The Irreverent Professor

Unvarnished realities about life, teaching, learning, and change in this wild, wild world

Finding Meaningful Work…or Finding Meaning in Your Work?

I had an “aha” moment recently.  I was pondering why I get “itchy” every three years or so and change jobs (and usually, cities).  (To see some of the jobs I’ve held, see the post “A Bibliography for Job Hoppers Like Me.”)  It could certainly be that I am a Scanner, as Barbara Sher describes.  I have a lot of interests and the thoughts that constantly run through my head go something like this:

Oh! I want to be a caterer!

Now I want to be a lawyer!

Ooooh, let’s move to Las Vegas!

Let’s live at the beach!

Etc. Etc.

But my “aha” moment was this: I tend to lose interest in a job when it no longer feels meaningful.  I don’t mean (necessarily) like a ministry or saving the planet (I guess I don’t aspire that high).  Just feeling like my day is spent on worthwhile things.  Not TPS reports. (Office Space?  If you haven’t seen the movie, do.  Then you’ll get this reference.  More importantly, you’ll laugh.  A lot.  Hopefully.)

By Hugh MacLeod (genius, artist, and King of Irreverence)

By Hugh MacLeod (genius, artist, and King of Irreverence)

One of the things I love about being a college professor is the opportunity to help young adults (or not-so-young-adults) figure out professional and personal things that will help them live a meaningful and fulfilling lives.  I’ve taught at several different universities in my life.  The experience has been pretty much the same – I start off excited about the students, the opportunities to help them learn about what I think is a fun and exciting career area, and teach them information and skills they need to know to succeed.  The first year is fabulous.  I’m in hog heaven.  The second year is good, but I feel a little frustrated that I’m not “getting through to them.”

By the end of third year, I am downright depressed and worn down because SO many students don’t seem to be interested in learning.  Some don’t bother to show up in class at all.  Some show up, but sneer at me all through class [I’ve actually kept two students after class to ask them if they know what their facial expressions look like (both said they didn’t)…and explain that this may be a detriment in an interview or work environment.  Then again, they may just really not like me.]

In other words, I can’t find the meaning in the work any more.  I’m not blaming the students.  They are who they are and they do what they do.  And it could certainly be that I’m a lousy professor, although I have some kind former students who are nice enough to say otherwise (thanks, y’all!).  Plenty of professors stay in the job for years and years.  Clearly, they find something I can’t.  Maybe they find meaning in research (I don’t – not the academic kind, anyway) or administration (I’m a worse bureaucrat than sales person…and I’m a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad sales person).  I don’t know.

The first time in my working life that I realized the importance of having meaning in my work was when I worked as a front desk clerk at a hotel during college.  It was a revelation to realize the effect I could have on someone else’s mood, just by being friendly.  After a long day of work, a flight, and a life-threatening taxi ride from one of the D.C. area airports, they would arrive at the hotel, bedraggled and tired.  And find me, a 20 year old college student, at the front desk.  If I gave them the key to their room, fine.  They went up and their day was no different.  But if I smiled and joked with them or found something in their profile to start a conversation with (e.g., “You’re from Dallas? My brother lives in Dallas!”), it sometimes seemed to make their mood better.  And I helped!

That’s how public speaking is for me.  When I do a good job boiling what I think is important information into understandable chunks and use those to ignite a conversation with and between the participants, it feels meaningful.  It’s information that will help them in some way.  And I was able to help give it to them.  Meaning.

Still I wonder sometimes…is there really no meaning?  Or can I just not find it?  Or do I stop looking for it?

How about you?

Carpe meaning!

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5 thoughts on “Finding Meaningful Work…or Finding Meaning in Your Work?

  1. Good questions! Wish I had answers, because I’m the same way. My stab at it: I don’t think the work itself changes or becomes less meaningful, but once it becomes routine, it’s hard to see the meaning that was so obvious when it was new to you. Kind of analogous to falling in love vs. 20 years down the road of loving someone. Kind of.


    • Sue, good analysis. It feels like I’m looking for something…and have been for 20+ years. But I don’t know if the “something” is a specific job or to embrace and experience as many opportunities as I can before I die (or stop working – same thing). I’m hoping the latter.


      • joaneisenstodt on said:

        I know exactly what I want to do – I’ve known it for years and years – and I can’t find anyone to pay me to do something I do so well: stimulate conversations and moderate listservs/online discussion groups .. that then lead to f2f sessions or groups meeting and lots of learning and resources. For any kind of group…well, ones w/ whom I agree! (That is, I can’t do the NRA or Tobacco Institute or KKK.) I’ve just joined a linkedin group that is for a client in a field that I am learning about. The technology of their field is not what I can do. There are lots of other areas and I’m already into some great discussions. For that I am being paid as part of the work I’m doing. But no one else wants to pay me for much. (SGMP for 2014 wants to pay $1000 to cover all travel costs, hotel, meals, and an honorarium. And it’s in Portland, OR. IF they’d even cover air and hotel, I’d do it ’cause I want to be there but .. seriously?!)


  2. joaneisenstodt on said:

    My business has been based on working with clients who “do good” or at least don’t “do bad” and helping people excel. Much like what you said about teaching, Tyra, and speaking. And my “down” is when groups hire me to help them do better and a great work is done in the planning phase of whatever we are doing and then POOF they decide to not do whatever they had set out wanting to do. It makes me wonder why they bothered and why I did.

    Unlike you, I would like to save the world and the people in it! That’s been a goal since I was a very little girl. Some of my work helps others move toward that. Much of what I do outside work fills that need. If I’m not fighting for the rights of others, it doesn’t seem worth it.

    And Sue .. when the work becomes routine, I too find little meaning. It’s why I got out of “pure” meeting planning – it is not me.

    I’m at an age when many are retiring. People don’t want us “old folks” around.

    You, Tyra, are fortunate to have been able to change what you do/where you live when you need to. You are able to very easily reinvent yourself. Be grateful.


    • Joan,

      I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had and continue to have. And I don’t know that it’s “easy” for me to reinvent myself. It’s just what I must do. And it always takes facing some serious fears and having faith that what I’m doing is the next right thing. It’s scary and it’s hard. But it ultimately makes me feel alive. Thanks for your feedback.


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