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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Find Meaning in a Job That Feels Meaning-less

“You can find meaning in any job—even if it sucks,” explains Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of the new book The Quarter-Life Break-Through.

I’ve got to hand it to Poswolsky: Taking this topic and making it accessible is no easy task. Try asking your best friend if she thinks her job is meaningful, and you’ll probably get a snarky laugh. There’s something almost precious about discussing the meaning of one’s work—unless we’re talking about people who are actually out there saving the world.

For many of us, reporting to an office and working for eight or nine hour stretches without coming up for much air can feel soul-sucking. It doesn’t matter how big your paycheck is (in fact, if you’re in it for the attractive salary alone and could care less about any other part of the job, it’s unlikely that you attribute a lot of “meaning” to your work), and it doesn’t matter what your title is (a label that has no connection to meaning).

What matters is your why—but this can include multiple drives. You don’t need to set your sights on one thing; in fact, if you try to do that, you’ll probably drive yourself crazy. Figuring out what you care about, says Poswolsky, will give you direction and that feeling of purpose we all crave. You need to understand “why you wake up in the morning and what you want to do for the world.” How will you make an impact? How can you put your talents and gifts to use? It’s not simply about doing what you love (an overused mantra if there ever was one). And it’s not actually even about landing on a single thing (daunting!).

I met with Poswolsky in the Muse’s NYC office to talk about finding purpose and meaning and what you can do if your job sucks or you’re just struggling to figure it all out.

He encourages an examination of personality and interests and thinking thoughtfully about how you want your skills to help others. Maybe you’re an outgoing content marketer who wants to start using your data research skills more to come up with strategy, or maybe you’ve been working in human resources and have a desire to work with other organizations on revamping their dysfunctional departments.

What you’re looking for in this exercise is an overlap between all three—personality, interests, skills. Because then you’ll be able to more accurately identify what your purpose is—and from there it’s just about finding a way to integrate your purpose into your current position.

Finding your breakthrough moment—that moment of opportunity and possibility when you discover why you're doing what you're doing and what you want to give to the world—isn’t about starting your own company. It’s not about taking a year off to travel the world. It’s not about changing jobs or industries on a whim. It’s identifying and then embracing your purpose. It’s an ongoing practice, “a never-ending balancing act,” according to Poswolsky. “It is,” he says, “the act of beginning to commit to something you care deeply about, something that provides personal meaning to you and allows you to share your gifts.”

But, he cautions, “Don’t focus on figuring out your one why, worry less about the one answer, and more about asking the right questions: What do you care about? What gets you fired up? What injustice infuriates you? What types of people do you enjoy spending time with? What types of articles do you find yourself posting on Facebook? What challenge is worthy of your time, not for your whole life, but right now?” 

His method of inventing your own path, finding work you care about, and building a life that matters requires participation (literally since the book is filled with thought-provoking exercises). The truth is, you’re never going to get anywhere or accomplish anything if you don’t make an effort. Don’t expect your boss to write you a memo describing how your role is meaningful. That’s up to you.

Photo of man and woman celebrating a work accomplishment courtesy of Sam Edwards/Getty Images.