Work + Meaning. What is work’s true purpose, and how do we pursue it?

By Ryan Barton | December 15, 2021

We will spend 100,000 precious hours working. Are we pursuing what matters?

If you are unfulfilled in your career, that is a real problem. It isn’t just about finding work you love, it is about fulfilling the very purpose of your life.  We all optimize our careers for what we hold as the highest outcome from work.  For most, that’s money; for some, it’s passion.  Both are only partially true.  The highest outcome of work is meaning.  When our careers are used to pursue what is meaningful we align to work’s true purpose. In doing so, we gain a chance at achieving success worthy of the 100,000+ hours we will spend pursuing it.

Work matters.

What is the purpose of work? It’s more than what you think.

It matters because we spend a LOT of our one, precious life working.

On average, each of us will spend nearly 100,000 hours working. That’s 1/3 of our waking adult life (not including the countless hours preparing for work, driving to work, stressing about work, thinking about work). 

If you add everything you spend time and energy on, work is the biggest share.  Other than sleep, there is no close second!

Work is also one of the primary ways we impact the world. We spend our lives toiling away for our coworkers, employees, clients, and community.  The ripple effects are significant, even from the simplest job.

All this time, energy, relationships at work – they don’t just change others. They change us too.  Consider who you would be if you had never worked.  Think of the discipline, wisdom, skill, and knowledge you’ve gained. Think about the beliefs you hold, the mentors who have influenced you, the positions that have forced you to stretch and grow.  And sadly, perhaps also the ways work has jaded you, hurt you, and left you cynical.  Perhaps the time it has unjustly taken, passions it has snuffed out, and relationships it damaged, influencing you to see people as problems or means to your own career ends.

Make no mistake: Work matters.  It matters because the people around us matter.  I matter.  You matter.  And work is one of the most significant influences on all of us. 

So, what is work’s purpose?  Obviously, we work because we must.  The pursuit of financial prosperity is a worthy goal.  But work is more than that.  Whether or not we have the freedom to easily get another job, seeing the true purpose of work changes our belief.  Our belief in work’s purpose changes how we think and feel about.  This changes the decisions we make, shifting the very trajectory of our life.

Work contains a thread that we can follow to a life of meaning, of purpose, of connection, and of care.  It can be an integral part and of our journey to a life worth living.  Or work can lead us to hollow desperation, deadened selfishness, and a life pursuing emptiness. 

Our belief about work’s purpose ultimately changes our careers, our lives, and the lives of others. For good or ill.

My own story:

When I started Mainstay Technologies (the technology services company where I continue to serve as CEO), I knew very little about work’s purpose. I knew very little about far too many things, but that’s for a different story… 

I worked hard.  My motivations included money, enjoyment, and feeling significant.  It wasn’t easy, but I believed that someday I’d achieve career transcendence and have a stable inner life if I could just achieve enough. Grow a business big enough, become financially successful enough, and I would be a success.  I was highly influenced by books, by Inc. magazine, and by the example of other leaders.  Business success became synonymous with money, enjoyment, and feeling significant.

My dream was to escape the “rat race” and ascend to the ranks of “entrepreneurs with a successful exit.”  The belief is: Get to a point where you can sell the business for enough money you never have to work again (money), then you can choose to work way less hard (enjoyment), and you’ll be one of those investor/advisors with a successful exit (personal significance).  This dream drove me and haunted me.  In frequent times of work’s stress, I would hold onto this as the dream that would give my life the meaning and peace I craved.

Your dream may be different, but we all have one connected to work.  Fill in the blank: You would be happy, filled with peace, filled with significance, and have a life of meaning if you could just ________.

Retire? Have a better job?  Be financially independent? Make 6 figures? Make 7 figures?  

5 years ago, my dream was tested.  Mainstay had grown big enough that private equity firms started calling in earnest, looking to buy the company.  My phone would ring once, sometimes twice a week, with offers of enough money that I’d never have to work again. 

This was it.  The chance to escape the “rat race,” end the grind of work, and achieve the life of freedom, enjoyment, and significance that I longed for. 

Except… it didn’t feel right.  At all. 

At first, I thought it was just fear for Mainstay’s future.  I knew what happens to businesses like Mainstay when acquired.  With rare exceptions, most rapidly deteriorate in quality of service to their clients. They lose their commitment to their community. And they become a far inferior place to work.  I didn’t want that.

As I wrestled with my obligation to those around me, something deeper, truer, and more ancient, began to show itself.  The true priority of work, from which everything else flowed.  Work’s purpose. 

It came while wrestling with the question: thirty years from now, would the world be better or worse because of my decision?  Would I be better or worse?

