Of course, you work to pay the bills, but there’s more to it than that. You spend more than a third of your day at work, so naturally you want it to mean something. The Aspen Ideas Festival, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, brought together experts David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, to talk about finding meaning in your job. There are seven things they suggest you do if your occupation seems, well, meaningless:
David Brooks uses his job as a columnist as an example, saying the daily grind of cranking out an article is always unsatisfying because as soon as one is completed the need for the next day’s topic is staring him in the face. When he steps back, though, he finds satisfaction in thinking of his overarching themes having value, and so the cumulative effect of the articles is something he’s proud of.
David Brooks also suggests slowing down to savor the small pleasurable moments, the parts of your job you enjoy. For him, it’s the search for the sudden “aha” flashes of clarity that come to him as he constructs an article.
For Arthur Brooks, doing good for others gives meaning to work, because feeling needed is paramount. “The happiest people feel like they’re needed,” he says. “The greatest engine of misery in our society is a sense of social and economic superfluousness.”
On the other hand, David Brooks notes that if you care too much about appreciation for serving others, you can alternately choose to work as best as you possibly can, essentially working for the work itself.
Try and understand the reason you do the work you do, other than for financial gain. Why did you choose your occupation? Or why did you decided to develop that particular set of skills? See if you can reestablish your connection to what got you here in the first place.
David Brooks suggests that fear of an activity is actually a signal that it’s something you want to do, deep down inside. Once you’ve worked out how much discomfort you’re willing to undergo, try facing down your trepidation.
He calls fear “a super-good GPS director” for where you really want to go.
Arthur Brooks suggests looking specifically for age-appropriate meaning in your work, considering where you are in life and what you now have to contribute.
David Brooks sees this differently, feeling that it’s totally legit to divide your life into chapters, each of which has its own “life stages.” Reinvention allows you to work at what you currently care about, and he, therefore, sees no reason to change your attitudes based on your age.
“The happiest people according to all the best studies have a balanced portfolio,” the economist in Arthur Brooks says. He considers it key to remember that work is only one aspect of your life, and an overemphasis on just this one aspect is flirting with destructive obsessiveness and the inevitable sense of dissatisfaction that brings.
Some of these tips will work better for you than others, of course, depending on where you are in your life and career and just what kind of job you have or want. Still, they’re thoughtful principles to consider when you’re looking to elevate your own job into your own mission.