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How to Find Meaningful Work

Ten exercises designed to help you find a work that fits your needs and personality.

Ondrej Markus
Ondrej Markus
12 min read
How to Find Meaningful Work

This guide will help you find a project, a job, or a career that fits your needs. But it's not just about landing a better job. It's about finding what is meaningful to you and then making a living around it.

There are 10 exercises divided into 4 days that will take you from understanding what you want to a new work-life design you can put into action immediately.

Content

Start here: How to use this guide

Day 1: Understand what you actually want

Day 2: Find what you enjoy

Day 3: Build life prototypes

Day 4: Design experiments


Start here

How did we get here

For most of human history, the purpose of work was obvious – to survive. But today, for many of us, this purpose is mostly taken care of by modern civilization. And we struggle to replace the meaning of our working lives once we have enough to make a comfortable living.

We can do anything, want to do everything, and we are lost in between. We wish to be needed, to belong, to be useful. And our culture offers work as a way to be all of it. Work is the capitalist engine for fulfillment.

But to find meaningful work isn’t something taught at school. The world changes faster and faster and we are left to find the meaning of what we do on our own. There is no magical wisdom that would instantly fix our dissatisfaction. It’s a skill we need to learn. And like any other skill, we have to do it over and over to become better at it.

This guide will help you to learn the skill of how to find meaningful work.

I started writing this as an act of necessity from myself to myself. It’s an outcome of my own never-ending struggle to find meaning in what I do with my time. I figured it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so I better create something to fight it whenever it comes back. Because it always does.

So I put together a framework of ten exercises designed to help you find a work that fits your needs and personality. It takes you through a process of guided self-reflection, followed by pragmatic planning. There are step by step instructions with occasional examples to help you go through the process as smoothly as possible. (Spoiler alert: It’s never smooth.)

On the first day, you will dive into a quest of finding what you truly want. Then you will explore what you enjoy doing and what you are good at. On the third day, you'll put it together to assemble specific work-life scenarios you could pursue. finally, you'll design an experiment that will help you safely move towards your newly designed work-life.

How to use this guide

The ten exercises are divided into four bigger chapters named Day 1 to 4. Each part takes a lot of time and energy, so I recommend you to take it slowly, and do them over more than one day. You can approach it literally, and do one chapter a day for four days straight, or in any way that works best for you.

What I don’t recommend, is trying to sprint your way through it in one long evening. The ideas you’re going to wrestle with deserve your sharpest state of mind, and some sleep in between them will do much of the mental heavy-lifting you’re going to need.

(While I procrastinated finishing this guide I designed worksheets you can print and use for these exercises. But they aren't an essential component. Blank sheets of paper will do the job as well.)

>> Download Worksheets in PDF

To uncover major life insights isn’t an easy straightforward activity. When you work your way through these exercises day by day, you may feel like this.

It’s dark in the pits of self-reflection, and we never come out the way we entered. When you get confused or anxious exploring your mind, remember that it’s natural. You’re doing it right. We strive for self-knowledge and that lies out of our comfort zone. It takes a lot of courage to begin the process, and even more to finish it.

We need and should put more time into choosing our work-life. We spend days or weeks on deep research when we’re picking a car or a phone, yet we invest so little time into thinking about how we want to spend the rest of our working life. All we need is a pen, paper, and some alone time. We owe this to our future selves.


Day 1: Understand what you actually want

When anyone asks me "What do you want to be?" I smile on the outside but panic on the inside. I couldn't possibly reveal the contradictory mess in my head in public. So I deflect with a nervous laugh and spin the conversation to a safer place with a joke or a sudden change of topic. (Uff, that was close.) Next time, I better have some prepared statements memorized.

Longings are anything we desire for reasons both good and bad. It's what we long for = what we need, want, or value. It's what we can't live without (needs), what we would like to have if possible (wants), and how we would like to live (values).

Discovering what we long for is the first and most important step on our way to find meaningful work. What we want is where it all begins, and where it ends. It's why we do what we do. And to know how to find it and name it is one of the most useful skills we can learn in life.

In the first exercise, we'll use a simplified framework of three layers of longings to make the search easier. Pick up paper and pen; it's thinking time.

