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Meaningful Work For Everyone: The 3 Conditions That Lead To Your Best Work

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell provides a unique blueprint to understanding the success of such monolithic figures as the Beatles and Bill Gates.

In one section, Gladwell illustrates the life of a Jewish immigrant family who came to New York after fleeing the Nazis in Europe. Despite such difficult circumstances, they found tremendous hope and meaning in starting a garment business together:

“When Borgenicht came home at night to his children, he may have been tired, but he was his own boss. He was responsible for his own decisions and direction. His work was complex; it engaged his mind and imagination. And, the longer he and Regina stayed up at night sewing aprons, the more money they made the next day on the streets.”

To me, this truly embodies the beauty of meaningful work.

If your work is something you love, it will give clarity, drive, and happiness to all aspects of your life. If your work is meaningful, you’ll be more likely to stick with it in the long run, which means you’re more likely to be successful as a result.

Research has shown that finding meaning in one’s work increases motivation, engagement, empowerment, career development, job satisfaction, individual performance and personal fulfillment.

But not everyone is experiencing the joy of meaningful work: According to State of the American Workplace, only 30 percent of workers in the U.S. are engaged in their work—70 percent are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work.

How can anyone create the conditions for meaningful work, no matter what their job is like?

MEANINGful work

How to create meaningful work in any position

As someone who spent countless hours building a product that pretty much nobody wanted before starting my own consulting business (thankfully more successful than my first product), and launching an online course business, I’ve become very familiar with what truly makes work meaningful.

I’ve found that if you want your work to be more than a job and instead a positive force in your life, you need three things:

  1. Autonomy: Being in control of our own choices
  2. Complexity: Being able to master new skills and improve
  3. Direct connection between effort and reward: Seeing the payoff—whether financial, spiritual, or other—of your work

Once these three distinct factors are built into your work routine, you’re much more likely to find yourself happily performing in the quasi-mythical Meaningful Work Zone.

For example, let’s look at one profession whose members are most likely to experience those conditions on a regular basis: Doctors.

A study from the online salary- and benefits-tracking company PayScale found that doctors rated their jobs as the most meaningful of all professions surveyed. With a feeling that their work makes a difference (autonomy) and often complex work, doctors also see higher pay—direct connection between effort and reward.meaningful jobs chart

Even if you’re not a doctor, you can create these conditions in your own work life. Let’s take a look at each condition and some ideas to help achieve it, no matter what your work situation.

1. Autonomy: How to be your own boss at any job


Never before in the history of work has it been easier to be your own boss. Even within the corporate world, there is a movement away from conventional management tiers towards greater autonomy, which allows for more innovation.

When you’re the captain of your own ship, you are much more fully invested in the direction it’s heading. The same is true of your career trajectory.

Science has discovered that making our own decision invigorates us, while having our decisions controlled by others can drain us of energy.

If you decide to start your own business, take on new roles at work or explore the possibility of launching a side project, you’re taking your destiny fully into your own hands. With greater autonomy comes greater responsibility for your own success, and greater flexibility to do what you love most.

Ideas for more autonomy at work

  • Ask for more flexibility: If your job permits, ask for a test trial of working from home one day per week for a month. Show that you can outperform on that one day you work from home, and your boss will buy in pretty quickly. If you do this well, you can gradually increase your remote working time with the results to prove you’re more effective when you have a bit more freedom of location. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
  • Seek autonomy outside of your “job”: I personally get much of my satisfaction through freelance and personal projects that engage me in different ways than my work. In building out my own online course, I’m deeply invested in making that content as useful as possible to my audience, because I’m going to have to stand behind it 100%.
  • Own and/or redefine your work: Even those in traditionally lower-status jobs can find opportunities to “own” their work by influencing and building trust with others—sometimes they’re more able to do so than people at higher ranks. If you find an area you’re passionate about at work, don’t be afraid to ask to get involved.

The next crucial aspect of meaningful work is to use your autonomy to pursue something that tests you – something that makes you grow and learn.

2. Complexity: Feeling challenged but in control


In the same section of Outliers referenced above, Gladwell asks a discerning rhetorical question:

“If I offered you a choice between being an architect for $75,000 a year and working in a tollbooth every day for the rest of your life for $100,000 a year, which would you take?”

Even for less money, being an architect likely presents challenges and complexities lacking in a career as a tollbooth worker. I would choose this any day of the week.

Inevitably in life and in work, there are obstacles to overcome. It’s what makes us grow and discover our passions.

Whether you’re developing an app, convincing a client to sign on the dotted line, or even painting a landscape, many of the things we find challenging also give us immense joy. There is nothing like the satisfaction that comes from achieving something difficult. Life would be immensely boring if we didn’t fail, if we were never rejected, or if we knew the outcome of everything before we even started.

In order for your work to be meaningful, it needs to challenge you, even keep you up late at night sometimes (but not all the time).

Of course, you don’t want it to be all pain and frustration. Work would become unbearable if nothing was achieved. Yet so much of the joy of success is not just from finally reaching the summit, but from being able to look back down the mountain and see how far you’ve come.

