Want to find meaning in your work? Here’s how

Combining purpose, passion and getting paid can lead to ‘quantum leaps in your accomplishments’.

How do you feel when you wake up for work in the morning? Do you hit the snooze button three times and contemplate excuses to get out of meetings, or do you hop out of bed motivated for another day on the job?

Most of us sit somewhere between these extremes and look at those who truly love what they do as the lucky few. We might not actively hate our jobs, but we do them because we have to, not because we really want to.

A luxury you can afford

Given that we’ll spend around a third of our waking lives at work, it’s no surprise many are looking for greater fulfilment from all that time and energy. Research suggests more people are searching for meaning and purpose in their work – and are willing to sacrifice pay to get it.

Millennials, in particular, seem to be searching for ‘something more’. A study in the US suggests around half of millennials would forgo a pay rise for more meaningful work. For South African millennials, a competitive salary is not the chief motivating factor when looking for a job either – career progression is more important. They also value a good work/life balance and diversity and development.

The question of meaningful work is not just for millennials. Research has shown that beyond a certain level of earning, more money no longer equals more happiness, so this search for fulfilment is important for more established professionals too.

This is basic human psychology, as explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The theory goes that as our most basic needs are met – food, shelter, security – we look to satisfy more complex desires like respect, recognition and ultimately self-actualisation: being the best version of ourselves we can dream to be.

In South Africa, our painfully high unemployment rate means many of us are grateful simply to have a job – any job. And many of us have family obligations that mean we can’t think about sacrificing salaries just yet. But that doesn’t have to stop us striving for purpose and passion in our lives. With a bit of planning and self knowledge, this is a luxury we can all afford.

More than wishful thinking

In our working lives, self-actualisation is that sweet spot where the three Ps come together – passion, purpose, and getting paid. It’s a privileged place to be but ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to achieve this and they will tell you it’s not some nirvana they magically stumbled upon: finding your sweet spot comes from a process of deep soul-searching where we uncover what it is that we really value and what brings meaning to our lives. Then it takes deliberate planning and hard work to get there.

This was certainly the case for two sisters from the LifeCheq client community who have been able to find a way to turn a skill that was paying the bills into a passion and a purpose. They have recently started a volunteering programme that takes dental care into areas where it’s virtually non-existent.

They describe their journey as both ‘exciting’ and ‘scary’. It’s hard to step outside of your comfort zone and take a chance on what’s meaningful to you – and there may be some sacrifices along the way too. They credit the guidance they received from Lifecheq with helping them to make the right choices.

“People often ask if I always wanted to be a dentist and I say no, it wasn’t in my plan,” says older sister Lebo*. “It started as a skill that allowed me to make money, but eventually this skill ended up being a passion.”

That passion turned into purpose when they found a way to meet a real community need: “When you find your skill and your passion and it ends up as a purpose, that is the sweet spot where your life becomes more meaningful and more powerful.”

Ask yourself what do you enjoy doing?

Finding your purpose and passion does not have to mean changing the world. Your passion might be something you simply enjoy doing – and are good at. Ask yourself, what is that task or process that you can get lost in for hours on end? What is that day-to-day piece of work that flows rather than feels like an uphill slog?

Finding your purpose can also start with the small questions: what is meaningful to me? Does what I’m doing feel important and worthwhile? How can I have an impact beyond myself?

Once you have answered these questions, take a look at your actual circumstances. That sweet spot might be available to you in the career you’re already in, even if not in your current role. If you have passion but no purpose, for example, you might consider applying your skills in a new or unexpected way, like becoming a mentor.

Or, you might realise through this process that, for whatever reason, you’re stuck in a job that pays but doesn’t deliver on either passion or purpose. If that is true for you, you can choose to look for new work or accept that circumstances may dictate that pay is the most important P in your life right now. And that’s ok. You can also look beyond your day job for the passion and purpose. Bear in mind that you don’t always need to find passion, purpose and pay together in one job. You could keep your day job and start a side hustle, or channel your energy into learning a new skill, or volunteering.

Searching for that point where the three Ps meet might take a bit of effort and upfront planning, but it’s worth the effort. As Professor Ihron Rensburg, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, said at a recent Lifecheq event: “You will be amazed at the quantum leaps in your persona, your being, and your accomplishments.”

*not her real name

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