pays me not only in monetary rewards, but in ways that are genuinely priceless and impossible to place a value on. The satisfaction of speaking with individuals while partnering with them to plan their own MMW experiences far outweigh the value of the fees they pay me. I can’t place a value on helping an individual discover and transition into engaging their MMW. I can’t place a value on helping someone change the rest of their life. I love that.
Part II: What to Do About Finding Your MMW
I believe that you, and everyone on the face of the planet has a great mission in life. I don’t think it is divine in origin but I do think it’s unknown at birth and that natural talents, interests, and genetics (to some degree) play a part in developing and uncovering it.
There have been periods in my life when it felt as if I was creating windows-into-the-soul. It is through these windows that I learned about my MMW.
My Experience Looking Through a Window
When I was a fourth grader in Texas, I looked through one of these windows. I’d checked out a basic biography from our school library earlier in the day. During recess periods and lunchtime I read the 35-page biography. (I know, a 35-page biography? Hey, I was a kid.) I was so impressed by the story of Francis Scott Key (the man who wrote the USA’s national anthem, The Star Bangled Banner during the late 1700s) I wrote an unassigned book report rather than go out and play during a recess period. I guess I was no ordinary kid.
I summarized the book in about three handwritten pages of lined paper using a blue medium point Bic pen. I recall how fulfilled I felt writing it longhand with the blue ink gently flowing onto the paper. It’s a feeling I’ve never forgotten. Even though I wasn’t creating new material, the fact that I was writing the summary and getting such enjoyment from it spoke volumes to me about my MMW, even at that tender age.
Although I didn’t know it at the time -after all I was only 10 years old- I was looking through a window into my soul and glimpsing an aspect of my MMW. It wasn’t until 40 years later that I engaged in my MMW. (I hope you don’t wait a minute longer.)
What You Can Do Now to Find Your MMW
A. Start with Flow
There are hundreds of books available to help you find and learn about your passions. But I don’t believe this is useful for everyone. When I work with someone the first time, I don’t ask them about their passions. I like to first focus on what allows them to experience flow.
What’s flow? Have you ever been taken part in an activity that allows you lost track of time only to find later that several hours had passed? Have you ever had the experience of suddenly realizing that what you’ve been doing allowed you to forget about a crisis you’re working through? Have you ever completed a task that generated feelings of a sense of overwhelming fulfillment and bliss? If so, you’ve had a taste of flow.
So when I say to begin with flow, I want you to pause and think about three activities you recall that involved these realizations:
- You lost track of time;
- You forgot about everything but what you were doing;
- You experienced a feeling of fulfillment and
Part III: What Now?
Now that you’ve had your first experience identifying your MMW, take some time and explore the various ways you could express. Like we did above with naming the symphony and ways to express these in movements, ask yourself which movements appeal to you.
Which ones are more closely matched to your talents? For instance, if the thought of writing makes you want to poke a sharp stick in your eye, you probably won’t want to write a guidebook. But if you have the gift of gab, a video series or teaching a small class could be possibilities to consider.
Explore, try things on. If something doesn’t fit, move on the something else. Don’t get stressed about it.
In fact, that’s a great point to make:
- Your MMW doesn’t stress you in any way
- Your MMW is fun and enjoyable and helps you relax because it’s really just being who you are
- Your MMW is like a what one of my mentors, Jonathan Mead ,calls a 'No End '
Finally, your MMW is something that comes easy to you. It's not something you have to reach for or develop a natural talent for because it's already inside. Isn't that a comfort to know that you don't have to start over or go get more training to discover your MMW?
Of course, we all can upgrade our skills and continue to learn about our trade, but the hardest part is over once you've identified your MMW.
My most meaningful work (symphony) is writing and teaching. The ways I express my MMW (my movements) include writing books and teaching online courses, coaching others one-on-one.
After you’ve done the work and feel good about knowing your MMW, write your answers to the following in your notebook.
My Movements (ways I express my MMW):
How does that feel? Does it seem to fit or does it need adjustment? If it’s not perfect, don’t repair. You are only getting started but you have made a critical step forward and chance are great that you feel much more comfortable knowing this about yourself…and that is a very big deal. :-)
How Your MMW Evolves
Here’s a secret - Your MMW will evolve over time. And that’s OK. You continue to evolve as long as you breathe. Nothing is permanent in life: each breath is new, each day dawns completely different from the one before.
For example, when I first identified my MMW it was limited to writing. After writing for a number of years, I was asked to speak to a few groups. These experiences led to a teaching position.
It was through this extended experiences that I knew that teaching was also a big part of my MMW. When I recognized this evolution of my MMW, immediately new movement were realized as well. This course is an example of how my writing and teaching culminate to improve the lives of others.