Meaningful Work- is it discovered or created? Part 1

As of October 1, 2011, after 3 1/2 years, I disengaged from my role as a co-founder and content developer of It was a very rich and positive experience. I learned much about online marketing, numerous subjects related to midlife and came to know some of the experts in the field. It brought home the answer to the question I ask my coaching clients and I asked myself- “what’s common to all problems you have?” Closely related is the saying, “wherever you go, there you are.”

One of the outcomes of that experience is it reinforced my point of view on the importance of meaningful work as a source of being fulfilled and happy through all periods of our lives- not just at midlife and beyond.  As we enter midlife, what comes to the forefront in this area of work is our desire to want to make a difference, to give back, to know that our life matters (something that’s been present in the background in our earlier years).

As far as I can tell, there’s a shift taking place as a response to the questionable future of the planet. More and more small business owners want to know what they can do to have a positive social impact- create social change. They’re looking for meaningful work- starting enterprises that have a social mission or re-designing their businesses or jobs so they contribute to the “common good.” My point of view is that in order for work to be considered meaningful, there needs to be a component of giving back  to society.

Meaningful work is something I’ve struggled with all my life having gone through 7 work transitions. There are a couple of issues here: (1) What is meaningful work? and  (2) How do you find it?

In 1981, when I let go of practicing dentistry and looked at what was next for me, I came across this story from a book on career transitioning that had a powerful effect on me…

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks.

The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

”A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.”

”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

“Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job.”

So meaning is something that we ascribe to an event, object or person. For example, what we call a “chair” is a chair by virtue of us labeling (distinguishing it through language; creating a context) as a chair. There are no inherent properties that make an object a “chair.”

Similarly, I can say that anything I do has meaning because I say so, no matter how mundane it may be. Just as in the story above, each mason is doing exactly the same work, yet each one experiences it differently. Each one has created a different context or meaning.

For the small business owner, this can live inside these kinds of questions…

•    “Why am I in this business?”
•    “What’s the purpose of the business?”
•    “What am I building?”

This brings me to the second aspect of my “struggle” I refer to above. Do you “find/discover” work or do you create it?

I’ll share about this in my next post.


1.    What does meaningful work mean to you?
2.    How is your paid work showing up for you?
3.    Is it meaningful?
4.    If yes, what makes you say so?
5.    If no, what makes you say so?
6.    If you say your paid work isn’t meaningful, what’s your strategy to have your work be meaningful? What needs to happen?
7.    How is your non-paid work (volunteering, philanthropy, etc.) showing up for you in terms of being meaningful?
8.    If there’s a difference in meaningfulness between your paid and non-paid work, what’s the source of that?

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