Step 1: Layers of longings

Our goal is to find and name our longings – what we need, want, and value – as accurately as possible. We will imagine longings on three connected layers. The layers are categories of longings based on the context in which we perceive them in our life.

And how they are connected.

We'll start with our lifestyle (Me), and work our way through our relationships with Others, to the wider context of the World and how we fit into it.

When you write down your longings, remember that you are describing your current state of mind. Your longings will change in time. So the ambition isn't to get the perfect image of them. It's enough to make a first draft that we know is going to change. It means we are not afraid to write something today, just to rewrite it in a day or a week. Things change, we change, and our longings change with us.

What most of the exercises are, is little more than thinking out loud on paper. We aren't creating a piece of art to put on a wall. We experiment, brainstorm, draft, sketch, discard and remake again and again. This is neither place nor time for perfection. Roll up your sleeves, and give yourself permission to write the first longing that comes to your mind.

Use worksheet: Step 1: Discover layers of longings

Me – Personal lifestyle layer

In the layer of lifestyle, we look for anything essential to how we want to live our life.

The lifestyle layer contains longings for practical things like owning a house, finishing school to get a master's degree, or being physically and mentally fit. But also more high-minded abstract ideas like the freedom to do what we want, to achieve a balance between work and personal life, or to reach an overall peace of mind and happiness.

We have different definitions of what they mean, or we don't even know what exactly they mean to us, and that's fine. Most of them are imperfect word-based representations of feelings. So the words themselves are only useful as a reminder we write on paper or play within our head.

After you write them down, it might look weird to have them next to each other, but most of them have a lot more in common than is visible at first sight. Maybe, you can follow the tracks from the longing to own a house, to the need to feel safe and secure, and further to a desire to experience feelings of ease, and to be free from the non-stop worrying.

Try to follow your longings to the core ideas behind them – to the more abstract ideas on the deeper level of feelings. But don't discard the pragmatic wishes that lead to them. Those are the specific and more actionable longings through which you can reach feelings like peace or freedom.

When you can't think of anything else to add, move onto the next layer. You can always go back.

Others – Relationships layer

Here we contemplate our connections to others. We are defined by our relationships more than we think. The closer people are to us, the bigger is their influence on us. Family members, romantic partners, friends, co-workers, and strangers.

What do we long for in our relationships with them? Most of us want to belong to a community, to be recognized by others for our unique talents and personality, to be understood, and to get approval for our actions and opinions. And for better or worse, we long for fame, status, and respect from our peers.

It's possible, that some of the longings you came up with within the lifestyle layer belong in the relationships layer. It doesn't matter as long as they are somewhere. The purpose of the layers is to guide us through the different perspectives of our longings to spare us of the overwhelming avalanche of thinking about everything at once. Even with them, it's hard not to get confused, and even if you do, don't worry. As someone once said: "If you aren't confused, you just aren't thinking enough."

World – Meaning layer

You now have a better idea about what it is you want in your lifestyle and relationships. We continue to the most abstract and confusing layer of all. We'll look at our place in the world and think about meaning.

What do we want to be in the context of the world?

Before we fall into an existential breakdown, let's look at what we mean by the world. (Warning: It gets weird in the next paragraph.)

The world represents everything around us. We are here and we don't know what to do. In the context of the universe, we are a blop of nothing; yet strangely, to ourselves, we are everything. Or at least we are to ourselves the only thing we can be somewhat sure about. So when we think about our place in the world, we look for meaning in what we are and do. And only we can decide, what meaning the world has to us.

Others can suggest meaning, and they will, but ultimately, no one controls you, and the meaning you accept is the meaning you live with and for until you change your mind.

So what is the meaning? Is it to leave a legacy for those coming after us, to support a family, to provide enough for those close to us? Is it to make good art, to contribute, to be useful? Is it to have an impact on people now, or to improve the future for later generations? Is it to make sense of all of this and learn how to live – to find the rules of this game of life?

I have my favorites, but ultimately, I don't know. There is no objective answer I know of, and I suspect there can't be an objective answer. We have to resolve our preferences, get on with the work, and hope it all makes sense in the end.

