Look at your calendar from last week. Does the way you spent your time reflect how you derive meaning from life? What about in the last month? Scanning my own calendar, it would be easy for someone to conclude that my career is the primary way I find fulfillment in my life. And I suspect I’m not the only one.
While many people (including me) get genuine fulfillment from work, that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal environment for all of us to pursue meaning. Yet, for many, the idea of deprioritizing work can feel like a betrayal– like we are reducing our capacity for finding meaning. Where does this feeling come from? Should we pay attention to it, or do we need to find a way to move past it to build lives that are truly worth living?
Part I: Stop me if you’ve heard this one
It starts in a Silicon Valley garage, where a couple of college dropouts are tinkering with a new piece of technology. Before they know it, they’ve disrupted an industry and spawned one of the most valuable companies on the NYSE. Or, there’s the one about the determined young woman who overcomes the sexism of her old-school law firm, to land a corner office and a Partner title. Stories like these are vehicles for meaning that are capable of influencing the decisions we make about our careers.
Stories shape our career choices by embedding themselves into our identities. While some of these stories originate from the backstories of specific aspirational figures like Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, over time the individuals get abstracted into archetypes, giving us room to substitute ourselves into their shoes. When we emotionally resonate with a hero’s struggle, we often subconsciously attempt to weave their narrative into our identity.
There are plenty of rewards available to those who can influence our decision-making. As a result, storytellers are continually competing to craft narratives to drive our behavior. Companies tell stories to convince us to buy their products. Political parties tell stories to inspire us to vote for their candidates. Nations tell stories to convince us to sacrifice in service of the country.
Stories that influence our career decisions are particularly valuable. Picture a talented engineer working at an early stage startup. Given the value she creates, her company can’t afford to lose her. To prevent her from taking a higher-paying job at Google, her manager needs to convince her that the time and money she’s sacrificing working at the startup represents a worthwhile tradeoff.
This reliance on the persuasive power of stories extends beyond a manager’s relationships with his direct reports. The manager’s labor benefits the CEO, who enriches the investors, who all hunt for deals to help their limited partners. No matter where you sit in the economy, you stand to benefit from the narratives that drive the work of others.
To keep everyone productive requires great storytelling at multiple levels. The company must articulate a vision of how its products will make the world a better place. Industry leaders need to direct the efforts of organizations with calls to greatness. And national economies need to tie their citizens’ labor decisions to group-level heroic struggles. As these narratives drive our choices, they fuse into our identities and become increasingly challenging to resist.
Part II: Accept no substitutes
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking inspiration from these stories as long as they serve your goals. If our startup engineer loves the impact she creates in her job and gets to spend enough time with her kids, then the narratives she associates with are serving her well.
The problem comes when stories hijack your brain, compelling you to pursue outcomes that aren’t aligned with your long-term goals. While an investor may want to inspire the founder of his portfolio company with stories of entrepreneurs who risked it all to build massive businesses, that doesn’t mean it’s in the founder’s best interest to internalize those narratives.
But these stories can be hard to resist. Shaping your life and career to follow in the footsteps of a hero can feel meaningful. But, the sense of meaning you get simulating someone else’s journey can erode easily.
Imagine that your identity is a house. Building a sturdy one requires a strong foundation. If you use only external narratives to construct your foundation you may be able to put a roof over your head, but the first hurricane that comes along will topple the whole thing over. To build a strong identity requires authentic experience– the kind that can only be gained overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of worthwhile goals.
Part III: Aligning your career with your pursuit of meaning
Work may or may not be the right environment to facilitate your pursuit of meaning. A startup founder may find that work is the ideal context to make an impact on employees and customers. Meanwhile, a parent may simply want a job that pays enough to allow her to raise a happy and healthy family. Whatever gives your life meaning, it’s essential that your career choices facilitate, rather than limit, your ability to pursue those goals.
In my experience, work typically plays one of three roles in the pursuit of a meaningful life:
1. Work as a source of meaning
It’s hard to create meaning without facing challenging obstacles and achieving worthwhile goals. For many of us, work is the easiest place to find those things. Whether it’s investing the hours in mastering a craft or getting a life-changing product into the hands of millions of customers, work can be a tremendously fulfilling endeavor.
That said, it’s easy to get lured away from meaningful work by empty rewards. The modern workplace is designed to deliver rewards that seem valuable but are in fact quite empty. Winning status through promotions and raises may feel good in the short term, but rarely creates a sense of lasting meaning.
Be cautious when choosing which people and organizations to affiliate with. Your dedication will make you a desirable teammate, and potential partners will want to fill your head with visions of the accomplishments and impact you can have by working with them. Find your own north star and aim to work with those who can help you pursue it.
To retain your motivation, immerse yourself in stories of people who used their work to accomplish great things. Surround yourself with peers who are driven to do the same. If you can keep going when the going gets tough, the real rewards will come.
2. Work as an enabler of meaning
For most of history, people did not see their work as meaningful. Instead, they saw activities like raising children and caring for relatives as the stuff that made life worth living. Work simply supplied the resources to make those things possible.
However, as work has gained more prominence in our modern lives, personal pursuits can easily get overshadowed by the professional sphere. Part of work’s power comes from the incentives it offers. Earning higher salaries and promotions often provides more immediate rewards than the longer-term joys of child-rearing. Our modern society also gives people more status for their work milestones than what they accomplish outside of work. These rewards will make it tempting to surrender your time to work or turn your extracurricular activities into economic pursuits. Keep in mind what matters to you so you don’t allow it to become subservient to work’s powerful draw.
3. Work as part of your portfolio of meaning
This is both the most common strategy and also the hardest to pull off. If you allow it, work will overtake everything else in your life. There is always more money to be earned. Always more status to be gained. Some days you’ll feel like you are competing with those who derive all their meaning from work and falling short. On other days you will be jealous of people who find their meaning from activities outside of work. However, just like when investing your money, a portfolio strategy is likely your best option.
To prevent work from taking over, find ways to get incremental goal fulfillment from your extracurricular activities. I found that the best way to prioritize writing was to commit to publishing this newsletter every month. Watching the follower count tick up gives me an incentive that rivals the rewards of work. Take this strategy with whatever you care about. Set goals for your health, your family, or your craft and reward yourself for accomplishing them.
Be diligent about setting boundaries. When you’re pursuing important activities outside of work, put your laptop away, and turn Slack notifications off. Just because you get offered a job with more responsibility and a fancier title doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take it. While juggling multiple meaningful activities may be challenging, your life will ultimately be much more robust if your eggs are in multiple baskets.
It’s okay if you don’t know which strategy makes sense. I’ve changed mine more than once. And, while a portfolio strategy seems right for the time being, that could change when Ash and I start a family.
I’m also far from perfect at living up to my ideals. I consistently fail at prioritizing the things and people that matter to me. Particularly over the past few months, it’s been nearly impossible for me to keep work from seeping into every free block of time.
But what’s important isn’t perfection. It’s making an effort to be deliberate about what gives your life meaning and prioritizing it. While it’s easy to assume that the narratives in your head are guiding you in the right direction, don’t be so certain. To find what truly matters you may need to reexamine your own story to understand your best path forward.
Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to find work that aligns with what gives your life meaning. Or maybe you’ll decide to merely work in the service of your passion. But no matter what road you pick, make sure you’re writing your own story.