the meaning of work

the meaning of work

"Life asks of every individual a contribution, and it is up to that individual to discover what it should be"

Victor Frankl

The questions which clients most often bring to me are - 'How can I get people to see what I have to offer at work?' and 'How do I know what's the right job for me?'

Why are these questions important? Why is work important? The stock answer is because we spend a good deal of our life at work, but that's not the whole story - it's not just about investment of time.

What people are seeking (although they don't always recognise it) is work which expresses their true sense of self. Work which embodies that unique bundle of skills, experiences, talents and perspectives which makes each of us an individual. It's important, not only to be doing work to reflect that sense of self, but to have it recognised by others. In that way it's not just an expression of self, but an extension of self.

That's often why people are so disoriented when they're made redundant - it's not just the loss of material security, it's about the feeling that a fundamental way in which they contribute to the world is no longer valued.

I'm often asked if this viewpoint is realistic. It's hard to believe that people undertaking mundane or unpleasant tasks can feel fulfilled, or that they are expressing themselves through their work. But I constantly come across examples of people doing ordinary jobs, who feel fulfilled. I recall a taxi driver in Florida who kept telling me 'I love my cab! I love it so much that my husband has to drive around with me in order to see me!' And indeed there he was, sharing the experience of Penny contributing to the world of work, running his life from a mobile phone in the front seat of a cab.

What Penny loved about her work was a connection with a variety of people and the ability to provide something for them - efficient transport within an area she knew well. She was clear about what she had to offer and she was fulfilled because she was able to do that

People I see through my work are often not clear about what they have to offer and not sure whether it's valued. Granted, sometimes it's hard to figure those things out when you've had a lifetime's experience of believing a whole bunch of myths about work. For example: 'You can't be both happy and successful in work'; 'No-one genuinely likes successful people'; 'Work is a drag, and the only reason we do it is to fund an enjoyable leisure time'.

Whenever I read about William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, I'm in awe of the way he expressed himself through work. Last week I read him described as 'poet, designer, craftsman and radical socialist' - all those! And all true! But my first thought was 'They've forgotten painter, architect, historian and lay preacher!' This man knew he had gifts and invoked tremendous energy to express them, even when he wasn't sure quite where it would take him or whether he was likely to be successful. 'Work', he said 'is the embodiment of my dreams'.

I believe that it's within each of us to find work which gives expression to our unique gifts. The process takes time, learning, challenge and a preparedness to ditch the myths we've grown up with, but the difference it makes to dragging yourself out of bed for another dreary day at work or leaping out, eager to contribute in a way which doesn't actually feel like work, is tremendous.

So, where to begin?

I'm a great believer in using energy as a guide. In that first conversation which I have with clients, it doesn't take long to see where their energy is going. Consider what energises you. It may be aspects of your work or leisure, or something which you haven't done for years. Observe how you feel when you think about aspects of work and leisure pursuits. Then dig down to think about what about it energises you. Is it connection with people? Using a particular skill? Being able to help others?

Nick Williams, in his excellent book 'Unconditional Success' says, 'we need to be curious about who we can become and what we can achieve, and let our work be the vehicle for the satisfaction of our curiosity.'

So, get curious! Use these questions as a focus:

  • How would I describe myself and what I have to contribute?
  • How far does my current job reflect that?
  • What energises me and what drains me of energy?
  • What are the work myths which I embrace?
  • What do I want to be known for?
  • If I knew that I couldn't fail in my work, what is it that I would do?
  • What am I afraid of?

This article © Copyright Ad astra Career Management. Please do not reproduce this article without permission. If you wish to reproduce this article please contact us.

Recommended book

Unconditional Success

Nick Williams
ISBN 0-593-04897-0; paperback; 302pp; Great value at £10.99

Unconditional successSomehow we get to adulthood with the belief that success is for the few. We also tend to hold negative associations about success. Nick dismantles these ideas, instead replacing them with a new success ethic based on 'creating a new match between who we are in essence and what we do in the world'.

He encourages us to see that we can have the success which we dream of. This book provides a framework for reviewing our established view of success and the ideas which we have internalised about it. Nick provides exercises to encourage us to gain clarity about our sense of self and our values, and what that means for us in setting goals from now on.

The exercises and examples provide gentle challenge and the 'wisdom questions' which Nick poses are deceptively simple, but they very powerfully get to the heart of understanding our experience of work and success.

Buy this book from



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