Has this question ever flashed through your mind during your workday? Maybe while you were taking care of some mundane task or after a particularly unproductive meeting, or when your boss failed yet again to give you recognition or a raise.
It only takes one or two crappy days at work to make you feel a sense of purposelessness. And if the negativity or boredom takes over much longer than that, it can lead to a full career crisis.
So, before it gets to that point, let’s pump the brakes. Finding purpose at work is possible, even if you don’t love your job or don’t want to do what you’re doing forever.
Here’s how you can find your purpose at work.
Purpose at work: What does it mean?
When we talk about purpose at work, there are really two sides to the coin:
In some cases, you may be talking about your purpose in the business where you work. You don’t understand what your role is in the business’s big picture or how you’re making a difference.
In other cases, you may be talking more generally about the purpose of your chosen career. Your current career path doesn’t satiate you emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.
These two concepts are not mutually exclusive, either. You may be unsure of what your purpose is within your business and simultaneously wonder why you chose this career path at all. Or you may love your career and hate your job, or vice versa.
No matter where you fall on this spectrum, the issue is the same. What you’re doing to earn money isn’t working out right now, and it’s making life feel meaningless and confusing. And that’s not good.
The movie Office Space sums up this feeling better than any other. The main character, Peter, feels a deep disconnection and dissatisfaction with his job—and he’s not hiding it anymore. Here’s the scene that captures what it means to feel like you have no purpose at work:
The bigger point of this movie is that, in many ways, your job is your life. You spend a lot of time working, and some people see more of their colleagues than they do their family.
So, if you don’t feel like you have a purpose at work, it’s easy to start feeling like you don’t have a purpose in life.
First, find your greater purpose in life
Even if your job is incredibly mundane—even if you feel like it wouldn’t matter if you just stopped coming to work—remember this:
Your life has purpose.
And your life’s purpose is your own and no one else’s. You weren’t put on this Earth to make someone else rich or save someone else time. You’re here to do something that brings you and those you love joy and happiness.
The key is finding out what that purpose is. That’s no easy task, so if you aren’t sure, don’t worry. It takes most people at least a couple decades before they know what they want their purpose to be. Beyond that, your life’s purpose is amorphous—it will change and grow over time.
Your life should and will have more than one purpose. You may have a career-oriented purpose (such as working your way up the ladder, working for a specific company, or earning a certain pay rate). You may also have a personal purpose—to write a novel, to see the world, to improve your fitness, etc. And you may have a social purpose as well—to develop deep friendships, to care for your aging parents, or to start a family of your own.
Before you can find purpose at work, you have to find purpose in life—the life you lead outside of work. And if you aren’t sure how to do that, here are a few resources to get you started:
Draw connections between your greater purpose and what you do now
Though it will take some time to discover your greater purpose in life, you’ll soon start to recognize some consistent goals you want to work for to achieve your own definition of happiness and success.
Now, you need to find ways to connect those greater drives to the job you’re in. This can be challenging, especially if you’re feeling jaded with your current employment. But be creative—perhaps even use a pen and paper to list out your goals in life, so you can jot down aspects of your job that correspond to each one.
For example, let’s say you currently work in retail at a clothing store. Your chart might look something like this:
Life Goal / Purpose
Have children and be an excellent parent
Interact with customers’ children nearly every day
Design my own clothing line
Work with fashion constantly, gaining inspiration
Try living abroad for one year
Earn money to put into savings for moving abroad
Inspire and build confidence in others
Help customers find clothing that builds confidence
This exercise isn’t meant to solve your workplace ennui once and for all. You’re not just going to make a chart and decide you actually love your job and want to stay forever.
Instead, think of this as a way to bring some joy and satisfaction to the job you have. Recognizing the parts of your job that serve your larger purpose in life can make going to work more bearable and motivate you to make this job (or your next one) better than ever.
Address the parts of your job that counteract your greater purpose
As you start making connections between your job and your life’s purpose, you may also discover that certain aspects of your job are actively working against your greater life’s purpose.
For example, maybe one of your life goals is to broaden your circle of friends, but your bartending job means you never have nights or weekends to meet new people.
Perhaps your purpose in life is to spend every summer surfing the waves, but your low-paying job doesn’t give you enough time or income to take a beach vacation.
Talk to management about changing your job to be more compatible with your life purpose.
Quit your job and find something that’s more aligned with your goals.
These probably don’t feel like great options, but both are better than suffering at a job that’s setting you back.
You may find that after a conversation with your boss, you’re able to get every other weekend off, earn more vacation time, or change the dress code.
But if management is unable or unwilling to listen to your concerns, then they’re sending you a message: This job is not compatible with your life, and it’s time to move on.
If you’re considering quitting your job, we have resources for that as well:
Use your job to get new skills that move you closer to your goals
Maybe your job doesn’t perfectly align with your passions and purpose in life. But are there ways to use your job as a stepping stone to get closer to what you really want?
A good job will invest in its employees, helping them learn new skills and gain more experience in the areas that interest them.
Let’s go back to the example from above, where we imagined you had a job working in retail, and one of your goals was to eventually release your own fashion line.
Perhaps you could strengthen your feeling of purpose at work by asking your boss to sponsor you for a merchandising class or give you more insight into the procurement, design, and display side of the business.
Look back at your list of ways your job connects to your larger drives in life. What are some ways you could potentially leverage your job to take it even further? What classes and courses could you take? What mentorship opportunities could you pursue?
You may find that your job and your purpose in life never fully align, but there’s no shame or harm in doing your best to bring them closer together in whatever way you can.
Shift your mindset and start finding purpose outside of work
Your company’s CEO might like you to think that your job is your life, and your life is your job.
But for many people, that’s simply not true.
Many people work at jobs that don’t serve their greater purpose in life, and they aren’t upset about it. Their job is just a means to an end—a way to earn money that helps them live the life they want.
You find the work enjoyable (or at least tolerable).
The job pays you enough to live comfortably.
Your job leaves you enough free time to pursue your life’s purpose.
These are simple criteria, but they’re not always easy to come by. You’ll have a bit of trial and error trying to find the right role, and jobs that work for one or two years may eventually no longer fit the bill.
Keep moving ahead. Finding your purpose at work (or outside of work) comes with time. But with focus and determination, you’ll find the satisfaction you’re looking for.