I knew enough of myself, of the draw of leisure, and of what happens to others who retire early.  If I sold, I would be choosing a smaller long-term impact, a smaller version of myself, a smaller connection. 

I’d be traveling away from meaning.

For, the purpose of work is inseparable from the purpose of life.  A life well-lived is one that pursues meaning, and work is one of the primary ways we pursue meaning in life.

Work is about meaning, and the pursuit of meaning.

So, I told them no

And not just “not yet.”  I told them no, never.  When Mainstay’s ownership fully transitions, it will be our team that carries on Mainstay’s mission.

My dream did contain some good things.  Yours does too.  Better jobs, financial freedom, and retirement from a work requirement can all be good things. But they are good things that must be achieved along the path of pursuing meaning.  When they are sought as ultimate success, the end goal, full stop, they are harmful.

Selling Mainstay to private equity meant sacrificing meaning.  And it wasn’t worth it. It isn’t worth it. No amount of money is worth sacrificing meaning.  This is true in every business, and in every career.

And yet sacrificing meaning is exactly what most jobs pressure us to do.

What is “meaning”?

“Meaning” can be a tricky concept.  It is defined in two ways:  describing an external reality (the way things are) and an internal (how we feel).  Meaning is both the highest value that we can pursue, and it is the significance we find in life – the reason we are here.

External

Do you believe as I do that truth, beauty, and goodness are somehow real?  Or are they simply accidental, functional things?  Is “love” somehow divine, or is love solely a neurological function to keep the species reproducing and raising young?  

When Mother Theresa relieved the suffering of the dying, did that matter, in any real and deep way?

These are the big questions of life.  The questions that take us to the realm of meaning.  Integrity, kindness, honor.  Faith, hope, love.  Are they worthy of sacrifice?  Is a soldier deluded to sacrifice for honor?  A mother to lay her life down for a baby?  A leader to pursue the team’s success over her own?

There are true, invisible things that are far more valuable than the material.  You and I know this, deep in our core.  If you knew you could never be caught, would you sacrifice the future of one small child, in exchange for a million dollars?  Of course not. 

If you believe her life is of more value than the money, you believe in the realm of meaning.

How we feel

Meaning is what gives our lives significance.  Why are we here?  If life has no purpose and if nothing is of any real value, we become directionless. We feel empty, numb.  We pursue pleasure and avoid pain, giving little thought for tomorrow.

It is the realm of meaning that gives our lives significance.  It is the pursuit of these things that give us direction.  It is the progress we make that gives us satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment.

But what about happiness?  Aren’t we to pursue happiness? 

Research psychologists have proven: if we pursue happiness directly, we don’t get it.  As Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Happiness cannot be pursued. It must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”

When we pursue meaning we find fulfillment, and we often find happiness. 

When we pursue the meaningful, our life draws Meaning. It says your life matters. Mine matters. The way we spend our lives matters.  It says: Being a human is enough to be of inestimable worth, and what we do is of great importance.  For everything we do changes who we are, and everything we do impacts others.  Our life can encourage and draw others to life, light, and goodness.  We achieve true success, which is found in our impact on others.

Pursuing meaning is the call and adventure of life.

Imagine you are at the end of your life. Sitting on the front porch of a mountain cabin, watching the sunset.  In that moment, how will your life be viewed?  Do you believe you will regret any moment you spent pursuing the true, the good, and the beautiful?  Will you regret any positive, loving impact you made on others?  And, perhaps, will you wish you spent more time on those things? And less time chasing material wealth, selfish desires, and personal significance?  Does anyone get to the end of their life and wish they’d spent more time pursuing money, enjoyment, or personal significance?

Let us live to make our future selves proud!

Another way to consider it: imagine a new drug is invented.  A miracle drug. It makes you happy, all your life!  You can live in a euphoric high and never come down. The only problem is that you also lose all motivation to pursue anything. You simply sit the rest of your life, in a fog of pleasure, doing nothing for anyone.  The end of misery. And the end of meaning. 

Would you take the drug?

If you are like me, you would say hell, no.  Give me the suffering and the meaning. 

(But don’t ask me on a rough day, as it will sound tempting! But my bones know it isn’t right)

Life is about the pursuit of meaning.  And so is work.

Since we spend more time working than anything else, and since it is one of the primary ways we impact the world, then work is also about the pursuit of meaning.  It’s that simple.

This is what I believe. This is why I work. 

And I am not alone.  A recent survey from BetterUp showed 9 out of 10 would take significantly less money for more meaningful work.  We crave meaning because we were born for it.  We long for meaning in our work because that is work’s true purpose. 

As the great poet Khalil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.”

How do we find meaning in work?

So how do we do this? Practically, what does this look like?  And is this for everyone or a fortunate few?

