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What a 'meaningful' career actually means

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Everyone wants a meaningful and fulfilling career. To be happy in their career.

However, do you know what ‘meaningful’ actually means?

I read. A lot. And reading (and talking) about meaningful careers is one of my favourite things to do.

So, sit down, snuggle up, have your tea and chocolate biscuits ready, as I’m about to impart what I’ve learned over the years when it comes to meaningful careers.

First of all, the word ‘meaning’ sounds grand but is a lot less scary when you start breaking it down.

There are a number of reasons why you are doing what you are doing in your career:

  • Money

Of course you need to make money. To live. To pay your bills. To send your kids to university. To live comfortably.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, money in itself is not the key to happiness. Yes, it can make you very unhappy if you don’t have it. However, if you won the lottery tomorrow it would make you happy for a while, but after a year you would be at the same level of happiness as you are today.

By all means think about money when seeking to create that meaningful career (no one is expecting you to live on a shoestring). But also consider what you see as the minimum and the comfortable amounts that you could live with and on.

  • Status

We are social animals. We want to be acknowledged. We want to be part of something. We want to be admired. And we want to keep up, or be better off, than the Joneses

It’s natural, it’s human.

However, comparing yourself with others is always going to make you unhappy. Because you are measuring yourself against how others are doing, not how well you are doing. And there’s always someone better off than you!

And especially in our careers status is tricky. You’ve spent more than 20 years working yourself up to be in the situation you are. And quite frankly, you’ll be damned if you are going to give that away!

But, as Roman Krznaric says in his book ‘How to find fulfilling work’, it is not so much your social status that will provide you with meaning in your career, it’s the respect that you get from others.

For a job well done. For making a difference in an organisation. For feeling like a respected employee. Or business owner. For getting noticed.

Using your strengths

You know your strengths, right? You’re good at doing project plans. Or you’re a good communicator. Or you’re very efficient.

Yes. And no.

Yes, you can be very good at something. Because you have been doing it for so long!

Doesn’t mean that this is necessarily your natural strength!

Having your colleagues or friends point out to you what your strengths are (or ‘signature strengths’ as Martin Seligman calls them in his book ‘Authentic Happiness’). Or even do a test of your strengths (e.g. Strengthsfinder, or the VIA Strengths Survey) is a way to really get to grips with what your strengths are.

And how does this matter?

Well, research indicates that if you use your natural strengths in your work you are happier.

In school and at work attention is paid to what we’re not so good at, what we haven’t done well. However, what if you could sparkle because you are using your strengths? Work shouldn’t have to be hard work!

  • Introducing your passions and interests

I used to get annoyed when I heard colleagues saying that they were so ‘passionate’ about … (Marketing. Making organisations efficient. Auditing. Really?)

Until I realised that I didn’t have just one passion. I had multiple!

More and more there is an understanding that people can have multiple interests, multiple passions, multiple causes they are interested in. People are multi-faceted.

Therefore choosing one ‘passion’, and sticking with it for the rest of your career is – for most people – insanity!

Jenny Blake (in her book ‘Pivot’) also points out that jobs no longer last for a lifetime. Who can tell which jobs will exist in 5 years time? There are a lot of jobs now that didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago.

And at that point ‘passion’ becomes a lot easier. Passion then becomes ‘what are you interested in RIGHT NOW’. What do you want to do now that you can do for the next 1, 2, 3 years?

  • Making a difference

I think there is another way. Of doing business. Of looking after 7 billion people on this planet. Another way of using the resources we’ve got. And another way to treat each other.

Trouble is, we’re not quite sure what that other way is.

I believe that we’re all here to leave a legacy. A legacy of leaving this place better than it was before.

So now should be a perfect time to contribute to making it clearer what ‘better’ looks like. To look at the future, and see how we want to contribute to creating it.

And you know what? Not only will you contribute to a better world, it will make you happier too! In Martin Seligman’s definition a meaningful life is ‘to use your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something bigger than yourself’. So being able to contribute to a bigger cause is likely to make you happier.

So, what does all of this mean?

Now that 'meaning' has been broken down in manageable chunks you can consider what this means for your own career:

  • What have you focused your career on up until now? Has it been money, or status? And how fulfilled has this made you feel?

  • What are the most important elements that are going to provide you with focus going forward? What are you going to change in your career to make it feel more meaningful? And what can you make happen right now?


Tineke Tammes is an ICF credentialed Career Coach, who supports professional women in making successful transitions to careers of Freedom, Flexibility and Fulfilment! Besides that she is also a lifelong feminist, part-time portrait artist, never-only-read-one-book-at-any-time reader, and obsessive doodler. Oh, and she knows a bit about change management too.

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