You know what sucks? Quitting an empty job to start a business with meaning… only to find that your business, too, seems less-than-meaningful.
A 2016 Deloitte survey of Millennials found that a “sense of meaning from my work” ranked #4 on a list of relative importance, after work/life balance, opportunities to progress, and flexibility. This research by Virgin found that 90% of Millennials want to use their skills for good.
And yet, meaning is an elusive thing. Even when you’re using your business to help individuals directly (such as in coaching or freelancing), it can start to feel just like any other job.
Finding fulfilling work is something that I’ve personally struggled with over the years. I’ve come to believe that there’s no single solution. Instead, meaningful work comes from a combination of positive business practices and mentality shifts.
Here’s how to begin incorporating more meaningful practices into your own business.
First, check your core needs
A study by the Harvard Business Review and a company called The Energy Project found that workers feel much more satisfied with their jobs when four core needs are met:
Physical – Time to recharge
Emotional – Feeling appreciated for their work
Mental – Time to focus and flexibility to choose when are where they complete their work
Spiritual – Doing more things they’re good at and enjoy; feeling a higher purpose in their efforts
If you’re feeling unfulfilled in your work, use this list as your first line of defense. Let’s dive deeper into each of these areas.
Are you taking enough time to recharge?
A 2011 Gallup poll found that while 29% of employees say that they’re “thriving” only 14% of self-employed workers would say the same. Freelancing is linked to poorer mental health, often due to workaholism.
Here’s the thing—workaholism doesn’t just mean working at all hours. It also includes thinking about your business all the time. When your home is your office, it’s hard to ‘leave work at work,’ and work stress easily boils over into life stress.
Here are some practical steps to carve out more time and space to recharge:
- Create a dedicated working area. A home office is ideal, but a designated desk in the corner of your bedroom can create the same mental separation.
- Stick to a schedule. Start and end your work around the same time every day.
- Take a lunch. A real one. Breaks allow you to work more efficiently. Take at least half an hour (preferably more) away from your work area.
- Do something completely different after work. I used to hang in my office after my work was finished, putzing around on Facebook and YouTube. Now, I head downstairs immediately and find something else to do. This creates a clear line between work time and non-work time.
One of the joys of running your own business is you get to hear directly from the client the impact that you’re having on their life.
However, if your client’s not happy, it can really do a number on your emotional health.
If you’re consistently delivering poor work, you need to take a step back and evaluate what kind of training you need to improve your service. But let’s face it—you can be the best service provider in the world and you’ll still encounter some negativity from clients once in a while.
If you’re feeling like a fraud, I encourage you to start keeping an Encouragement folder (you might remember this from my post on dealing with impostor syndrome). This is a folder or document on your desktop where you drop in every nice thing that clients or employers tell you about your work. Then, if you’re ever feeling down, you have plenty of proof to remind yourself that you’re not a failure, and you’ve already had a positive impact in the lives of others.
Many people start businesses because they want more flexibility in their work. Unfortunately, flexibility is not a given, and you need to actively create systems that allow you to choose how and when you work.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the first place to focus on is client expectations and boundaries. At the beginning of every engagement, you need to make it very clear how you work, how you communicate, and what the timeline will be (along with what happens if that timeline gets off track).
A standardized client intake process can go a long way in setting proper expectations.
Next, you may want to consider productizing your services. This means instead of taking whatever project someone has for you, you specialize and create standard offerings and packages. This allows you to streamline your offerings and build some predictability into your work.
A spiritual need refers to having a higher purpose in your work. This can mean doing work that you feel is important to the world, or even simply working in a way that supports your values. Freelancing so you can spend more time with your family? That’s a higher purpose. That’s finding your Why.
But there’s also a lot to be said for aligning said higher purpose with work you actually do well. You could be helping the most amazing nonprofit in the world. But if you’re doing that by asking for donations over the phone all day (when you’re actually, say, an introvert and naturally skilled researcher), you’re not likely to feel all that fulfilled.