Ideas for more complexity at work

  • Incorporate your passions and challenge yourself: If you’re doing something you’re truly passionate about, it doesn’t feel much like work—you enjoy it. Not everything I do as part of my job is something that I’m passionate about, but one thing I really do love is writing. I’m lucky. From the very beginning at CreativeLive, I’ve made sure to dedicate time for myself each week, to work on writing projects that also benefit my goals as a marketer. The point is, find something that you can love within your job, and seek to improve at it.
  • Be the best at what you do: I’m very competitive, and I look at goal setting as a challenge—a chance to set the bar high for myself. Whether this means closing the most sales in your department or ushering through the most cars at your toll booth, motivate yourself to achieve at a high level and you’ll experience the benefits. I’ve found that when I have to stretch in order to achieve a goal, I enjoy the work much more than if I were to be arbitrarily floating around without an exact target. Set ambitious goals and map your process to achieving them.

3. Direct connection between effort and reward


We all need some sort of tangible reward for our efforts—the positive feeling and satisfaction, or compensation that comes from creating a valuable product or service.

When you pour countless hours into your work and know that as a result of your efforts, you will be able to afford a comfortable home, achieve the respect of your peers, or find a path to your desired lifestyle, you have an even greater incentive to keep working.

In some cases (when you know you’ve found the right work for yourself), work is inherently rewarding. You need look no further than Vincent van Gogh, who only sold one painting during his entire lifetime and died penniless. If he didn’t experience a great feeling of reward from creating his works of art, he would have quit painting early on. (He probably could’ve used another sale or two, though.)

Luckily, you don’t have to be van Gogh—you can find both meaning and financial stability in your work.

Ideas for more direct connection between effort and reward at work

  • Track your efforts: In my job, I naturally need to track the performance of everything I try in marketing our classes at CreativeLive. I use a combination of spreadsheets, performance dashboards (like Tableau), and Google Docs to track my marketing campaigns. This helps me see the daily, weekly, and monthly return on everything I’m doing—thus incentivizing me to work smarter with the limited time I have.
  • Work for yourself: There’s no better way to see the exact, tangible effects of working hard, staying up late, or working weekends than seeing more dollars into your bank account.
  • Seek feedback: Learn how you can make more meaningful contributions to your team—or what you’re already doing that others really appreciate—by proactively seeking feedback from those you work closely with.

How do you pursue meaningful work?

Whatever kind of work you do—whether you’re self-employed, working for someone else, or something in between—what you do can be a big part of your life.

If these three factors are present, it’s my belief that you have a much better chance of making your work meaningful.

And if you can find meaning in your work, you’re well on your way to being the best possible version of yourself.

Is your work meaningful to you? How do you make it meaningful? How can more companies and leaders learn how to create meaningful workplaces? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments!

  • Jamie Lawrence

    One of the interesting things about this approach it that it is clearly two-sided. You cannot lead an employee to find meaning in their work, just as you can’t lead them to happiness. You sow the seeds and create the right conditions, but ultimately they must be developed enough and focused enough to understand both the theory and the actions to take to find meaning at work, and the benefits to them. There are other ways the organisation must facilitate, such as giving people space to develop their own sense of autonomy. If the nature of the business is firefighting problems all the time, the concept of finding purpose is lost on people.

    I read a survey recently that said happiness is 40% predisposition, 10% environment and 50% choices and actions. Finding purpose is an action that must be regenerated regularly and nurtured. We put together a SlideShare based on a Twitter chat with Aaron Hurst, who wrote The Purpose Economy, entitled ‘Five ways to create purpose that engages employees.’ –

    People go to work for different reasons but ultimately whatever the reason is we must feel we are consistently making a difference – to our family, to the world, to society, to our employer, whatever it is we think is important. Stagnation of contribution is a nasty feeling and it’s one that employees, and employers, have a duty of care to act on.

    • Hey Jamie, thanks for checking out Ryan’s post and adding such incredible insights and research! This is really interesting!

    • Awesome insights, Jamie. Thanks for sharing!

  • Cory Keitz

    Great article; your bullet points are spot on! I would add one more bullet point under complexity: learn from the best at what you do. Actively seek out people you admire and learn everything you can from them.

    The post also reminds me of the Gallup research. Managers who can be present with employees, enable them to create value, and reciprocate the creation of value well beyond financial reward, will be good at guiding their employees to a genuinely happy state of meaningful contribution. This means identifying employee strengths, delegating tasks in support of those strengths, and doing everything one can to align the employee with his or her values. It’s a two way street of course, but it should always be the goal. I can think of nothing more rewarding for a manager than seeing an employee grow in such a way.

    Finally I think, if we can keep these values in mind while working with our colleagues, we will find meaning easier to attain. We’re all trying to do this for ourselves, don’t we love it when others understand that and help us?

  • Emily L

    I’ve developed a similar list for finding happiness in work. My bullets are: a great boss (autonomy and a general sense of trust is key here), coworkers you enjoy collaborating with, high value content (or, according to Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, the ways you add value and self-actualize) and feeling appropriately compensated. Though previously I might have said 3 out of 4 was probably a pretty good situation, I’m seeking more and more the learning/self-actualization part of my career. Meaningful workplaces will create a culture of learning and make space for employees to get inspired.

  • DesertFlower

    Of course, if job security is more important to you, and it is for many, they may take the tollbooth job. I have a friend who is an architect. He is very, very good at what he does, and he likes it for the most but, but it stresses him out a lot, and financially he is constantly on the edge because he’s gotten stiffed by people whom he did work with. It happens more often than it should, and with some really devastating results. Last time I heard from him, he was sleeping in his car. So while his work is “meaningful”, it doesn’t always pay the bills or keep a roof over his head, and that can matter in terms of overall quality of life. One can’t eat prestige, as they say.

  • techriki

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