Life inevitably involves work. Even if you inherited a fortune and technically never have to “work” a day in your life to get food and shelter, you still will encounter situations in which you have to apply effort towards getting something accomplished that you care about. “Work,” as it’s being referred to in this section, is any effortful endeavor. You may or may not get paid for it.
What do YOU work for in your life? Money? Love or connection? Respect? Control? To make a meaningful contribution?
There are many reasons to work. So many, in fact, that our reasons to work can compete with each other and confuse our priorities.
Purpose itself is by nature work. It requires effort, investment, and commitment.
This page (and its sister pages in “Should You Quit Your Job?”) is about purpose as work- and especially about the intersection of purpose and our traditional jobs. As work is so often conflated with what we do to survive, purpose tends to get dragged into the mix as well. The amalgamation of all these things can be confusing when we’re trying to figure out what to do with our lives and generally how to live well.
Reading these pages can help you answer some of the following important questions:
- What is the relationship between purpose and work?
- Will purpose make me happy?
- Should my purpose be lived out through my job?
- How does meaningfulness affect how satisfied I’ll be at work?
- What if I have a job that’s unrelated to what I believe is purposeful? Is that okay?
Finding the answers to the above can set you up for more satisfaction in your job and in any other effortful endeavors in your life. After reading through this page you can move on to the next related topic- Should you quit your job? A big, aching question for so many of us when we’re wanting more satisfaction in our lives! Once you feel you’ve got a good grip on the nature of purpose as work, dive into the nitty gritty of how purpose shows up in the many factors that make a job worth staying at!
Work Is Any Effortful Endeavor
“The problem with work is in its narrow definition—not in the work itself. We’ve so closely associated work with survival in the monetary sense, that we assume the rest of life, aka leisure, is the only place we can be our truest selves. This mindset is a gross minimization of the significance of work. A simple change in our verbiage might help us to reframe this. Perhaps it shouldn’t be called “working for a living,” but maybe, “working for a being.” Because… To work is to be.” –The Philosophy of Everything
We often frame purpose in terms of our careers, but this perspective can limit our possibilities. Purpose can be created in any type of work we involve ourselves in, and ‘work’ is not only something we do to get paid.
Work is something that you sink time and effort into. When you commit yourself to a somewhat long-term project, cause, hobby, position, effort, relationship, vocation, skill, etc., that is work.
Purpose shows up in many forms. As is covered in detail on the Parts of Purpose page, these forms are the “What” or “How” of your “Why;” or to put it differently, you can act out what is meaningful to you in many ways (even many ways at the same time) and these ways are effortful endeavors. Purpose itself is inherently work.
On the Purpose Wheel model below, the Whats/Hows are the spokes of the wheel. They are the roles and actions through which we channel our Why. Each How qualifies as work. *Keep in mind, you can also have multiple wheels/Whys!
“There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.” –Chinese Proverb
As the above Chinese proverb suggests, there are many ways to express our purpose(s), and none of those ways are necessarily more fulfilling than others. Each Why could have multiple Whats/Hows that fulfill it. These Whats/Hows will take the form of work, and this work can be a wide range of pursuits (none of which have to be jobs, but we’ll get into that more in a moment).
“…what we call ‘work’ are all the efforts we make to compensate for what nature doesn’t automatically or easily provide us with. We work in order to reduce particular sorts of pain and increase particular sorts of pleasure that nature did not, on its own, take care of.” -The School of Life
Purposeful work may or may not check all your boxes.
Each endeavor you engage in may fulfill different needs. Remember that purpose itself and the experience of its corresponding benefits do not oblige us to check every box on our ideal life wishlists, only the three main ingredients of purpose itself. Recall the distinction between General Purpose and Optimal Purpose:
- General Purpose: A meaningful life aim that is goal-oriented and impacts the world beyond yourself, but does not necessarily have to be something you are passionate about, or good at, or applies your skills, or is experienced joyfully (although any of those, in any amount or combination, could be present).
- Optimal Purpose: A meaningful life aim that is goal-oriented and impacts the world beyond yourself that you are passionate about, skilled in, facilitates growth and learning, is sustainable, and is experienced joyfully– all at once!
