The meaning in your job beyond the work

As I was walking down the paseo in the south of Spain last month, I experienced a painful identity crisis. It hit me that I hadn't been enjoying my work lately. Going to work felt like a drudge. On and off, I still feel the same. Most days, I overcome this feeling when I dive deep into some technical problem and try to chip away at it.

That episode, which was particularly painful, made me think about the place of work in one's life. Is our day job, be it as an employee, a freelancer, or a business owner, supposed to provide us with meaning?

I walked away with this belief: there are levels of meaning that we can derive from a job, and being at one of these levels is enough. If you can level up, good, but if you can't, it's fine. And yes, I believe that work should be meaningful.

But. But.

Meaning doesn't have to come from the work itself.

Tarifa Beach, south of Spain

Work doesn't have to be intrinsically meaningful to you as the work doer. For example, if you're a programmer, you don’t need to find the craft of programming intrinsically meaningful to do it. You don't need to believe that you're changing thousands or hundreds or even tens of people's lives through the things you're building. It would be nice, but not mandatory.

I do want to acknowledge that I think the upper levels of meaning from doing work do come when we stack some of these kinds of things, though. If you find the craft of programming beautiful and empowering as a programmer, then engaging in it 5 days a week (while getting paid!) can make you feel like you're doing something right with your life.

But what's less often talked about nowadays is also true: working only to earn money can be meaningful.

I had this epiphany when I turned momentarily to look at my daughter and partner while I walked down the paseo brooding over my identity crisis –

If you don't find meaning in the work itself, but you do find meaning in being able to provide for your family or friends from the income you'll make from doing the job, then you're indirectly creating meaning in your life by working. And that's perhaps the rawest level of meaning one can derive from a job.

And now I also realise that I was having an identity crisis, singular. What am I doing with my life? Why am I doing a job that I don't find intrinsically meaningful? I see now that my identity as a partner, as a dad, as a son, and as a friend to a few people in this world were (and are) wholly intact. My identity as someone who is supposed to do work that he finds meaningful was in question. But now it's also intact, at least at the very basic level of providing money that finances our lives.

This isn't a new way of thinking. I'm pretty sure it's an old way of thinking, the way our parents and their parents thought about work. It's a way for us to make money that provides for the people we love.

Work that is merely the enabler of something meaningful outside of the work itself is valid and meaningful in itself.

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