I recently received a letter from a long-term reader asking about meaning/purpose from work:
“I’m having a real struggle with lack of meaning/purpose in my role these days?… Do you get a sense of purpose from your work?”
“… Most friends are telling me a job is just for money, suck it up! I guess I don’t want to believe that, I want the work itself to be the reward and focus on that instead of $$$ or titles etc.”
I’ve responded privately and had some good conversation since, and I’ve asked if I could share some of my thoughts here to benefit others and the reader said sure as long as I don’t identify them.
So here goes…
I’ve definitely had those exact same feelings for many years and these were exacerbated when we first had kids (we have three boys who are now aged 8/10/12 years old).
I definitely don’t have all the answers but I have personally found some things that have helped me over these years with the obvious caveat of your mileage may vary.
- Add some hobbies: I really like the quote “Find 3 hobbies, 1 to make you money, 1 to keep you in shape, and 1 that let’s you be creative.” and I’ve been making sure I have something in each of these boxes for many years now. For me my professional career is about making me money and providing for my wife and our 3 boys, and I see it as that and only that (sorry Boss if you’re reading this!) I get my purpose from my other hobbies which are hiking to keep in me shape, and visual art to provide a creative outlet. The visual art one has been the most impactful on my feeling of purpose since I enjoy it and I don’t feel any self-pressure to be professional at it – I do sell some paintings on the side – but it’s about flow and the feeling of accomplishment in something I am in full control of, which I don’t often get in work (as projects are long, involve lots of people and moving parts and things always go wrong). I’ve been told I’m good at my art and I should do it as a job but that would remove the fun from it for me.
- Try part time? This obviously depends on your particular circumstances – but I spent the last two years working 4 days per week (~32 hours with every Monday off) with the additional day to spend on hobbies (above) and family. Whilst it’s been beneficial there are real downsides to it in that you take a 20% pay cut (which I can just afford after my wife spent 12 years looking after our kids and we’re way behind our peers financially due to this), you seem to do the same amount of work just squeezed into 4 days (and get paid 20% less than someone working full time) and work isn’t really set up/designed for it (I’d still get lots of compulsory meeting invites for Mondays). But it is an option and I found it good for a “reset“. Both my employers didn’t hesitate to agreeing to it (probably realised it’s a good deal for them) and whilst I returned to full time this month, I would do it again in an instant.
- Focus on individual contributor (IC) roles: this one was a bit hard for my ego to swallow (even though I don’t think I have a big ego) but I’ve spent the last few years really focussed on individual contributor roles rather than trying to get a better title (QA Lead, QA Practice Lead, Staff Engineer etc). As it happens my current official job title “Automation Test Analyst” is probably the least pretentious I’ve ever had! I’ve personally found a lot more satisfaction being an individual contributor working broadly as a QA in a cross functional team delivering software the most fulfilling role I can be in so I am focussed on how I can be the best I can be at that (and nothing more). I don’t thrive on coaching people. I don’t thrive on training people. I don’t thrive on writing documents and strategies no one reads. This can be a bit tricky as if you’re good at your role management naturally want to promote you into a non-IC role, so you need to resist, keep your ego in check, and keep firm on not wanting to take that on. If you can’t leave and work somewhere else that values your IC skills.
- Try to find some in-person time with colleagues: after 3.5 years working fully remote at Automattic I was burnt-out and had a full mental health breakdown. I needed to find a local office based team where I could come along and work with people again. I did that for about a year and then COVID-19 hit and my team went all remote 😕 I’ve since worked more in an office, but this latest Omicron wave has meant working from home again and I definitely feel less engaged and work feels less meaningful when I’m just another someone on Slack. This is surprising to me as I’m not someone who is extroverted (I classify myself as am ambivert) however I do find it motivating working around colleagues (I tried c0-working when I was working at Automattic and found it to be socially awkward and made me even more anxious than just working at home).
- Remember Passion follows Success: I’m a strong believer that passion follows success because being passionate about something isn’t enough. There are plenty of failed business owners who were certainly passionate, but most people who are highly successful easily develop passion about that thing. So how do you become successful? I think the only real way is good old fashioned hard work (sometimes sprinkled with a bit of luck). Working hard drives success. Success then drives passion.
As I mentioned at the beginning I am by no means an expert on this stuff, but I hope at least one of these ideas could help you, or maybe knowing that you’re not alone in feeling disconnected from paid work could be beneficial in itself.