Finding Meaning in Work

How can we Make Work (and Life) More Meaningful?

Patrick Farran Care for people, Leadership, Values-Driven Leaders Leave a Comment

Meaningful work lies somewhere in the balance between being and doing, between self and others. Scholar-practitioner Patrick Farran explores this concept in the post below, finding his own insights along the way.

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Most of us spend more time at work than in any other pursuit. We often define ourselves by our jobs; and when you meet someone new, the first question often asked is, “So what do you do?” And yet, do we find our work meaningful? What does it even mean, to be engaged in meaningful work? If work feels more meaningful, will our lives feel more meaningful as well?

These questions were on my mind as I attended a global symposium on meaningful work in Auckland, New Zealand. One session was particularly meaningful for me (no pun intended). Dr. Marjolein Lips-Wiersma shared a simple, yet profound model for meaningful work developed from her decades of research and practice.

Meaningfulness as a Balancing Act

Meaningfulness is comprised of different facets in our lives that Lips-Wiersma suggests ought to be held in balance. She quips for instance that, “yoga is great, but you can’t just do yoga all day long and never look beyond yourself.”

The model (pictured below) suggests that meaningful work (and by extension, a meaningful life) is a balance between being and doing and a balance between self and others. Each one of us is the author of our own sense of what is meaningful in our lives and as such, each one of us may place things uniquely into the quadrants represented below and may balance things uniquely. Lips-Wiersma commented that some have visualized this model as a 2D plate balancing on the center, or even a 3D gyroscope. In the center is our inspiration, or sense of purpose.

Finding Meaning in Work

Dr. Marjolein Lips-Wiersma’s Map of Meaningful Work is reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Using the Map of Meaningful Work

The primary point of the model is to enable us to reflect on what makes work and life meaningful. In the workshop, Lips-Wiersma suggested we each take a few moments to reflect upon the week and jot down personal items in each of the four quadrants, while also reflecting upon the experience of the exercise itself. I’ll share my own notes, as an example.

Developing the inner self – this was an easy one for me. Being in New Zealand and experiencing new and significant cultural experiences, seeing with awe the natural landscape, and learning from the latest research at the conference was invigorating. Unity with others – also a no brainer. I met some wonderfully engaging individuals with similar research interests from across the world, and had hours of unfettered conversation at the conference that extended into the late hours over dinner and drinks. Expressing full potential – yet another simple one, I was on a roll. This was the first time I presented a paper at a conference, let alone an international conference, and the experience of it was stretching and fulfilling.

Then I came to service to others. Nothing came to me. Oh well, I mused. That’s probably only to be expected when I’m absorbed in an intense week such as this one. Though I confess, I was somewhat disconcerted since I have been keeping a gratitude journal (okay, it’s actually a spreadsheet) where I record three things I’m grateful for every day. On this same spreadsheet, I also have a column to record one act of service that I do for others each day (at least that’s the goal). This discipline has been an exercise in mindfulness for me this past year: an attempt to be more intentional in cultivating an attitude of gratitude, appreciating others and life more fully, and interacting with others more deeply.

So with the backstory of being someone who views service to others as a deep personal calling, I have to confess that it didn’t exactly sit well with me that I was apparently having such a self-absorbed week with nothing that I could put down in the last quadrant. I was ready to extend myself some grace and write it off, recognizing that this was just one particular point in time. Forcing something into each quadrant wasn’t really the point. But after another moment, it suddenly hit me. I had hired a professional tour guide, Claire, for two days earlier in the week to optimize my time seeing the sights in New Zealand. I remembered over the course of those two days our hours of conversations. During that time, I was able to share a fair amount of guidance and counsel from my years of experience running a services-oriented small business, with tips for growing her tourism practice. Claire was a recent career-changer, coming out of decades in corporate work and now going into business for herself. She expressed gratitude for our conversation, and I recalled receiving a significant sense of personal fulfillment from being able to share from my experiences at the time. The residual effects of that interaction were now taking hold of me again in a deeply meaningful way.

What was perhaps most interesting to me is how this insight had lain dormant for me and that I wasn’t consciously aware of it until I stopped to reflect upon the week and consider each of the quadrants in the model. And therein lies the ultimate power of this model.

The Uses and Benefits of the Model

As Lips-Wiersma suggests, the model has several uses/benefits including:

  • enabling us to see meaning outside of ourselves and take notice of it
  • allowing people to see meaning as “doable experience” that allows people to identify ways to transform our innate and passive desire for meaning to more active ways of experiencing and creating meaning/meaningfulness in everyday life
  • providing a useful framework to make sense of the “whole of meaning” and allowing us to put our own words to this nebulous topic, while seeing what we have in common with others.
  • allowing us to balance different meanings across work and life
  • makes recognizing, talking about, and sharing meaning and meaninglessness in organizations easier

This simple act of reflection has been an important part of my efforts at cultivating a discipline of mindfulness. In doing so, it has helped me to consider what makes work and life meaningful for me. I am identifying areas where I might best put my energies. I encourage you to take a few moments to try the model out for yourself and see what you find. As Lips-Wiersma suggests, you may well be surprised at your ability to discern meaningfulness for yourself. It’s often at the times of disequilibrium when we find ourselves asking, “What’s the point of all this?” That is likely the time to reflect upon the question of why we are doing something, and then consider how we might shift our efforts in these areas accordingly.

For more information on the Map of Meaning, you can visit: http://www.holisticdevelopment.org.nz/.


Patrick Farran is a consulting services director with the SAS Institute and a student in the Ph.D./D.B.A. Program in Values-Driven Leadership. Pictured here, Patrick and this centuries old Kauri tree share a meaningful moment in New Zealand.

For More on this Topic, see:

Why Does What You Do Matter?

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