What I want you to know about doing meaningful work:
The people who are able to do this kind of work—work that gives you a sense of accomplishment, that values who you are, that allows you to contribute to something bigger than yourself, that challenges you to work at your edge, that you delight in and look forward to—these people have certain things in common.
The jealous part of you, even it’s it deep down, may think what those people have in common is that they won some kind of charmed life lottery. That struggle seems to bounce off of them, that they don’t have financial responsibilities, or they have more connections, or just general luck. They feel different from you. And in a way, they are different from you, but you can close the gap on that difference. You can become a person who has a meaningful career.
Because what those people have in common is a handful of character traits. You have those traits within you, too, and if you want to do more meaningful work and have a career you love, you can consciously bring those traits to the surface.
You can do this over time. In small ways. You don’t need to undertake a massive self-improvement project to gather your prerequisites. You can make these changes day-to-day, on the phone with your mom, in meetings with your boss, in how you spend your weekends, and in what you say to people you meet at parties.
Ready to learn what these traits are and strengthen them within yourself?
The Top 3 Traits of People Who Do Meaningful Work
1 | Self-Awareness
Now, this may seem basic, but you have to be in touch with who are, what you want, and what stands in your way before you go out and get what you want.
If you have a people struggle in your personal life (people-pleasing, fear of being seen, fear of conflict, low self-esteem, etc) it will absolutely show up and in your professional life and pull you down.
Of course we all have our struggles. All of us. (*raises hand) The point is not that you need to be perfect in order to do meaningful work. But you do need a healthy level of self-awareness and the ability to accurately read others without letting fear or bias overshadow reality.
You’ve probably seen the results of lack of self-awareness in the workplace.
- It’s the manager who harps on employees for behavior he is guilty of.
- It’s the guy who hijacks meetings to ramble about his pet project.
- It’s the brilliant woman who doesn't speak up because she feels unqualified.
- It’s the gal who gets taken advantage of because she’s afraid to say no.
So, the first step towards doing more meaningful work is to develop your own self-awareness. Again, not cure yourself or eliminate your challenges, but to develop a fundamental awareness.
Once you start to identify your patterns of behavior and understand the deeper motivations that drive you to do things, avoid things, and feel things, you gain more control over your actions. If you’ve ever had an ah-ha moment when you observe your own behavior like an outsider would, you know what I’m talking about.
Once you know what’s really going on, you can make different choices. You are no longer trapped in default modes of thinking and action. This is absolutely necessary if you want to break out of 9-5 zombie mode.
Some ways you can develop self-awareness:
- Take a personality test. The Jung Typology Test is good place to start.
- Journal. Easy! Just write. About anything. The only rule is to be honest. Use your journal to say things that you aren’t comfortable saying anywhere else. Rant. Profess your love. Record your observations.
- Work with a therapist. You don’t have to be in crisis mode to work with a therapist; therapy can be a great way to learn more about who you are.
- Work through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Exploring your creativity is a wonderful way to develop self-awareness.
- Record your emotions. Anytime your emotions peak and you feel positive or negative emotions intensely, write it down. Look for patterns about what triggers strong reactions for you.
2 | Courage
It is a rare thing to meet someone who truly loves their work. Sometimes people get lucky and fall into something early in their career, but most of the time it’s not that easy. You have to quit a bad job. You have to put yourself out there in a new field. You have to ask for help. You have to create your own job. All of that is contrary to the norm, and all of it takes courage.
Most of us are afraid of the unknown. We’re afraid of change, of putting ourselves out there, and of looking foolish if our plans don’t work out. Yes, courage requires vulnerability, because while you hope for the best, you take action knowing that you might fail.
You can handle failure. You cannot handle prolonged stasis when you know you need change.
You bounce back from failure; it’s an event that didn’t go well. You suffer under toxic stasis; it’s not a single choice you can recover from because it’s who you choose to become over time.
Failure: I quit my job to start a business but I had to go back and get a job because the business didn’t do well. I know what to do differently next time.
Stasis: I dreamed of starting a business, but I never tried it. I’m ashamed that I’ve been at this job for 13 years.
Failure: I pitched my boss to let me take on a larger role at work, and she said no. I’m ready to find somewhere that will value what I have to offer.