If you have no idea how to approach this one, you're not alone. Don't torture yourself with it. You have your whole life ahead of you to do that. Instead, if you are stuck, continue to step 2, and come back whenever inspiration strikes you later.

Step 2: Investigate origins

We live our lives connected to other people who influence us, and unless we plan to settle down in a cave to spend the rest of our lives in quiet meditation, we will be continually influenced by them even in the future.

That's what culture is. We live in our own little cultural bubble and can't avoid it. We can only try to change the culture in our current bubble, or move into another bubble. Anyway, to be bubbled with others is to be influenced by them.

In this exercise, we will investigate which of our longings are authentic, and which are borrowed from others. We'll give our longings a deeply skeptical look, and buy a ticket to ride the Why train. We take one longing at a time and ask: "Why is this here? Where did it come from?", and follow the why's as far as we can remember.

It's difficult and exhausting. You will get regularly stuck with unclear answers. Don't give up. None of us are experts in this. But this step is crucial to filter out any intruders in our longings. We don't want to build our life around things other people want us to want, instead of following what we genuinely want.

To simplify the process, we'll label our longings by one of the three types of origin: authentic, borrowed, or suspicious.

Use worksheet: Step 2: Inspect origins

Authentic

You went with the why's and found a moment in your life, where this longing probably originated. You know it's something you want. It's genuine and authentic. Cheers.

Borrowed

Here ends up anything, where you discovered a strong influence of someone else as the primary reason you want it. Maybe a well-meaning parent, a friend from the past, or even your younger self. You can thank them and return the longing. You don't want or need it anymore.

Suspicious

If you're not sure, put it here. We'll treat it as authentic for now, but it's worth revisiting this group in the future, and also to make a mental note to be cautious with them. Their origin isn't clear.

Remember, we're not aiming for perfection on our first try. To clarify what's going on in the big bag of neurons we carry in the hairy ball sticking from our neck is a life long process. If you would have managed to identify just one borrowed longing and got rid of it, it's a reason to celebrate.

If you think right now what a mess you are. Those thoughts are nothing to be anxious about. Everyone is a mess. We just don't talk about it.

Step 3: Set priorities

If everything is important, nothing is.

Doesn't matter if you have a full-stack or just a couple of longings on your list. You need to decide, which ones are the most important to you. And of course, we have categories for that. If you know one thing about me at this point, it's that I like organizing stuff into categories. And if you think I'd now say "but don't worry, it's the last one where we put things into categories", well, it isn't.

To prioritize them, we organize longings into five levels of importance.

Use worksheet: Step 3: Set priorities

Top of mind

The one thing you can't put on hold and want to get no matter what. This should be only one thing, or two at most. You think about it all the time. You build your life around this.

Must have

You go hard for these and once you don't get them for a while, you get unhappy fast. You need them fulfilled to live the life you want.

Can't ignore

You don't focus on them, but their absence might cause you trouble over time. You need to maintain them at least at the bare minimum. You can't fully ignore them.

Nice to have

It's nice to have them but you don't actually care about them. They are a pleasant bonus on your way to getting things on higher levels. If you don't have them, you might not even notice.

Avoid

A special category for longings you don't consider healthy for you and want to keep your distance from them. Maybe you care a little too much about what others think about you, or you like things just perfect and it's the reason you seem to never finish anything. It's your decision what you consider an unhealthy longing. There is no universal measure, only your preference is what matters here.


Your choice

The hard thing about this is that virtually incomparable longings will go head to head against each other, and you will want to get all of them the V.I.L. (Very Important Longing) spots, but there aren't enough spots. It feels like having an extra ticket to a concert by the favorite band of six of your friends, while you have to give it to only one of them, and the rest of them are looking at you while you decide.

No wonder we often choose not to choose at all and prefer to try to fulfill every one of our longings at once, ending up fulfilling none of them well enough.

Remember, not choosing is also a choice. And usually a bad one.


This guide continues here: Day 2: Joys & Strengths.

Ondrej Markus Twitter

Full-time unemployed. Trying to make a living as an independent writer.