When I was eleven years old, my dad showed me a letter that I’ll never forget.
My dad is an insurance salesman. He’s worked for the same company for over forty years, and every Saturday morning he goes through the same routine: breakfast at the pancake shop, go to the post office, get the car washed, pick up a water jug for the cooler, and stop by the office to run through a few things. I used to love tagging along with Dad on those mornings.
One particular Saturday morning, Dad opened a letter, gave it a quick glance, and handed it along to me.
The letter was from a woman named Sarah. My dad had helped Sarah and her family get a new insurance plan after their last company refused to pay on some medical bills the family had incurred. Six months after he wrote the policy, Sarah had come down with cancer. She spent the next six months in and out of various treatments and seeing different doctors. Her outlook was positive, and her prognosis was hopeful. But the letter wasn’t about that.
Sarah explained that throughout her treatments, my dad’s company had been prompt with payments and seemed like they really cared about how she was doing. She said it was a great comfort to know she didn’t need to worry about the finances of it all.
I looked up at my dad after reading the letter and he said, “That’s why I do what I do.”
A person who finds meaning in their work will likely find meaning in any work they do.
Reading that letter changed the way I look at work. I used to think that certain jobs were more meaningful than others—like being a teacher or a doctor. My dad is an insurance salesman. And let’s be honest, in many people’s minds, that’s only slightly above used car salesman. Yet here was my dad, viewing his work as far more than sales. He saw himself as someone who helped take care of people in their greatest times of need.
I learned that morning that it’s not the work that makes a job meaningful, it’s the person. A person who finds meaning in their work will likely find meaning in any work they do. And a person who can’t find meaning in their work will likely never find meaning, no matter what work they do.
Over the years, I’ve spent time with both groups of people. The people who find meaning in their work are tangibly different. You feel different when you are around them. And I’ve noticed five characteristics these people possess that I think can help anyone find meaning, even in a seemingly meaningless job.
People who find meaning in their work are humble. They aren’t looking for recognition or attention. Beyond that, they even tend to downplay their importance, preferring to keep their heads down and go unnoticed.
Humble people are more focused on how they can contribute rather than on how they can gain recognition or importance. This spirit of humble service carries from their personal lives into their work, and vice versa.
If you want to find meaning in your work, begin by focusing on doing every little aspect of your job with excellence. You can even turn this into prayer. At the start of each hour, think of one person you would like to pray for, and offer up the hour of work for that person. Will that person ever see it? No. But God will, and you will know the power of prayerful work.
“This is our mantra in choosing to ‘be the first’ in humble servitude and obedience to one another.”
Excerpt taken from Invest Yourself, by John Abbate
People who find meaning in their work tend to be focused on other people instead of themselves. They aren’t concerned with how their work makes them feel or what they get out of their work, so much as what their work does for other people.
Selfless people are the first to give praise to others, help out when someone else needs it, or even do the simplest jobs that no one else wants. They aren’t in it for any sort of personal reward or the warm and fuzzy feeling that sometimes comes with acts of service.
If you want to find meaning in your work, start to focus on others and put their needs before your own. Be totally concerned with what you can do—even the littlest things—to help the people around you.
People who are enthusiastic tend to bring more meaning to their work. They spread that joy and enthusiasm to the people they work with. They have a can-do attitude, no matter what obstacles or challenges are in their way.
Enthusiastic people are filled with energy, and they fill others with energy. We all know these kinds of people. The people who are magnetic and fun to be around. The kind of people that make you feel better when you are with them. And we also know the other kind of people. The people who suck the energy out of a room. The kind of people who always find something to complain about. The kind of people who always see problems and never see solutions.
If you want to find meaning in your work, be like that first group of people. Be the kind of person who is an enthusiastic problem-solver.
One famous story wraps up people of perspective:
President John F. Kennedy was visiting NASA in the early 1960s when he came across a janitor. He asked the janitor what he was working on that day, and the janitor replied, “Mr. President, don’t you know? I’m helping put a man on the moon!”
People with perspective understand that nothing happens in isolation. They know that everything they do affects someone else and the whole world around them. In their mind, even the littlest thing—like making sure a work environment is clean and organized—can help people live a better life. And when people live a better life, they do better work. And the organizations they work for serve more powerfully. And those people go home in better moods to their families, helping their spouses and children live better lives.
Don’t go looking for meaning in your job, find the meaning within yourself—and bring it with you everywhere you go.
To find meaning in your work, be a person of perspective. See how everything you do affects those around you. Know that no matter how removed you are from the people who benefit from your work, your job creates a ripple effect that is felt in the lives of those around you.
The people who find meaning in their work focus on what they can do, and they know that they make a unique contribution to their work. But some people can get focused on what they don’t have and how other people are better than they are.
We are all a unique blend of talents and abilities. No two people are alike. That means each of us has something totally unique that we can bring to our work. People who find meaning in their work tend to stay focused on what they can do, rather than get caught up in what they can’t do. And they are grateful for the opportunities in their lives.
Establishing an attitude of gratitude can infuse almost any job with meaning. When you are grateful for the little things—the breath in your lungs and the clothes on your back—it tends to radiate out into the bigger things. You have a job. You have the ability to change and influence the world for the better. You can help other people live better lives. These are things anyone should be grateful for.
Sometimes finding a job with meaning means finding a new job, but not always. You might be better off focusing on how you can find meaning in your job right now. Don’t go looking for meaning in your job, find the meaning within yourself—and bring it with you everywhere you go.