Rather than strive endlessly for a single Optimal Purpose (which can be more challenging) to meet all these ideals, one can begin with General Purpose(s) and potentially meet the other components in other avenues of work. For example, check out the following diagram. Different activities can fill each block and sometimes they will overlap. For a well-lived life, one could have a passion, do work, things that make them happy, and things that are meaningful. They need not all be the same thing.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” –Walt Whitman
We often tend to lump all of these expectations into our jobs in particular, which often contributes to dissatisfaction with our work. Check out Don’t Quit… Yet if you’re interested in activities and exercises to help increase your job satisfaction through consciously choosing the function of work in your life.
Purposeful work may or may not be Blissful.
Another facet of this concept is explored at more length in the section of the site dedicated to the Bliss Map. The Bliss Map takes a slightly different angle on finding fulfillment through your work than the pursuit of purpose. It is a tool for maximizing our satisfaction with work by finding something that we are good at, paid for, the world needs, and we enjoy.
The above purpose map is distinct in that General Purpose does not need to be Blissful in order to be fulfilling. In other words, purpose does not need to be something you are in love with, very “good at”, or are paid to do (although it may be any combination of these things). The only absolute requirement of purpose from the Bliss Map is that the world needs it: purposeful work is impactful work.
All that being said, unlike a General Purpose, an Optimal Purpose is likely also a blissful one!
Examples of Work that could be Purposes (and are not Jobs):
- Taking care of your elderly parents.
- A personal hobby for doing home builds with Habitat for Humanity.
- Leading the homeowner’s association in your beloved neighborhood.
- Putting effort, conscientiousness, and time into your relationship with your significant other.
- Growing your own organic garden when you value conservation and food systems (not supporting the system and feeding yourself and your loved one, and making it possible to afford other necessities)
- Staying informed on local politics, having deliberate conversations with people about current issues, and staying engaged by voting, attending rallies, or volunteering.
Try This: What is your narrative about work?
Why do you personally work? Have you ever stopped to think about the role of work in your life deeply? Have you defined what your personal philosophy of work in the context of life as a whole is? Well, here’s your opportunity.
Grab some paper or a blank word document and get to contemplating. No need for perfection, just jot your ideas down as they come and get the gears turning.
- Define work- what is it and why do you do it in your culture. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
- If not, write out what work is to you personally and why you personally do it in your life.
- What work is worth doing and what work is not worth doing?
- What is the role of passion in work?
- Talent or skill?
- Fulfillment and Meaning?
- If you could change anything about work, what would you change and why?
- If something never changed about work as you understand it, what would you want that to be?
- How does your current conception of work impact how you experience it?
Your Job Is a Great Place to Cultivate Purpose
This comic from Zen Pencils explores the pressure we experience to be invested in our jobs, regardless of whether or not they’re where we have meaning in our lives. Making our job the center of our lives doesn’t fit for everyone; sometimes our purpose(s) lay in the realm of our relationships or hobbies rather than what we do for money.”
**Click on the comic to see the full version.
That being said, even if purpose doesn’t have to come through a job, it is still a great part of our lives to cultivate purpose. Think about some of the different terms we have for the work we do for a living:
- Job: Often short-term work engaged primarily for compensation.
- Career: Long-term paid work that involves growth and increasing responsibility and expertise.
- Calling: Work which a person is urgently drawn towards and feels especially meaningful. (Often used in divine contexts.)
- Vocation: Work which a person is strongly drawn towards and/or for which they are a strong fit, trained, or qualified. (Historically used to refer to religiously-motivated work, but becoming more commonly used in secular contexts).
Of all of these ideas, purpose is most akin to a calling. Notice that it is different from job or career, in that neither of these require being “urgently drawn.” Your work as a caterer can serve the point of paying your bills for the next year or so until you move on. Your career as a programmer can provide you security and development over time.
The difference between a Calling and a Vocation is training, qualification, and often pay; think about volunteering at a women’s shelter versus being a professional licensed counselor working there. Both are doing passionate and purposeful work, but one person has more expertise and likely a more niche impact.
Many of us have been brought up not only to seek a Vocation- paid work that we are skilled in and find meaningful- but the hulked out “Mega-Vocation” that we are likewise passionate about and enjoy… basically an Optimal Purpose that we get paid for, or a Blissful Optimal Purpose. While the hunt for a Mega-Vocation can potentially be harmful to our satisfaction, ensuring that our work is at least meaningful absolutely increases our satisfaction at work. Employees who rate their work as meaningful report 14% more job satisfaction than the average employee, and 43% of respondents in a worldwide happiness survey cited having a meaningful job as their most influential source of happiness (Better Up Labs 2017) (Ipsos 2020).
