The Secret to Finding Purpose in Meaningless Work6 min read

By Jon Beaty

May 15, 2016

purpose, meaning, work, job, career

Why do people who’ve earned millions–even billions–of dollars continue to work? Is there any meaning in that? What’s the purpose in working when a person has managed to accumulate unimaginable wealth?

Some might do it for greed. Others for power. But these desires alone aren’t enough to motivate a person to work when they don’t have to.

Let me explain.

Our Distaste for Work

Many of us tend to have a distaste for work.

We dream of laying in a hammock on a tropical beach and sipping cold drinks for the rest of our lives. So, we’re at least a little puzzled by people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Mark Zuckerberg. These guys have accumulated wealth beyond our imagination. But they keep showing up at the office.

I got my first job at 16. I worked at Thunderbird Furniture for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week to pay part of my tuition at the boarding school I attended. I stood at the end of a line saw with cut boards coming at me, one after another. As the boards came to me, I’d piece them into 4-foot-wide panels on a table beside me. Once I had each panel assembled at the correct width, I’d slide a 2×2 under it, lift it off the table, and stack it on a pallet.

I hated that job. But the pay was good. So, I stuck with it for an entire school year.

I’d pass the time singing songs that no one else could hear. Everyone wore ear plugs as protection from the noise of saw blades ripping through wood. After a while, I got to where I could daydream while I worked–the task of assembling panels became something I could do without consciously thinking about it.

What causes us to dislike work so much that when we’re at work we’d rather be somewhere else?

It’s not having a sense of purpose or meaning tied to the work we’re doing.

Work by Design

God designed humans to work.

The Bible tells us that even in the perfection of Eden, Adam and Eve were given the task of tending and keeping it. After they ate the forbidden fruit, work became harder. But it was still expected. In the 10 Commandments, the fourth one includes a command to work 6 days, then rest on the seventh.

God hardwired the need to work into our brains.

Science also concludes that we must be designed to work. Work is vital to a thriving life. Well-being is achieved through a sense of accomplishment.

“If you don’t have the opportunity to regularly do something you enjoy —even if it’s more of a passion or interest than something you get paid to do —the odds of your having high wellbeing in other areas diminish rapidly.” from “Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements” by Tom Rath, Jim Harter

Work isn’t only the activity you get paid for.

Adam and Eve weren’t paid for tending and keeping the Garden of Eden. Work is what we do to get things done. Work includes making your bed and preparing a meal, as much as it includes the job you do to pay for the place you put your bed and eat your meals.

You can’t accomplish anything without work.

How to Work with Purpose and Meaning

My job in the furniture factory had a purpose. I just didn’t embrace it. It had meaning, but I didn’t appreciate it.

Our natural instinct is to focus on life’s negatives. There’s a reason for that. It increases our chances of survival. But survival is baseline functioning. It’s what we do to get by–to stay alive.

At some level, we all have to work to stay alive.

But if the only purpose of the work we do is to stay alive, and the only meaning it has is that it assures our survival, what good is that? What good is survival without a greater purpose and meaning to live for?

A life that’s focused only on survival is dominated by fear. Fear of losing ones home, fear of hunger, fear of rejection, fear of death.

What good is that?

To move beyond working for survival, we need to work to thrive. To work to thrive we need to train our minds to focus on the positives, more than we focus on the negatives.

Here are 4 steps to get started on a path towards retraining your brain to focus on the positives, so you can begin thriving at work:

1. Reject the idea that work can be meaningless.

There is no such thing as meaningless work. Whatever work you are doing, it has meaning. You might not appreciate the meaning. You might reject the meaning. But whether you lack appreciation for the meaning of the work you do, or reject the meaning, it doesn’t change the fact that the meaning is there.

2. Discover your purpose

Perhaps you’ve been working only for survival. That’s not good enough. It leads to mediocrity at work, and complacency in life. Discover what you’re living for. If you’ve been waiting for a revelation of your life purpose, wait no longer. Go searching for it.

3. Discover your strengths

When you’re working only for survival, you become well aware of your weaknesses. Your weaknesses might be the only thing between you and becoming homeless or going hungry. Don’t lose sight of those. But if you want to thrive at work, discover and focus on your strengths more than your weaknesses.

4. Apply your purpose and strengths to your work

Integrate your life purpose with your work, whatever work you’re doing. It’ll make your work more meaningful. Use your strengths to propel yourself towards mastery of your work, greater efficiency, and higher accomplishments.

Are You Ready to Thrive?

At 16 years old, I hadn’t discovered my life purpose. One thing I did know: I didn’t want to work in a furniture factory the rest of my life. That’s what kept me going in pursuit of my education.

I knew I wanted more than just to survive. I wanted to thrive.

For some people, helping to make furniture that adds beauty and convenience to people’s lives is a purpose worth fulfilling. But it wasn’t what I was meant to do.

It took me many more years to find the purpose that gives meaning to my work. It doesn’t have to be that way for you.

You can thrive in your work.

Let me help you get started in a thriving life with 3 free chapters from my book If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.

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About the author

I help Christian leaders apply the ways and words of Jesus to:
- Overcome limiting beliefs, habits, and traits.
- Build stronger connections with the people they live and work with.
- Clarify and achieve their personal goals and life mission.

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