I'm in that unique position in my life where I can sit back, relax and muse about who I really want to be when I grow up. Well, maybe it's too late for that. But it doesn't change the fact that I'm still trying to figure out what I really love. Meaningful work is important to me, it has always been; but I've never given it as much thought as I have over the last couple of years (two, to be precise).
But what do I really mean by meaningful work? To me, meaningful work is something that fills me with joy, makes me look forward to every morning, be it a Monday or a Friday; encompasses my passions, teaches me something new, helps me give back to the people of my community. If I get paid along the way, that would just be an added bonus. For years, I thought this was a tall order. Sometimes, even now, I have a tiny nagging voice in my head that tells me that I'm expecting too much, that meaningful work of this kind is a luxury, attainable only by a few. But I have learned to quell that voice of doubt and convince myself that meaningful work is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity. [A few great articles by Umair Haque, especially these - Wanting Meaningful Work is Not a First World Problem and Making the Choice Between Money & Meaning - helped me make the transition]
It has been and continues to be a long arduous journey. But convincing myself was only part of the plan. I also need to find what I love. And as I figure this out, I think I've earned the right to give some advice (if only to myself) on how to go about finding what you love.
Understand yourself. You can't find what you love, if you don't fully understand yourself first. Of course, no one knows you better than yourself, but you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, who you work best with, how you react to your environment. To this effect, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment has been of great help to me. I'm an INFJ and the MBTI describes my type to be 'gentle, caring, complex and highly intuitive'. People who know me well, will agree that I'm clearly an INFJ once they read more about the profile. And I do agree with a majority of the assessment of my type. Even before I took the MBTI, I knew the most important thing for me was my relationship with other people. Reading about why I am who I am has helped me get insight into what kind of career paths would be better suited and meaningful for me.*
Revisit your passions. As we get busy living our routine lives, we forget all about our passions. We forget that as kids, we had grand ideas of what we wanted to be when we grow up, with no fear of failure. As a kid I wanted to be a popular author, having an award-winning book by the time I'm 30. I forgot about that passion. Because as we grow older, we put our interests & passions on the back burner and start looking at work as a means to an end. Don't do that. Revisit those childhood passions. Some of them may be frivolous, but you'll realize that you can find meaning in them.
Connect the dots. Your passions can be disparate & you don't need to be a master of all of them, but you do need to learn to connect the dots. Being good at some of them and trying to find the best way to leverage them is good to begin with. Mastery can come later. Recently, I read an article by James Altucher that talks about exactly this -
It’s hard to be the greatest at any one endeavor, but by combining passions it’s not as hard to be the greatest in the world at the intersections of those passions (because there are billions of things that can intersect, you can find your own place in the “long tail of passion” to be the master of).
My passions are writing, technology, social work & trends in fashion. They couldn't be more different. But there is an intersection for these passions and I work on a daily basis to come up with ideas that meet at this intersection.
Quieten the lizard brain. Seth Godin has a great article about this. And I don't think I can say it better than him, so I'm quoting him here -
We say we want one thing, then we do another. We say we want to be successful but we sabotage the job interview. We say we want a product to come to market, but we sandbag the shipping schedule. The contradictions never end. When someone shows up and acts without contradiction, we're amazed.
Why is it so difficult to do what we say we're going to do? The lizard brain.
The lizard brain makes us hate changes. It forces us to continue in our comfort zone, not wanting to move from the luxury of mediocrity. It also lets us settle in jobs that have no meaning. Quieten the lizard brain. And don't let it dictate your decisions.
Trial & Error. Last but not the least, you'll never find the perfect, meaningful job/role the very first time. It takes hard work. It takes time. And it takes a lot of patience. You'll never know which job/role will be fulfilling unless you do it. Sometimes it'll be an epic failure, but learn to consider it as an attempt well made, a lesson learned and move on to something else.
Eventually, meaningful work will find it's way to you, but only if you keep looking for it.
* The MBTI is probably not the only way to come to this understanding, but it helped me & I hope it helps you too.