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Can You Create Work That Gives You a Sense of Purpose, Even in a Time of Scarcity?

By Karma Kitaj, PhD

Coaches and career consultants often counsel us to “discover your life’s purpose” before committing to your next job or career. This is all well and good, if you have a steady income and a tolerable job. But, if you’ve been laid off or fear your employer might be planning more layoffs, you are not likely to be in a frame of mind to go through the process of discovering your life’s purpose. You want to be practical and realistic and do those things that will get you employed again or earning money in some capacity.

That is a natural reaction, especially if you are not eligible for a good severance package or for unemployment benefits. But, this might be just the time that it is crucial for you to consider what gives you a sense of purpose. It doesn’t have to be the ONE purpose that you were put on this earth to perform, as some purpose consultants would ask you to seek. It does have to take into account some of the questions that the Minnesota Career Center publication raised (see my last article).

1. Would you work in your current or recent past job/ career, if you didn’t have to earn income?

If your response is “No way,” then you probably are experiencing either “boreout,” as authors Phillipe Rothlin and Peter Werder describe in their book Boreout: Overcoming Workplace Demotivation or you are experiencing “burnout.” These are clues that you need to re-evaluate what will give you a sense of purpose in your next workplace. The structure of work gives you a place where you are expected each day, where you know people and have developed camaraderie and a social network, where your work output is more or less useful. These are all good things, things that can keep you steady and sane.

But, if you often experience(d) a lack of commitment in your workplace, a feeling that your skills are being underutilized, little or no encouragement and mentorship … If you find yourself surfing the Internet or making personal calls, instead of being engrossed in a project, then maybe you’re working without a sense of purpose; you have “Boreout.” These are questions that Rothlin and Werder pose to help you assess your “boreout.”
- Do you complete private tasks at work?
- Do you feel under-challenged?
- Do you pretend to be busy?
- Are you tired and apathetic even though you experienced little stress while at work?
- Do you find your work meaningless?
- Could you complete your assignments more quickly than you do?
- Are you afraid of changing your job because you might have to take a salary cut?
- Do you have little or no interest in your work or in the products of your employer company?

Perhaps, you have been expected to take over the work of others who have been laid off or for positions that have not been filled due to cutbacks, then the stress of trying to accomplish everything might be putting you in a condition that is injuring your health and wellbeing; you’re experiencing “Burnout.”

If either of these describes you in your present or recent past job, give yourself permission to pause! And do some self-exploration about what activities allow you to truly feel you’re putting your whole self in.

2. In what kinds of work situations might you imagine working hard just because you feel so engaged in what you’re doing?

Feeling engaged, absorbed, feeling that your goals and vision mesh with the mission of the organization you work in --- these are all hallmarks of working with a sense of purpose.

Are there parts of your present job or career where you do feel so maximally engaged that you forget to go to lunch? Do you experience times when you feel you’re an integral part of a larger mission, where you’re contributing something worthwhile that is going to affect some part of the world profoundly? That is what it feels like to work with a sense of purpose.

3. Are there situations where you would take a pay cut to work there? What qualities of the workplace would compensate for earning less money?

Many people in the “second half of life,” or over age 50, are voluntarily segueing into “encore careers,” careers that are meaningful to them because they satisfy a need to experience personal growth, to make a difference, or to serve humanity and the planet in some small way. Marc Freedman, author of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life, is a proponent of working with a sense of purpose and popularized the term “encore careers.”

A magazine that recently closed its doors was called Motto, started by Wall Street Journal reporters who believed that a new model of the workplace has to include passion, purpose, and profits. Motto’s tenets were:
- We believe that people want their careers to stand for more than a paycheck.
- We believe that everyone has the right to seek out the work life that makes them happy.
- We believe that people shouldn’t have to check their personal values at the office door; instead those values should match their work environment.
- We believe there is a spirit of each business that shines into communities, employees and customers. That spirit can be as positive (or negative) as the leaders choose to make it.
- People want to connect to a company. Finding that sense of community leads to more fulfilling work.
- Organizations with a strong mission attract people who work harder and smarter simply because they love being there. The result: the productivity companies crave, is achieved humanely.

How do you want to mesh your need or desire to earn income in the coming years with your desire to live a life of purpose in your workplace? Here are a few questions to consider:
- Can you change your outlook about what you’re doing now by focusing on the present moment? When we are in the present, we are necessarily more at peace.
- Can you change the way your work group relates to one another, to your clients, customers, to the environment that accommodates to your values?
- Can you propose a project that meets a need for your present employer, but also incorporates a sense of meaning and purpose for you?
- Can you start your own business that models the kind of workplace you believe will give you a sense of purpose?
- Can you start or join an existing “mastermind” group to brainstorm about ways to collaborate on doing these things?