The Search for Meaning at Work: Part 1

search for meaning in work

The Search for Meaning at Work: Part 1 

By Shari Caudron

There’s a soul-searching epidemic afoot in the workplace. Employees are no longer content with just a paycheck and good benefits; they want meaning and passion. Here’s how fulfilling work can add up to more productive, happier employees and perhaps a healthier bottom line.


The corporate chaos of the last few years has caused scores of employees to question what they really want out of life and work. Trainers may be able to help them find answers. 

Christian Blackwell worked in international banking for seven years. Although based in New York, he traveled to Europe and Latin America regularly. For a while, it was an exciting and challenging job. He joined the bank just out of business school and by combining his youth, education, and enthusiasm, he was able to rise quickly. His last position was vice president of telecommunications and media corporate finance. 

But last summer, he gave it all up and moved with his wife to a quiet little town in Vermont. Why? “When I joined the bank, I was put through an international management training program with many bright people who had graduated from top business schools,” he says. “Sitting in the classroom, you could see the bright lights burning behind their eyes. “But over the years, I saw those lights go out. Eventually, I was surrounded by people who weren’t inspired by their work, but they made too much money to give it up. I didn’t want that to happen to me so I said ‘to heck with it.'” 

Blackwell got out before kids and a mortgage trapped him in a job that had become meaningless and routine. Now, between ski trips, he is searching for work that is more satisfying internally. 

Is That All There Is?

Blackwell is not alone. From San Francisco’s cable cars to New York’s subways, you can practically hear the chorus: “There has to be more than this.” American workers, en masse, are reevaluating their lives, their jobs, and their employers. They are asking whether it’s worth it to spend time at companies where they feel no passion or commitment. Increasingly, the answer is no. “Today, people want jobs that matter,” says John Challenger, executive vice president of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, an international out placement company based in Chicago. Challenger, who has been in the business for 34 years, says he has never heard so many people talk about finding meaning in their work. 

Why should training and human resource professionals be concerned with this soul-searching trend? Because a funny thing happens when people start devoting their time to meaningful work. They become more energetic, open-minded, and creative. According to Barbara Sher, author of Live the Life You Love, people who do work that they are passionate about don’t feel as if they’re working at all. Roll all of those characteristics together, translate them into corporate parlance, and what you have is increased productivity. 

Yet, cynics will tell you that there are limits to what companies can do for their employees. After all, businesses exist to make profits, not to make sure that employees are fulfilled. “There’s only so much a company can do to help a data entry clerk find meaning in work,” says Daniel Levine, editor of, a Web site devoted to employee issues. “People should give up the notion that work is everything and search for fulfillment outside of their jobs.” 

But that’s just the problem. Few Americans have been conditioned to think of work as something that should be meaningful. We go to college, learn job skills, and then find companies that use those skills in exchange for a paycheck. Few college courses–or high school classes, for that matter—emphasize the importance of doing work that is satisfying. Consequently, generations of Americans have viewed work as a place to make a living, but the living itself takes place after hours. 

Contact Pathfinders. . . take the first step to find meaningful work

part 2