Tim Urban from the blog site Wait But Why calculates that we have roughly 250,000 hours as adults in our lives that can be employed towards meaningful ends. The possibility of spending such a significant portion of our lives on something we don’t necessarily care about or do not find satisfying could be a loss of potential.
While we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, a 2014 Gallup poll indicates that only 30% of Americans feel enthusiastic and engaged in their jobs. Globally, Gallup found job engagement in 2021 to be at 21% (that means 79% of people in the world are disengaged at work!). Another survey indicated that out of the 34 countries included, Indians are most satisfied at work and Japanese the least (only 42% said they are satisfied) (Randstad 2019).
There are many elements to increasing job satisfaction. We want to be paid well, be passionate about our work, be recognized for our efforts, and enjoy what we do (amongst other things, which you can explore here). However, it appears that the lynchpin of job satisfaction is doing something we believe is meaningful. In other words, working purposefully.
Try This: Track Your Time for Insight & Empowerment
Auditing our time illuminates our priorities and can provide key insights into how we are aligned or misaligned with our goals and dreams. Do you ever wonder where all your time goes? Do you wish you had more time for things you enjoy? Do you wonder about what habits are holding you back? Do you want to be more intentional about how you live your life? This activity will help you clarify the answers to all these questions.
Meaningful Work Makes Your Job Worth It
“Hard work is painful when life is devoid of purpose. But when you live for something greater than yourself and the gratification of your own ego, then hard work becomes a labor of love.” –Steve Pavlina
A Pew Research Center report in 2021 explored how 20,000 people in 17 countries found meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Work turned out to not be the primary source of meaning unilaterally (it was ranked second or third in 12 out of the 17 countries) while material well-being was often ranked higher. Greater Good Berkeley surmises in their article on the study that people often saw work as a conduit for comfort and security, rather than valuable in and of itself.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Your job can be more than a means to an end.
While being paid well (or even just enough) clearly makes a serious impression on the value of work in our lives, meaning itself is a hugely significant factor (Career Explorer) (BetterUp 2017). Job satisfaction reports show an insightful trend: you’re more likely to be satisfied at work if you believe your job is meaningful and impactful. A 2010 meta-study indicated that having meaningful work can increase motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment, while decreasing absenteeism and stress (Rosso et al 2010).
The above is an image of an interactive chart from PayScale that shows how 500 jobs in 24 job categories compare on median national salary and job meaning. Click the link to visit their site and see what jobs the circles represent. Meaning is defined as making the world a better place.
Some of the least satisfying jobs (in increasing order of meaning) are:
- Parking attendant — $19k/year
- Game supervisor at a casino — $46k/year
- Being a welder — $33k/year
The US Census Bureau has another interesting angle to offer on pay when it comes to teaching. For such a meaningful job it looks like for their education level teachers are paid considerably less than their equally educated counterparts. Check out the Census Bureau’s interactive chart here.
Clearly pay has a role to play in job satisfaction (U.S. News & World Report, PayScale, CareerBliss, Career Explorer) but the value of feeling like your job impacts others in a positive way takes the cake for making your job feel worth the investment of time and energy. In a study from Better Up, workers across age groups and salaries were found to be willing to trade money for meaning. People were willing to give up 23% of their total lifetime earnings for the opportunity to do something meaningful; an average of $21,000 per year (BetterUp 2017).
However, let’s not allow this data to mislead us. One could easily comb through the above rankings and conclude that they ought to pick a single job that maximizes meaning, impact, and pay. But there is a more flexible approach that is adaptable to our diverse lifestyles, varying interests, and fluctuating needs. We can choose to check different boxes in different ways. By acknowledging how different pursuits in our lives can meet all of our needs instead of lumping them all onto one job (and by shifting our perspectives) we can make it easier to meet more needs and be more satisfied. Think of it like a scale- perhaps you create a lot of purpose through your job, perhaps less so. You can experience purpose in varying amounts in many areas of your life.
You can explore more of what that means and exactly how to do that in Should you quit your job? (next), but first, it’s important to recognize the following:
Your job doesn’t have to be your purpose for you to be satisfied at work.
A purposeful job comes from doing work you value that has a positive impact on the world. We could run with this and reject activities that are not obviously meaningful, but that would be a grave loss. Human beings are ingenious creatures with the capacity to choose meaning in each moment by how we elect to interpret the events, people, and circumstances we encounter.
