In Depth: Meaningful Work

In Depth: Meaningful Work

This is a series on Brené Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.” For more on that, check out this post.

Guidepost 9: Cultivating Meaningful Work (Letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.”)

So this, finally, is one I’m decently good with in my life. The thing is, though, I’m incredibly lucky. When I was 18, I wanted to be a biologist. I took a bunch of core classes in my first semester of college, and one of them happened to be Psychology 101, just filling a required slot in my schedule. I walked in on the first day and fell deeply in love. I haven’t looked back since. That moment didn’t just change my major, it changed the entire course of my life and I couldn’t be more grateful. I am so, so lucky to have found my passion and my meaningful work at such a young age. Now, at age 40, I still love psychology and counseling as much as I did that day in August.

Since then, my work with people has taught me that this is not a common story. Most people I know do work that pays the bills (if they’re lucky) and that’s about it. That deep, meaningful connection to their daily work is just not there. There’s no denying that work is a necessary part of living in a capitalist society, on some level, but the struggle is to find a sense of meaning in what we spend our time doing. So many of us spend upwards of 40 or 60 hours doing work that doesn’t feed our sense of meaning and satisfaction.

When Dr. Brown talks about this guidepost, she says (to paraphrase) that what we are looking for is a way to use our natural gifts or talents. That when we find a way to cultivate the talents within us, we will feel a deeper sense of meaning, of giving back, and even a spiritual experience of our connection with the world.

But, many of our gifts and talents, if we can even see we have them, do not necessarily lend themselves to the more practical aspects of life like paying bills and putting braces on our kids. How is it, also, that she is sure we all have these innate gifts and talents? Says whom? No one gave me a list upon birth or high school graduation with my gifts and talents listed on them. I have no idea what my talents are. I can tell you what I’m not good at–maybe that’s my talent, spotting my weaknesses!

(Actually, spotting weaknesses is an excellent talent and a marketable skill if one is say, a test engineer. What a perfect fit for someone deeply critical and observant.)

I can give you one secret thing I’ve learned about gifts and talents. They are usually the things that come fairly easily to us. Many of us learned that life should be hard and we should struggle. That things only have meaning if we have to work really hard on them. The truth is, I know where my talents lie by moving toward the things that aren’t all that hard. That’s my secret: Where your gifts are is where easefulness is. What things could you do all day and not feel overwhelmed or stressed. Challenged, but not like you have to work super hard?

So to dive into this guidepost, we must first explore what meaningful means to us. We all may mean something different. What would your meaningful work look like? If you took out the need for it to earn a living, would it change? If you moved past the “shoulds” would it be different then? Your meaningful work doesn’t have to be what pays the bills or satisfies someone else’s plan for you. What your meaningful work can look like is entirely up to you. The deal here is to get into it, lean into what really fires you up and comes easily to you. Do you see that in your work now? If not, can you cultivate it there? If not, can you add something to your life that brings you this sense of meaning?

This change, all change, is slow and deliberate. Don’t quit your day job (unless you think that’s a good idea, then totally do it). Spend time in your gifts and talents. See what arrives.