Updated on 01.22.16

Finding Meaning Within Your Job – Even If You Don’t Like It

Trent Hamm

Most people don’t like their jobs. Believe it or not, only 13% of people worldwide actually like going to work. That means seven out of eight of you reading this article actually dislike your job in some significant way.

For many, jobs are simply a means to an end. They’re a way to exchange your time and energy for the money you need to make ends meet, keep a roof over your head, and have a few pleasures in life. Having a job that personally means something is just a dreamlike perk for many people.

So, what’s the deal with the other 13% of people, the ones who love their job? Not nearly all of them have their dream job – that number is under 10%, according to many polls.

Instead, they tend to find ways to derive something meaningful for themselves from any job they take on.

Here are three potent examples of people finding meaning in their work regardless of the specific job that they hold. I’ve interacted with people doing each of these things successfully.

Meaning from Personal Excellence

I used to work with a system support specialist that I’ll call Jake. Jake’s philosophy in life was a simple one – whatever you choose to do with your time, put in the time to do it well. Take pride in doing things well. If you can’t do something well and you want or need to, spend your spare time getting good at that thing. If you follow that path, everyone you interact with will value you.

For him, it really meant something to be skilled at any task he took on, as well as very good at interacting with everyone around him. It meant that wherever he was, he was a stable, quality person who could be relied on to do quality work and be relatable.

The end result of this philosophy is that Jake had a sterling reputation. If Jake’s office door was open, you knew you would have a good interaction with him. (He would close his door and put a note on his whiteboard indicating that he was focusing on a task if he was busy and leave his email address on the board.) If Jake took on a task to help you, you knew it would be done well and if he found it challenging it really was challenging.

I got to know Jake well enough over the years to know that he took a lot of pride and meaning from this. He wanted to always be viewed as an extremely competent and easy to talk to person in every aspect of his life. He worked hard to do just that and he achieved it. Over time, he wound up being one of those people whose reputation preceded him.

Now, did he love IT? For him, it was just another job, one that he stayed with for a while until he moved on to something completely different. But it was the strong reputation he developed for being easy to talk to and fiercely competent that opened a lot of doors for him, even outside of his field.

He viewed every job as a way to develop and show off his philosophy of personal excellence, and it really showed with every interaction.

Meaning from Financial Success

Here, I’ll talk about another person I know, Mindy. Mindy works in a research lab. Her primary focus when it comes to her job is to achieve financial success. She views her job not just as a way to keep food on the table and have a few treats in life, but as a gateway to be able to eventually do everything she wants in life.

She is quite open about how she views her job as a “translator.” It’s a tool she uses to translate her time and energy into money.

Her motivation at work comes from the idea that the more effort she puts into the “translator,” the longer it will last and, over the long run, the more efficient it becomes.

So, she approaches her job by constantly looking at what she can be doing there not only to do her job well, but to eventually move up the ladder. She uses spare time, both at work and in her personal life, to train and take classes for better jobs. She talks to her supervisor regularly about what she needs to do to take the next step, and she’s active in several professional groups to build contacts.

At the same time, she’s a pretty frugal person, but she does that so that someday she’ll have the option to take two weeks of vacation from work and go anywhere she wants to go in the world without getting into debt. To her, that’s part of the meaning of life, and her job is a way to translate her time and energy into the resources needed to make that happen.

The trick is that she sees the value of that translator every day. She knows quite well that she has certain skills and that people will pay well for those skills and without those people paying well, she couldn’t do the things she wants to be doing in life. She also knows that if she keeps sharpening those skills, gaining degrees and certifications, she’s going to build a more and more efficient translator of her time. She’s already moved far up the ladder from a dish washer to a person that basically runs experiments and has several people under her and she’s on track to keep moving up, up, and away.

Why? She values her “money translator” – a lot. She keeps the fact that her career is going to enable her dreams front and center and doesn’t let go of it, even on the hard days. She interacts well with people and does the tasks in front of her and also works toward the next rung on the ladder because she knows she’ll eventually get there, effectively upgrading her “money translator” to a more efficient model.

Thus, she finds meaning at work by deeply understanding that it is her job and her career that’s going to enable the things she wants to do in her life, and she’s thankful for the opportunity to be able to translate her time and energy into money in such a relatively efficient way.

Meaning from Improving the Opportunities and Lives of Those Around You

Several years back, I went to a large dinner where I wound up sitting next to someone who is a somewhat well known sports commentator. We’ll call him David.

David wound up being a sports commentator because, as a youth, he loved a particular sport but found that he didn’t have the hand-eye coordination to do so. His passion for the game persisted, though, so he found other jobs related to the sport.

As he related this, he told me something that really stuck with me. He said that the best thing you can do in any career in terms of both making it joyful and making yourself valuable in that career is to improve the lives and opportunities of the people you interact with. Look at them as people and do everything you can to give them the chance to do something they really want to do and, if you can, make them look good doing it.

He said that there are always humble, wonderful people that you meet in your career. They may not be the most naturally gifted people, but they work hard and are thankful for what they have. He told me that it’s a good way to live life, but even more than that, he gets a great deal of joy from his job by trying to help out people who fit that mold.

If you take a humble and kind new employee at the lowest rung on the ladder and put in some extra time to help that person mold their skills and then put effort into helping that person open doors in their life, it will feel great. To David, that’s one of the most joyful things you can do in life.

David is now working at a front office job for a sports team, which honestly seems like a wonderful fit for what David brings to the table. He has an opportunity to help all kinds of good people in life through kindness, sharing, and opening doors.

Final Thoughts

If you feel as though your job is miserable, try looking at it through one of these three lenses.

Perhaps you can view your job as a way to practice personal excellence and cultivate a personal reputation of competence, skillfulness, preparedness, and friendliness. Perhaps you can view your job as an engine to translate time and energy into money and the more efficient you can make that engine, the better. Perhaps you can simply view your job as a way to make the lives and opportunities of the good people you interact with better.

All of those things can add meaning and purpose to a job that might otherwise feel empty and soulless, and for some people, that can make all the difference when it comes to making work into something more than just a nine to five routine.

Good luck!

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