What you need is to bring your skills into alignment with your beliefs. You need to find your Zone of Genius.
Gay Hendricks popularized the idea of your “Zone of Genius” in his book The Big Leap. Then, in 2012, Laura Garnett gave a TEDx Talk that defined your zone of genius as the pairing between your innate talent and your greatest passion.
You can watch the video here (though I’ll share a summary below):
By “innate talent,” we’re not talking about being a great artist or an amazing softball player. Instead, it’s about the way you think and how you approach problems.
To identify your innate talent, she suggests asking 5 people who know your work the following questions:
- How would describe the approach to the work that I do?
- How has working with me impacted your life?
Then, to identify your greatest passion, ask yourself: How would you choose to spend most of your time, with joy?
Recognizing your own Zone of Genius may be an ongoing and imperfect process. However, it’s a valuable tool for getting clarity on the direction you should be heading.
Using your business to help others
So, let’s be real: Finding a higher purpose is probably one of the harder parts of this whole equation. If you’re highly driven by meaning and you’re already taking care of the other core needs, it’s time to consider expanding your influence by using your business to help the wider community.
There are two major ways to do this:
1) Help others with your expertise
This one is the most common option. Individuals who serve nonprofits, for example, tend to report higher meaningfulness in their work. Many solopreneurs focus on clients that maintain certain ethical standards, or they create products that serve an underserved population.
Building a business around helping others is a great way to make a difference. The “one for one model” popularized by companies like TOMS is taking hold across multiple industries, driving businesses to give away products and services equal to what they sell.
As a service provider, you have plenty of options for helping others with your expertise. Here are some ideas to get started:
- Offering discounts to nonprofits
- Giving valuable content away for free (ByRegina does this well)
- Offering a scholarship to your course
2) Help others with your money
Many you have work that you love, but you feel guilty that it doesn’t directly serve humanity. It feels like maybe your work can’t be meaningful unless you’re actually out on the streets helping people in need.
But that’s just not true.
Giving money is a powerful way to influence the world for the better. It’s also a great motivator to grow your own income—the more you earn, the more good you’ll be able to do in the world.
Now before anything else, let me address some nay-sayers.
“But Jessie, you can’t just throw money at a problem!”
Actually… you can. Other people have set up systems to turn your money into positive change in the world. They’re called non-profits.
“But it’s still not as good as doing the work yourself.”
I mean, you could give up your life to go work in a soup kitchen. But if you’re a scientist at heart who has the potential to create a life-saving drug, I’d call that a misuse of your gifts. Or even if you’re just an average earner—think of how many people you could feed if you just focused on bringing the existing support systems more income?
“But how would I even know which charities to give to? So many are ineffective.”
True! Some nonprofits are DEFINITELY better than others. I’d direct you to GivingWhatWeCan.org, which lists some of the most effective charities out there. (Most of them are focused on saving people from preventable diseases. Might not be the first thing you think of, but the impact of this work cannot be understated).
“I don’t make enough money to give yet.”
If you’re scraping by, that’s okay! I want you to have food on the table and a roof over your head above all else. But when you do have some extra income, I encourage you to consider donation, or to put it in some kind of investment fund so it can grow and you can leave humanity a great gift.
If you’re looking for inspiration, let me assure you that you don’t have to be a tycoon to make a big impact. This school teacher left $1 million to her school district to help students with disabilities go to college, just based on good saving habits. And this couple lives on 6% of their income so they can donate the rest.
Earning money to give money can be a fantastic motivator and a great source of fulfillment in your work.
Learn more about finding fulfilling work
I recently stumbled upon 80,000 Hours, an organization that’s all about helping people find more meaning in their careers. Their Career Guide has so much information on the topic of meaning and business that I probably shouldn’t even be writing this blog post. I encourage you to check it out.
And now, I want to know from you: What gives you meaning in your own work? What makes it worth it, and what makes you feel fulfilled? Let me know in the comments!