Hold Your Beliefs About ‘Work’ And ‘Meaning’ Lightly

13th August, 2021

It’s easy to get entangled in our beliefs about ‘work’ and ‘meaning’.

I recently coached a woman in her mid-20’s. Now growing into her spiritual side, she was beginning to sense a disconnect between the meaning she wanted from her career, and the reality of her current job.

Having achieved plenty already, this person was falling into a period of deep questioning: Would achievement pursued for its own sake be enough for her in this lifetime?

Then again, she was doubling back on herself due to a separate observation: Isn’t a meaningful life one where we celebrate meaning in the ‘little things’… not just the ‘big things’?

She was mature enough to recognise that a grand, unifying mission for her life’s work wasn’t going to be sufficient for a fulfilling life. Perhaps necessary, to some degree… but not sufficient.

So on one hand, she wanted more than a ‘going-through-the-motions’ type career. On the other hand, she was concerned about the consequences of putting this kind of pressure on her professional life.

It’s a familiar dilemma.

Sensing we’d reached an impasse, I probed further.

Sometimes it helps to take a belief, hold it against the metaphorical light, and scrutinise it like an impartial scientist.

Taking the core belief – that work should provide a sense of meaning – I asked three questions:

1) “Who in your life embodies this belief for you?”

My coachee recalled an executive she had worked with. He would talk about his work so passionately, and rather than recycling business jargon, he was clear and precise. This person also brought core values like integrity, learning and growth into the workplace (much to the benefit of those around him).

Most of us can think of someone enamoured with their work. It’s infectious. We see how pleasantly possessed and purpose-driven they are, and naturally we want a piece of the action.

I call such people ‘Angels’. Collectively, there’s no underestimating the ripple effect they can have on humanity. (Note I don’t mean this in a religious sense, but as a metaphor.)

2) “How will this belief serve you going forward?”

With the above person in mind, the next step was to consider this seemingly obvious question (I love obvious questions).

I wanted her to examine the utility of the belief. Would it tangibly increase the quality of her existence?

This wasn’t difficult. She saw that creating work with deeper personal significance would translate to a greater satisfaction with her life.

3) “How could this belief be dangerous for you, over the next 10, 20, 30 years?”

Some beliefs don’t beg to be questioned. We quickly label them as ‘good’, or ‘altruistic’. And so they sneak under the radar unexamined. But beliefs aren’t inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – what counts is how human beings wield those beliefs.

When I asked this question, my coachee recognised the danger in wielding her belief too fervently. She saw that work might consume her, perhaps stealing her away from family time.

She might lose sight of the bigger picture, forgetting to take a step back and appreciate the little things in life.

Expanding our Toolbox of Beliefs

At this point, a key insight we had is that beliefs are basically tools – conceptual tools.

When you’re building a house, however, you need a range of tools in your toolbox. Holding just a single tool with vice-like grip is going to be counterproductive. A certain quote comes to mind:

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

~ Abraham Maslow

For this reason, pay special attention to the presence of ‘should’ in your belief systems.

This word is the mother of all guilt. When you notice it floating around in your psyche, become intensely curious… I’m sure you don’t want to get infected by ‘should-itis’ 🙂

Ask yourself obvious questions: Why should work be meaningful? And why am I holding this belief so tightly?

There was a subtle shift when my coachee recognised that she was in charge. She had the power to hold this belief more lightly – or even put it down when it wasn’t serving her.

This sounded better than letting the belief control her. It also sounded better than throwing herself into the quest for meaningful work without maintaining an enjoyable life outside of work.

She began to see that she could strike a balance between ‘big meaning’ and ‘little meaning’, with a grand unifying mission held lightly enough that she could rejoice in the smallest of life’s pleasures too.

(If you relate to this, I’d encourage you to check out my article on the 3 Work Orientations – the distinction between a ‘calling orientation’ and ‘career orientation’ is especially relevant here.)

My invitation is to look for the ‘sweet spot’ between your opposing beliefs.

Occasionally, you’ll realise they aren’t opposing at all; they’re complimentary – different tools have different roles to play.

So why not try expanding your toolbox of beliefs, and holding your favourite beliefs more lightly? Maybe that way you’ll have a more enjoyable time building the house that is your life.

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Hey, I'm Oliver 👋

I write about personal growth, and the art of living with purpose. By sharing my insights, I aim to support you in cultivating (and unleashing) your purpose. Learn more.

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