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How to Find Meaning in Your Work Even if It Isn’t Your Dream Job

Because purpose isn't found in your job description

Photo Credit: Carol Yepes/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Carol Yepes/Getty Images

Are you satisfied with your current job? 

Maybe your relationship with your boss has room to grow. Maybe your mundane spreadsheet tasks are as challenging as making a peanut butter sandwich. Maybe you spend Sunday nights thinking: “Is this all there is?”

Whatever your source of discomfort, you’re not alone. Two-thirds of employees in the United States feel disengaged in their work.

Stuck… at work

Yes, many of us have tangible constraints that make leaving our jobs near impossible. We have a sick parent we’re caring for, or are the breadwinner with a spouse and two kids or a mortgage the size of political egos. We can’t let go of our job so we feel lost and confused, drifting further from a purpose we have yet to identify for ourselves.

Purpose isn’t found in a job description

Throughout your professional journey, your career and purpose are akin to two roads running side by side. They may overlap sometimes, and other times they’re a means to an end. (For example, if your purpose is to raise a happy and healthy family, then your job becomes a way for you to accomplish that). We often think that our purpose comes to us as an epiphany and feel anxiety when it doesn’t materialize. The reality is there are a lot of breadcrumbs about your purpose just waiting to be swept up around your desk, even as you keep the job you’re less than satisfied with.

Here are five of our favorite ways to start uncovering clues at work that can lead to your purpose:

  1. Discover one new way to grow every day. Expanding your intellectual or spiritual knowledge or learning more about your skills, curiosities, and values is an immensely rewarding and purposeful action. Can you come up with one way to grow each day at the office? Here’s a cheat sheet:

    • Pick a long-held assumption you have about a task or person and commit to proving that assumption wrong for the day. For example, you assume the only answer you can get from “negative Nancy” is a “no,” find a new approach that practically makes her sing “yes!”
    • Do something you’ve never done before (in the context of your job). For example, keep your email application closed for the first two hours of the day and write two handwritten letters — one to a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while and another to a colleague whose support you appreciated on a previous project.
    • Have a colleague whose role seems interesting? Trail them for half a day to get exposed to their daily routine.
  2. Deepen relationships with the people that work around you. At Project X, we believe that purpose is only uncovered by engaging with the world. The more we interact with others, the more we unearth clues about ourselves. If you’re hating your 9-5, chances are you’re limiting your interactions with others to a bare minimum. Science tells us that isolation is a bad way to go. Instead, make a point to have lunch with a new colleague for three days in a row and notice how your mood shifts with this simple, small change.

  3. The “Five Why’s” hack. Ask yourself why you do your specific job at the company and with each answer ask the question again – five times. By the time you get to #5 you should get to something meaningful. If you’re in accounting, you would say “Why do I need to get all these invoices into the system today?” Answer: because doing that provides transparency for our suppliers. “Why is that important?” Because our suppliers need quick feedback to meet all their delivery targets. “Why is that important?” Because many are family-run businesses and even a day or two of delays can mean workers don’t get paid. And it goes on and on… try it!

  4. Give to receive. Whether you’re the lowest level employee or CEO, giving to others helps us grow as people (and see #1 for the benefits of this). This increases our empathy and brings a smile to others, which we naturally mirror back. Neuroscience tells us that this releases oxytocin, and other chemicals responsible for improving our mood.

  5. Inspirational location. When one of our founders was little he used to make a Christmas tree out of all the leftover styrofoam in his house. It was so ugly and creative. It made him so happy. What can you do to change your cubicle farm into an inspiring spot?

Although it may sound tempting, you don’t have to quit your job tomorrow to start getting closer to your purpose. Taking small actions will reveal little clues about what you were meant to do on this planet. At the very least, these small exercises will make your current role more manageable. And when you’re ready to start looking for a new career, check out our weekly TOP 10 Purposeful Jobs listing for inspiration.

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