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3 ways to find a meaningful job, or find purpose in the job you already have

Learn how to redesign your job for maximum reward.

AARON HURST: There's a lot of talk about purpose: What is your purpose as an individual? And, really, it puts a lot of pressure on us to figure out what is our purpose, a sort of grandiose idea. And it's scary to enter that.

What we've found, actually, in studying individual purpose is that it's much simpler than that, especially as you get started on that journey. And I just want to share with you one question for you to really reflect on to help you think about how to make purpose more accessible to you. What we've seen in our research is that we're wired to find meaning in different ways at work. We don't all get a sense of purpose from the same things. And that doesn't mean different causes. It actually has to do with the elevation of meaning in your work. So let me explain what that means.

For about a third of the population, they get the most meaning at work when they can directly see their work impacting other people. They need to have that visceral sense that their work actually made an impact in someone's life. No matter what the impact is, if they don't see that visceral connection, they don't feel a sense of purpose. Think of a doctor, right? A doctor sees patient after patient. If they didn't get a sense of meaning from each patient, that job wouldn't be fulfilling. It wouldn't be one that they would find purpose in most likely. I think of myself. I actually asked my doctor once, you know, "How the hell do you listen to person after person come in with the same issue after the same issue? Don't you just want to be like, look, I've already seen this one before. Go see another doctor. I've already treated this issue." And he said, "No, actually, I see each person as like a unique opportunity to make an impact." So for about a third of people, that is the primary lens for thinking about impact. And you don't have to be a doctor to do that. There's a lot of ways for that to show up. It could be your co-workers. It could be customers. It could be clients. There's a lot of ways to think about how to make that direct impact.

We then have about a third of the workforce who gain much more meaning from working at an organizational level. They say, it's great to help people, but, ultimately, I want to build a more sustainable impact by helping build teams, to build organizations, to build institutions that can make a longer, sustained impact on the world. And when I see, you know, helping a given patient, you know, that's meaningful, but I'd rather help 1,000 doctors serve a million patients and be part of that equation, and that's what's really going to get me fired up. Whereas a person at that individual side might be like, "That that sounds like bureaucracy. Why would you want to be in medicine and be a hospital administrator? That sounds like torture." But to the person who's driven by that organizational change, that is exactly where they need to get that meaning. For people who really get a lot of meaning from that organizational team level, there's so many ways to do that. But at the core, it's about building teams, building organizations. And you can do that in any industry. You can do it as an athlete. You can do it as a doctor. You can do that, you know, inside a startup. You can do it inside a large company. You can do it in government. There's so many ways to be part of taking the few and turning them into the many.

The final elevation when it comes to purpose is what we call at a societal level. Some people say it's great to help a patient, they definitely need it. It's great to build hospitals, and we definitely need hospitals. But at the end of the day, if we can't reduce the cost of health care, if we can't address cancer, if we can't address some of the systemic issues, are we really moving the needle? I need to see -- even if it's in a very small way -- I need to see that my work rolls up to something bigger than any one person or organization. And this doesn't have to be about solving climate change or addressing world hunger, it could just be about bringing the latest trends in your industry into your organization or helping to advance trends in your industry. It can be about things that are simply connecting what you're doing to something bigger than any one person or organization. And for this person, which is, again, about a third of the workforce, they need to see their work that way.

What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work and start to think about, OK, I'm an organization-level person. I'm in this job. How do I optimize around that? And as I reflect on my work, how do I look for examples of how I'm making that impact? Whereas the person who is individually driven might be doing the same job, but looking for different signals and appreciating and having gratitude for different things. And that's not to say also that purpose is hierarchical. What we found is that there are people who start their career at a societal, individual, or organizational level, and they generally stay in that level. It's not a question of going from individual, to org, to society; it's not a graduation process. That's actually how we're wired. Where we find meaning actually ties back to the patterns that we see in the world, how our brain works, the level of intimacy and connection that we want with people based on our profile and a lot of other variables that actually are why we gain meaning from one thing, where someone else doesn't. So I encourage everyone to take a few minutes and really just reflect on what elevation do you find the most purpose at? I'm sure you find meaning at some level on all three levels, but where do you find the most meaning? Redesign your identity and your job around that.

  • Broaching the question "What is my purpose?" is daunting – it's a grandiose idea, but research can make it a little more approachable if work is where you find your meaning. It turns out you can redesign your job to have maximum purpose.
  • There are 3 ways people find meaning at work, what Aaron Hurst calls the three elevations of impact. About a third of the population finds meaning at an individual level, from seeing the direct impact of their work on other people. Another third of people find their purpose at an organizational level. And the last third of people find meaning at a social level.
  • "What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work," says Hurst.

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