We know there are three places we find meaning: 

  1. Connecting in relationship.
  2. Making the world better for others.
  3. Becoming the best and fullest version of ourselves. 

What we value, and our times of greatest fulfillment, fall under these three headings.

They give us a framework for meaning in life – in work and out of it. 

Aligning work to its purpose is as simple as maximizing each of the three elements of meaning in our jobs and in our careers.

I hear an objection: isn’t pursuing meaning in work a luxury?  It’s all good for Bono to do something meaningful, or for Elon Musk, but what about the rest of us? What about the typical IT job?  Marketing?  Management?  What about those stuck in fast food jobs?  Those struggling with real financial insecurity?

The pursuit of meaning is for all.  It is the true goal for all lives.  It is a part of all work.  Suffering and oppression hold us back from achieving full meaning, but we each can pursue this in a focused and intent way.

All of us must set the right goal.  Pursue meaning and financial flourishing.  Both are necessary.  But they are not equal.  It is financial flourishing in service to meaning. Following the thread of meaning leads to a worthy career, for it will lead you to the place of highest service, and of true value creation.  Money, satisfaction, and fulfillment flow from this. 

Meaning can also be discovered in the most menial jobs. It is often present, waiting for us to notice.  Those who labor in entry-level jobs can embrace all three facets of meaning and create a ripple of goodness through their approach to work.  And they can also pursue a higher vision of all three that would lead to better paying jobs that welcome more of who they fully are.

Consider: If what you do is not actually meaningful, money should not induce you to stay a second longer than you must.  It may take time to extricate, because of other obligations, but that doesn’t change the goal.  Why trade meaning for money?  If your work disconnects you from others, makes the world worse, and shapes you into a poor version of who you could be, what tradeoff is justified?  If you are in sales and your prospects do not benefit from your product, that is not good.  If you are a leader in a business who is ravaging the environment and weakening the world for a future generation, that runs counter to the purpose of life.  The right response to a realization of this magnitude is to work as diligently and swiftly as possible to move to a job that is meaningful. 

Meaning is the thing we must optimize for over the arc of our careers.

It is what we must work for each day.

Most of us are in jobs that are meaningful, to at least a degree.  Our attitude and approach can make them more so.  By focusing on connecting with others, on working to make things better for everyone around you, and on learning and growing from the challenges at work, we can maximize meaning in nearly every job. 

Keep these as your north star.  Use meaning as a compass and remember: all other successes flow from this true success.

And this gives us courage during the dark, stressful, hard days of work.  For work is hardly easy. Even in the best of times, it is a grind.  But as Friedrich Nietzche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Practical guidance

How do we do this?

Every worthy pursuit starts with surveying where we are today.   Let’s identify this with a simple exercise.

Work + Meaning scorecard:

If you totaled…

0-10: Consider each area carefully.  Are you overlooking significant opportunities for meaning?  Are you seeing each person you interact with as an opportunity to share light and kindness?  Are you seeking responsibilities and serving others?  It can be easy to let bitterness cloud the true opportunities around us.  Seek the counsel of others.  And if the nature of your work and the unhealthiness of your environment is truthfully resulting in these scores, work to find a new job or career path. Seek wise career guidance and make finding meaningful work a top priority. 

11-20: Find ways to maximize meaning in your job. Consider what changes you can make and responsibilities you can take on that will make work more meaningful and more deeply connect you to it. Write a list of all the people you are impacting in your work and note how you are impacting them (positive/negative, large/small). What are ways you can increase the positivity and scope of your impact?  And how can you pursue the kind of healthy roles and healthy career growth that shapes you into the best version of your future self?  Craft a plan for each area that’s less than 5.

21-25: Bravo and keep going! Ensure you are optimizing your overall career arc for meaning.  Ask hard questions of any area you rated less than 5, for what is limiting meaning. Address those, and don’t settle.  And imagine how much greater all of this can be as you steadily pursue it for years to come.  Raise your standards each year.  Your future self can become far, far more capable than you are today, and worthy of a much greater scope. There is meaning in this path.

We can all find greater meaning in our work.  Some of us need to leave our jobs, some do not. 

This is not easy.  Nothing important ever is.  But it is worth it.  Do the hard work to understand true success.  Align your work to that.

We must pursue meaning in work as if our life depends on it.

Because it does.

Meaning in work is just one aspect of the story and of a healthy life.  This pursue requires a rethinking of the purpose of business, an embrace of a deeper call of leadership, and a holistic view of life: one where we pursue meaning in a healthy, balanced way across all our lives.  I’m writing articles and speaking in webinars on those topics soon.  In the meantime, hit me up with comments and questions on LinkedIn.