“Every day it feels like I’m rolling a big boulder up a hill. I’m tired. I wonder what all this hard work is for,” an executive coaching client said this to me recently, somewhat resigned.
For many of us work is a paycheck and we think we’ll find fulfillment elsewhere. Yet, by the time we’re done putting in the hours at work, there is no energy left for anything else. Despite all the research that shows that finding meaning in work is good for our well-being and for our work, Gallup surveys show consistently almost 70% of us are disengaged. Many stay at work for the (allegedly) secure paycheck and benefits.
My client is not ready to quit either. He is searching for that which makes work meaningful. Here are three ways we talked about finding purpose at work.
Find Purpose in the Moment
True story that illustrates the importance of finding purpose in the moment. On Saturday morning I went to the bank to get cash. The bank was closed and I needed more than the ATM would give me. As I stood pondering options, an older lady walked up. She had walked in the summer Atlanta heat. She too was disappointed to see the bank closed. I had forgotten my phone but she had hers so we decided to look up other bank branches that would be open on a Saturday. We found one within two miles and I offered to drive her. As we sat in the car, she said her name was Wanda and shared her story. She had walked from the emergency center at Emory. Her husband was in hospice care. He was suffering from cancer and had complications from the chemotherapy. He had asked to be removed from life-support tubes. He was breathing on his own but hadn’t eaten anything in a few days. She had asked her two daughters to come back to town to say good-bye. I felt at once sad and grateful for our encounter. It seemed like we were both in the right place at the right time. We hugged as I dropped her back to the emergency center. In that moment, I felt purposeful.
When we are present to be useful to others who might need our help, we can find purpose in the moment. Many of us are in search of a grand purpose to which we can dedicate our lives like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. I hope many of us find it. But, when we myopically search for this grand purpose, there is a risk. Let’s not lose the opportunity to recognize the daily moments where we can be purposeful. If you feel gratitude, you may have just found your purpose in the moment.
Find Purpose in Values
During a recent trip to Iran, I had the opportunity to visit the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Tehran. As I visited the museum, learned about the genocide and saw pictures, I was moved and saddened to the point of tears that lasted a few minutes. How can human beings do this to one another? Normally I am not an emotional person so I didn’t expect to be so viscerally impacted. As I reflected on my reaction, I realized that there is a value of “people being together in peace” that matters to me. A great way to discover a value is to pay attention to when you are moved or experience depth of emotion.
Since that realization, I look for opportunities where I can help people better understand each other. It shows up in my course on Managing Team Conflict. It shows up in my executive coaching work to help my clients find ways to restore trust when it is broken. Recently, I volunteered to deliver leadership training at the Non-Violence Institute at the University of Rhode Island. It felt like a gift to me to be of service in this way.
What are values that are important to you? How can you more consciously exercise these values in your workplace?
Find Purpose in Peak Experiences
Many times we find ourselves unexpectedly fueled or energized in a meeting, a work project or in an interaction with a colleague. I ask my executive coaching clients to pay attention to their energy throughout the day as a way to expand their self-awareness about what fuels them. As they pay attention and reflect on this, they discover they can be more intentional about creating those moments of meaning and purpose.
My client recently discovered that a particular work project really energizes him because it serves the broader community. Another client found out that she was fueled by interactions with people where they were brainstorming ideas. Yet another client finds his peak moments when he is mentoring others. The key is to build more of these peak experiences into your workday so you find the meaning you seek at work. Your well-being and your work is at stake.
What is your experience with finding purpose at work?
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes Leadership Blog.