For example, consider that sitting at the bottom of the list of the least satisfying jobs is the welder. One could easily imagine how this tedious, physically intensive, isolated, and harmful-to-your-health job could miss the mark. Poet Robert Fullerton would disagree. He worked as a welder in a Glasgow shipyard his entire life and found his time there the perfect meditative incubator for his poetry.
“The Scottish poet Robert Fullerton is a former shipyard welder who was an apprentice when he found his love of books thanks to his mentor. Drawing inspiration from the sparks that he imagines as ‘wee thoughts, or wee possibilities, or wee ideas’, Fullerton began crafting poems while working at the shipyard, finding his dark, solitary days provided the ‘perfect thinking laboratory’ for mining words.” 11 minutes
By shifting his perspective he was able to find inspiration, meaning, utility, and even joy in his work as a welder. While he may not have considered his welding his purpose, it contributed to his purpose of writing poetry, and thus itself became purposeful work.
Likewise a famous anecdote regarding a humble janitor working at NASA during John F. Kennedy’s presidency comes to mind. While the labor of cleaning and upkeeping an institution may classify as menial and inferior to many, this particular janitor saw himself as contributing to an incredible cause. When Kennedy asked him what he was up to, he replied,
“I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
This inspiring self-appointment applies similarly to housekeepers in hospitals. Many of them see their role as contributing to the recovery and care of the patients.
Keepers of the House
This 15-minute mini-documentary follows the accounts of housekeepers in medical facilities that see great purpose in their work. They contribute to the care of patients and their roles are far larger than the specific tasks they are charged with on a daily basis.
The wisdom of the janitor and the housekeeper can be applied to anything we do. These people chose to find purpose in their work by seeing how it contributed to a purpose, rather than needing an obviously purposeful vocation.
You can explore how to organize your relationship to your job and your purpose(s) in Refine what your job is for, where you can find information and exercises that walk you through redistributing the tasks we often assign to our jobs to other areas of your life.
In the meantime, a helpful activity for seeing the purpose in your work that fits into your current routine is as easy as asking yourself a simple question every morning:
Try This: Finding Purpose Daily Morning Routine
Reflecting on our impact and intentions can bring more purpose to each day. Take time in the morning to decide what your day is for and how your efforts are moving you forward.
Grab a few index cards and write the following questions on each one. Keep them beside your bed. When you wake up each morning, pick one at random and answer it before you even get out of bed.
- Who will my actions serve today?
- My intention for today is to ____
- How will what I’m going to do today move me closer towards my purpose?
- Why am I doing what I am planning to do today? Who or what is it for?
- What kind of ripples will my actions have today?
- Today I commit myself to ____
- What is the most important thing I’m going to do today and why?
- For who/what will I dedicate my efforts today?
- How will my actions benefit someone/something today?
- What would my ideal future self do today?
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues Music Video
Helplessness Blues is a song that explores the transition from having a self-centered focus to being a part of something meaningful. The song expresses a sense of awe for the unfolding of life and the feelings behind an aspiration to create meaning. Lyrics
- Work isn’t just something we get paid to do; it isn’t just a “job”. Work is anything we invest time and energy into. Any meaningful endeavor we engage in can qualify as work. Purpose itself is work.
- Doing something purposeful may or may not bring you happiness. It may or may not be something you’re passionate about, enjoy, or get paid to do. Then again, it could be all or any of those things! Regardless of whether or not your purpose(s) check all the possible boxes for you, you can still reap the benefits of living with purpose.
- Even though we often assume our jobs must be where we cultivate purpose, your purpose(s) doesn’t have to be your job. However, considering how much time we spend in our jobs, it’s a great vehicle through which to cultivate purpose.
- Meaning is a top factor affecting job satisfaction. People are even willing to give up roughly a quarter of their salary to be able to do something meaningful.
- You can still be satisfied at your job even if it isn’t purposeful. It comes down to determining the function you want your job to serve in your life overall. You can find purpose in your work through a shift in perspective, but you can also cultivate purpose outside of your job.
Perhaps reading about the relationship between purpose and work has left you wondering about how purpose shows up in your work- and most likely in your job. If you’re wondering if you should quit, or if there is anything you can do to cultivate purpose, or hell, just increase job satisfaction generally, follow along to the next section.