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Finding meaning and purpose in your work

Can work bring fulfillment? Hear from experts who believe it can.

5 min read


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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Rodger Dean Duncan.

Here’s a sobering thought: You’ll likely spend more of your adult life on the job than you’ll spend with your loved ones.

So wouldn’t it be great if you discover real fulfillment in your work? Not just a nice paycheck, but genuine gratification and possibly even joy in your personal leadership?

Is that even possible? If so, how?

These are the questions I posed to several prominent thought leaders. Their responses are both informative and inspiring.

Drew Dudley is a serial entrepreneur, recovering alcoholic, university professor, leadership coach and TED talk sensation who has been interviewed by SmartBrief. He says leadership is less about living up to the expectations of others and more about a disciplined commitment to acting on your core values each day.

“Courage is essential for growth, innovation, and resilience,” Dudley says. “Regarding each day as the first day of the rest of your life is not just a glib slogan. It can bring power to everything you do.”

This “Day One” approach, Dudley says, fully embraces an important reality: You’re not always in charge of what you do every day, but you’re always in charge of who you are.

“When we reframe leadership as being evaluated on a daily basis — determined solely by how any one person is behaving today, not what they’ve accomplished over time — we reinforce the idea that everyone starts at the same place each day,” Dudley says. “That means we have an obligation (and the ability) to positively impact the people, organizations, and communities around us.”

Dave Ulrich of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and once ranked the top management educator and guru by BusinessWeek, echoes this theme.

“There’s an old fable of the three bricklayers all working on the same wall,” he says. “Someone asked the bricklayers, ‘What you are doing?’ The first said ‘I’m laying bricks.’ The second bricklayer replied, “I’m building a wall.’ And the third answered, ‘I’m building a great cathedral for God.’ The third had a vision of how the daily tasks of laying bricks fit into a broader, more meaningful purpose. Likewise, employees who envision the outcomes of their daily routines find more meaning from doing them.”

Bill George, Harvard Business School professor and former corporate executive, uses a compass as his metaphor. Just as a compass points toward a magnetic field, your personal “True North” directs your path and pulls you forward. Self-awareness, he says, is critically important in discovering purpose and meaning in your work.

“Many leaders don’t have much self-awareness, and self-awareness is the core of authenticity — of knowing who you are and of knowing your True North,” George says. “Clarity on your True North requires humility and learning from the crucibles you face in life. Self-awareness is the key to everything. It definitely can be developed, and leaders need to work on it through honest introspection and receiving honest feedback.”

George reports that his wife is his most constant source of feedback.

“It’s important to have someone who will pull you back down to earth if you’re getting too high on yourself and who can provide encouragement if you get too down on yourself,” he says. “It’s also important to have a small group of people with whom you honestly share back and forth. I have a men’s group that has met every Wednesday morning for the past 42 years. There are eight guys in there. We also have a couple’s group that meets monthly on Sunday night. That kind of interaction is very essential to me.”

Elizabeth B. Crook, author and  CEO of Orchard Advisors,  is another thought leader with plenty to say about finding purpose in your work. A popular advisor on career and life transitions, Crook has made several transitions of her own.

She says it’s important for people to learn how to discover and cultivate gifts they didn’t even know they had.

“Make a list of the things you know how to do,” she suggests. “For example persuade people, organize a project, research a topic, write a report or a story, coordinate an event, see the big picture, take care of the details. Then ask yourself, which of these are energizing for you? In other words, you enjoy doing them.”

Crook says our gifts are found at the intersection of what energizes us and what we know how to do. Hint: It’s probably something you’ve been doing in one way or another all your life!

Finding that sweet spot of what interests us and what helps other people (our employer, clients, customers, etc.) brings meaning and purpose to our work.


Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of “LeaderSHOP: Workplace, Career, and Life Advice From Today’s Top Thought Leaders.” Early in his career, he served as advisor to cabinet officers in two White House administrations and headed global communications at Campbell Soup Co. He’s a regular contributor to Forbes.

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