When A Noble Mission Is Deeply Dissatisfying

During my time coaching many of my clients had two things in common:

1. They were working for organizations doing incredibly meaningful work in areas like Education or Renewable Energy.  

2. They were deeply dissatisfied and struggled to find purpose and meaning to their work.  

Where was the disconnect?

Somehow the meaningfulness of the work their companies were doing didn't translate to my clients feeling like the work they were doing was satisfying or meaningful. 

After some digging, for each person we uncovered a pattern:

Each person had assumed that because the organization they worked for was doing something meaningful, their jobs would automatically feel meaningful as well. 

The script became they would take jobs with organizations whose mission seemed juste or beneficial to mankind, only to be confused they don't feel a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction from the work. Comments like "I believe in what we're doing, I just don't feel motivated by it" or "the mission of the organization is really exciting, it's just that my job is really boring" were common. 

Often this wasn't their first time hoping a company's mission would translate to a sense of work satisfaction for them. So they struggled to understand the disconnect between those two and began to wonder where things went wrong ("I used to be so excited about what we do...").  

Here is what they taught me: 

It’s not the mission that makes a job worthwhile. 

What has happened is simple, yet very easy to miss: these clients had made a decision with their head, and forgot to include their heart

When we go about selecting a career many haven’t figured out what it is they are truly passionate about doing, and in what context they want to do that work. I wrote about this in a previous article, diving into the type of work I do with clients. Without this information many will make an intellectual evaluation of their options, and select based entirely on that reasoning. 

They might reason that a particular field (such as non-profit work), or more specifically a cause (such as sustainable farming) are worthwhile, and by that virtue will impart fulfillment and meaning to their lives. 

Here's the trick though: 

Your identity is the work you do, not the work you’re a part of.

No work has inherent value or capacity to fulfill, it is a matter of a person doing the work they feel most compelled to do that makes it satisfying. Is someone who loves working with kids going to be fulfilled sitting at a desk doing accounting? No, regardless of the reason or context in which they are working, they’ll struggle to find fulfillment in their job. In this scenario the person’s heart wants to work with kids, and their head can’t convince them to be happy just because the cause for accounting is "worthwhile." 

Or is running a non-profit more worthwhile than running a dealership that does glass repair? I'd say no, as long as both the people running each of those organizations want to be there and love what they do. 

It’s the work you do individually and whether that work is what your heart wants to pursue that is your identity. Working at the coolest non-profit in the world is still a waste if you’re waking up every morning dreading having to go into work. 

Work satisfaction will come from doing work that you are uniquely suited for, involves activities that come naturally and are enjoyable to you, and are being applied in a context you care about. That is the only formula for work satisfaction. The challenge is in knowing what those are.

Are you working at an organization whose mission feels worthwhile, yet are unable to derive meaning or work satisfaction from it? If so it's probably time to let the organization's mission go as part of your identity, and begin to focus on the work itself to see if that's a good fit for you, and if not what would be. 

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