Lots of folks talk about meaningful work these days. We all want to do work we care about, but when I tried to think of a universal definition of "meaningful work", I decided that that was probably the wrong approach. To me, meaningful work is like Justice Stewart's definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. Why? Because meaning has lots of meanings.
When I work with my husband, Steve, teaching low-income kids to read and write, there's a lot of meaning there for me. A couple of my grandparents were teachers, and my dad had strong values around helping people less fortunate. Plus, it's something Steve and I do together that supports some shared values. So the meaning here is all about family and service. Another example: writing about cancer and vasculitis research. I can't cure these diseases, but I can help shine a light on the people who can to help generate financial and legislative support for their important work. That's got "greater good" written all over it.
But a lot of my work isn't that kind of meaningful. Sure, a lot of the writing I do for Match.com and Monster.com helps people. But it's an indirect sort of help that's hard to quantify. The meaning for me in these gigs is doing good work for clients I like and covering topics that are interesting to me. There's also a good challenge in offering truly useful advice in under 800 words (try it!).
Writing about film, TV and commercial cinematography for the International Cinematographer's Guild isn't changing the world, either, but there's meaning for me in talking to creative, innovative people who are passionate about the work they do, and learning the little tricks and techniques (you'd be surprised at the reliance on ladies' stockings in cinematography) used to tell stories visually. I like telling their stories.
I get a lot of personal satisfaction from the coaching and consulting work I do. Helping people solve problems is a big thing for me and that translates to deep meaning. Plus, I grew up in a family business and I know how hard it can be, so I feel an extra motivation to support people trying to make it on their own.
And, crass as it may sound, sometimes there's meaning in money. This is a tougher, more complicated, kind of meaning. If you're not careful, doing work just for the money can make you hate yourself and/or the people you're working with. But if the job allows you to provide for your family, to give them a more secure way of life, then that can outweigh the downsides. I have taken projects for this reason. I have only regretted it once, and that was because I miscalculated the psychic cost versus the value to my bank book.
That's what meaningful work means to me. How do you define it?