Stasis: I could do so much more around here if someone would just pay attention to me and give me a chance, but since they don’t see what I’m capable of I just get more and more resentful.
Failure: I sent a resume and cover letter to a company I love, even though they aren’t advertising for a position I want yet. I got an interview, but didn’t get a job there. Learned a ton and know how to tweak my resume for other opportunities.
Stasis: There is nothing out there. I’ve looked, and there are just no jobs for the kind of work I want to do, so I just keep going to my job and crossing my fingers that something new pops up on the job boards.
As you can see, courage is not something you sit around and posses; courage is something you USE. It needs action. And the more you practice taking courageous action, the less courage you’ll need to use the next time.
Some ways you can practice courage:
- Ask for things. Doesn’t matter what. Follow Jia Jing’s lead. He undertook a personal 100 Days of Rejection Therapy project and asked for everything from making his own sandwich at Subway to interviewing President Obama. He didn’t get all the things he asked for; that’s not the point. The point was to become more resilient to rejection and more accustomed to doing scary things.
- Tell the truth. Yikes! This can feel so scary. But practice this in your everyday conversations.
Annoying acquaintance: “COME TO MY BIRTHDAY PARTY!"
You: “No, thanks."
Annoying acquaintance: “WHY NOT?"
You: “You didn’t come to mine."
Guy at coffee shop: “Hello, I like your shirt and I have allergies and I would shake your hand but I’ve been blowing my nose and blah blah blah and what are you working on?"
You: “A lot of things, actually. I’m pretty busy and would rather not chat right now."
- Share your opinion. It can be hard to speak up when your view is not the dominant view. Practice sharing what you think, even if it’s not popular. You don’t have to argue or be contrarian; just state what you think. This can be speaking up in conversation, sharing an article on Facebook, or writing a blog.
- Give yourself occasions to rise to. Apply for jobs that feel out of reach. Commit to projects that feel challenging. You’ll either get better at recovering from failure or realize that you’re more capable than you thought.
- Say no to things. THE HOLY GRAIL. Say no to things you don’t want to do. Stop reading books you don’t like. Don’t join committees you don’t want to. Don’t host things you don’t want to. Don’t do favors you don’t want to. Read the book Essentialism if you need a boost around this; remember that you’re never saying no to a person, you’re saying no to a request.
3 | Drive
People who do meaningful work are driven.
There is a distinction to be made between being ambitious and being driven.
We usually think of an ambitious person as someone who has a desire to achieve something, like power, money, or fame, and is willing to work hard (or even do unsavory things; I'm lookin' at you, Frank Underwood) to rise to the top. There is a chase for an external prize.
A driven person is compelled to take action towards a goal because of internal motivation or pressure. There is a strong urge to do what’s right/different/better due to personal moral standards.
Here’s where the voices in your head take over.
“Me? Who am I to make an impact?"
“I can’t change the world."
“I don’t have any original ideas."
“I’m not that good at anything."
“Who would want to listen to me?"
To that, I say:
"You’re you, and that’s enough."
"You can change part of it."
"Original ideas come through action, so you’ll have to do stuff in order to have them."
"You can get good."
“You will have to start talking to find out."
If you’re thinking that being driven sounds like it’s linked to being courageous, you’re right. In a way, both are about taking action for a purpose. When you’re driven, that action benefits some cause or idea other than yourself. It can benefit you, too, but it’s not just about collecting trophies; it’s about making a difference.
Remember, you don’t have to go on a grand crusade to change the world. You start where you are and do what you can. What you’re able to perceive and change will expand as you take action.
Some ways you can find your drive:
- Get mad. What makes you mad? What problems do you see? What’s being done wrong, and how could it be better?
- Dedicate your work. Who do you want to do work on behalf of? What person, group of people, or cause would you want to work in service to?
- Think of your legacy. What’s an achievement that you would be proud for people to remember you by?
- Start a blog. Use it as an exploration to write about things that matter to you. No topic is too big or too small, as long as you feel a connection to it. You think wasabi should be served in diners? Write about it. You think gun laws should be more strict? Write about it.
- Help a past version of yourself. What struggles have you overcome, and what would have made things easier for you during that time? Find a way to support people who are going through a similar struggle, now.
--> Where are some places in your life or career that you already have self-awareness, courage, and drive? Is there one of these traits you want to develop more? Let me know in the comments.