Finding Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace

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Finding Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace

Several years back, I recall coming to the conclusion that most of my generation was wimpy. I remember the stories my grandparents told about the Great Depression.  They sucked it up. They did what needed to be done and didn’t complain. Being a child, I often did not understand much of what they said, but I did grasp that they were tough, which is definitely an admirable attribute.

But these days the buzz is all about passion… purpose…. Inspiration…engagement.  What’s the big deal?  Are people just not tough anymore?  Are they spoiled rotten by computers, social media, and conveniences at the touch of their fingers? Why do people search for a purpose these days? What makes companies decide spending money on employee engagement is worthwhile?

Although being spoiled is a conversation for another place and time–think of the trending phrase ‘first world problems’– I believe the search for meaning and higher purpose in our existence is universal, powerful, and has persisted throughout human history.

The desire to have our workplace connected to our search for something higher than ourselves brings the search for meaning full circle.

We have all the history of literature throughout time to show us that we are beings who want– perhaps crave– a higher purpose for our existence.  The book of Ecclesiastes relates the experiences of a king of Jerusalem and the lessons he draws from them. Authorship is commonly attributed to Solomon, the son of King David, and of the book American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote: “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”[2] The book has been quoted by writers from Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Hemingway, to George Bernard Shaw and Ray Bradbury.  Why?  Ultimately, Ecclesiastes is a search for meaning and purpose in life.

We are all searchers.

Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Homer, Aesop, Aquinas, Frankl, Chodron, Shakespeare.  Authors spanning time, history and gender, showing that we all are searchers. Delving deep into literature, however, does not answer my original question, or does it?  The natural flow of how humans relate to one another, their world, and what they do, speaks at a deep level that we seek purpose and meaning. So, searching for and expressing a desire to have meaning and purpose in our lives has been expressed by women and men throughout written history.  The evidence speaks for itself in monumental names and titles.

How, then, are we to link this epic search to the mundane, grind-it-out, work-shift drudgery that many experience forty, fifty, or more hours each week?  Are most people doomed to long for their time off, with no hope of engagement between their heart and employment life? Is it possible to be able to express with our work– in the time and space where we live– that purpose and meaning is important to us?  How can humans transcend and rise above the mundane to experience value in their employment?

Here are five ways to think about your job that can connect you to your deeper sense of purpose:

Value in the Mundane

First, we must realize that there will always be mundane in our lives.  The key is to learn to appreciate opportunity in what we cannot change and focus on our passion. When we are no longer able to wonder and marvel at the small things, we’re as good as dead, to paraphrase Einstein.

Take advantage of new opportunities

Watch for opportunities to advance your career.  You can grow and learn by doing things that are outside your comfort zone.  Be willing to take on extra to expand your experiences and change up what you are doing.  Watch for development opportunities offered in your workplace.  Ask yourself if you are you looking up, looking for ways to grow.

Engage with those around you

Does your attitude demonstrate trust?  Would your coworkers say they can talk to you? Do you have friends at work?  Gallup studies have shown that women who strongly agree they have a best friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged in their workplace.

Employee Engagement benefits the TEAM

If you are a leader, do you show that you care about your team? Do you offer specific employee engagement and development opportunities?  If someone asked your co-workers about you, would they say you genuinely cared about them?  Again, Gallup studies have shown that employees are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business when they possess a deep sense of affiliation with their team members.

Bring your ‘A’ game

Attitude, that is.  The thoughts we think change the way we feel and act.  Take an inventory of your own thoughts about your job. Regardless of how repetitive, meaningless, and pointless a project may seem, think about the higher purpose involved, and let that soak in.  Reevaluate your thoughts about it, and change what needs to be changed in how you think, so a sense of purpose about what you do can infuse what’s in your brain.  This will help bring honor and meaning to your work.

There is no magic pill to swallow that will turn everything about our jobs into rainbows and roses.  It is valuable, however, to know that humans for thousands of years have searched for a higher purpose in life; and when we find the mundane leaves an unsatisfactory taste in our mouths, we can feel linked to others in history who’ve felt the same.  We are also not doomed to a passionless existence in our workplace.  Connection, attitude, awareness, engagement, trust and friendship all provide opportunities for value in those working hours.

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