The only work that counts

Work comes in all different shapes and sizes. Some of it fits, some of it doesn’t. Some of it makes you look good, some of it doesn’t. Some of it makes you feel good, and that’s right, some of it doesn’t. Work is a huge part of life. In fact, work is an absolutely essential ingredient in life. Getting it right can make the difference between semi-skimmed mediocrity and full fat living.

So how can you get it right?

For me, there are only two possibilities for working right. If work doesn’t look like one of these two things, it’s going to be pretty miserable in the end. Here are my two categories.

Meaningful work – the things you do when you are at your very best and most fully alive. The unique combination of skills, knowledge and experiences that only you possess. The work you were born to do. (If you don’t believe that this exists for you – I disagree. Big time)


Work that fits – the things you do to allow you to live the life you want. Perhaps work to pay the bills or give you head-space. Maybe things you go to gain experience or connections. Not your best work. Not meaningful work. But work on purpose. Work that you’ve intentionally chosen to move you closer to achieving your goals. It’s worth noting here that this isn’t just any old job. Work that fits involves active choices. What can you do to allow you to do your meaningful work? Work that fits usually provides you with a resource you are lacking (which could be money, or time, or development of key skills etc).

I’m sure you’ve noticed most “gurus” out there tell you to only pursue meaningful work. “Ditch everything else and focus solely and unrelenting on the work that matters most to you”, they say. “Pick your dream job, go after the thing you want to do with your life.”

If I had to give you a one-liner piece of advice, mine would probably be pretty similar to the “gurus”. In terms of simple advice, “Go for it. Let go and chase your dreams.” is a pretty good start. You could certainly do much worse than to follow that advice. For some people, that will be enough. I am not one of those people though. My experience has taught me that it doesn’t always work like that.

Get Real

If you’re living in the real world you may have noticed that things are not always that simple. It turns out that following your dreams can be difficult. I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty hard time figuring out what my dreams actually are a lot of the time. And so, advice like “follow your passion” or “chase your dreams” leaves me feeling pretty lost. I end up feeling inadequate for not being able to chase my dreams the way the various bloggers, authors and coaches tell me I should be able to.

I completely agree that meaningful work should be the goal, but the steps you need to take to get there are not always so clear.

I see my relationship with work as a journey. I aspire to invest more and more of my time doing more and more meaningful work. At the same time, I haven’t figured out how to pay the bills by doing my meaningful work yet. And so, I have a job where I do work that fits. I do work which serves me and allows me to put food on the table, a roof over my head and money in the bank. For right now, I do quite a lot of work that fits.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed though, is that meaningful work always seems to find a way. Perhaps subtly, perhaps without realising, perhaps unintentionally. Meaningful work is the work I can’t help but do. Surprisingly often I find myself hinting at my meaningful work, grasping at elements wherever I find them. I am doing my meaningful work even when I don’t know it. It seeps out of me whenever there is the slightest opportunity.

And so, my ultimate goal is to only do meaningful work. Until I reach that time, I’ll strive to do either meaningful work or work that fits. Both of those involve active choices, and sometimes difficult decisions. And both of these are infinitely better than the rudderless, passive alternatives. In the end, any other work will just lead me further away from my dreams.

Are you doing your meaningful work, work that fits, or something else?

4 Comment(s)

  1. Jo

    July 31, 2012 at 1:24 am

    Interesting post, Chris. I hadn’t thought about work like this before.

    I’m in a similar position to you: I have some ideas about what my meaningful work will look like but there’s still a lot of thinking and experimenting to be done so I’m focusing on making my work fit. I’m trying to shift the work that I do so that it involves using and developing the kinds of skills I expect my meaningful work to require.

    I also agree with you that at times it’s not possible to launch into meaningful work. I touched on a similar idea in my last blog post – it’s often a case that you need to experience different things before you can arrive at a place you love where you can do meaningful work.

    Thanks for giving me a framework with which to understand the work I do and the work I’m pushing myself towards.

    • July 31, 2012 at 11:26 pm

      Thanks Jo,

      I think you’re right – experimenting is really important. It’s a great way of ruling in or ruling out different possibilities, gradually refining and moving towards meaningful work. Quite often, even when we think we know what we want, it’s not until we actually give it a go that we discover whether we’re actually right or not.

  2. August 1, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    I agree. Often when people’s ‘passion work’ doesn’t pay very well, I tell them to find something they don’t mind, and doesn’t take much effort, and pay the bills with that, while you do what you like. It’s really a fairly modern notion that your work should fulfill you. I think it’s enough that your work doesn’t destroy you, as you can find fulfillment in any number of places.

    I actually know a guy with a PhD in philosophy. He stocks shelves in a CVS and writes poetry and long dissertations for fun now. He said that academia sucked all the joy out of learning.

    • August 1, 2012 at 11:19 pm

      It really is a modern notion that work should be fulfilling, but I think that’s because it’s only recently that fulfilment in work has become a viable option on a large scale. However, that doesn’t mean you have to find it in your job. As you say, you can find fulfilment in any number of places. Actually, I think that a persons work is much bigger than their job, although it can be very easy to define ourselves by our job title, salary or other job-related metrics.

      There is so much permission and freedom to do our best work (inside or outside of our jobs), and to become most fully ourselves. The guy you mention is a perfect example. It sounds like his job is work that fits, which enables him to do his meaningful work writing poetry and dissertations. I have a friend of a friend in a very similar situation working on a factory production line. He says that his job frees his mind to wander, while his hands do the job. For him, it sounds like a great way to make space to do meaningful work.

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