How to Build More Purpose Into Your Work
Don't look for meaning in your work. Create it.
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"If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle."
The late Steve Jobs uttered these words during a 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. The Apple co-founder was urging graduates to find a career they love; to pursue work with meaning and purpose.
I understand what Jobs was saying. And it's good advice — to a point. Loving what you do is a lifelong goal (and a privilege), but unless you're curing cancer, solving world hunger, or building the next unicorn startup, it's easy to feel like meaningful work is elusive.
It doesn't have to be so lofty.
When I started JotForm 15 years ago, I imagined an easier way to build web forms. And over time, we realized that our purpose is to make people and organizations more productive.
That's it. We're not brokering peace or launching space missions, but I love what we do. Serving customers matters, and I hope our teams are excited about the challenges they tackle every day.
In my experience, the journey to meaningful work has two phases. First, you need to understand what purpose is — and what it's not. Next, there are concrete ways to cultivate deeper meaning in your daily tasks. Here are the three principles of purpose.
Purpose is active, not passive
The phrase "finding your purpose" is misleading. It implies purpose is something you can uncover, like Michelangelo carving David from a block of marble. Instead, meaningful work requires deliberate effort. "In achieving professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it," says John Coleman, co-author of Passion & Purpose. "Put differently, purpose is a thing you build, not a thing you find."
Purpose isn't singular
The cultural narrative of pursuing one, the all-consuming purpose is compelling, but it's not realistic for most people. "It's not purpose but purposes we are looking for – the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives," says Coleman.
I love JotForm, but I also derive joy and meaning from my family; spending time with my wife and two boys, and helping my parents with the annual olive harvest. Connecting with friends and colleagues is a great source of happiness, too. Whether I'm talking to a fellow entrepreneur or writing about business and productivity, I love to learn, grow, and share knowledge. All of these activities enhance my life.
Purpose changes with time
People aren't static. Our lives change and evolve. Work that felt meaningful 10 years ago might not feel important today. And wanting something else in the future is a sign of growth, not inconsistency. "How do you find your purpose?" writes Coleman. "That's the wrong question to ask. We should be looking to endow everything we do with purpose, to allow for the multiple sources of meaning that will naturally develop in our lives, and to be comfortable with those changing over time."
Remember who you're helping
After defining your purpose, the next phase is cultivating meaning in your daily activies.
Several years ago, Yale business professor Amy Wrzesniewski coined the term "job crafting," to describe the active process of making your work more engaging and meaningful. For example, Wrzesniewski studied hospital custodians — a role that many of us undervalue. Her research team found that the happiest, most effective custodians crafted their own sense of meaning. These workers talked about keeping patients safe and supporting them during a difficult experience. Ultimately, they focused on the result of their work and who it helped, instead of individual tasks, like emptying the garbage or mopping floors.
Invest in your relationships
Innovative work is rarely done alone. Even a brilliant writer needs editors, publishers, proofreaders, and designers to breathe life into their words. Strong work relationships not only enhance the final product; they make the process more enjoyable.
Before Covid-19, I loved getting to know both new and established team members over lunch. Our office also took cycling trips and other outings together. I miss those activities, but I know we'll resume them when it's safe to do so — and our virtual Friday Demo Days are still lively, interactive sessions that keep us feeling motivated and connected.
Find your alignment
Most of us have hobbies, causes, or goals we pursue in our personal time. If you're feeling a stark division between your 9-to-5 life and who you are after hours, consider how you could weave those passions into your work. "For instance, if there's a cause you're deeply involved in – like environmental issues – look for ways to raise awareness or facilitate change within your organization," writes Jen Fisher, Chief Well-being Officer at Deloitte. "Knowing you're helping to open your co-workers' eyes — especially about an issue close to your heart – could give you just the dose of purpose you need."
Connect with your core values
Work is an excellent opportunity to strengthen the muscles we want to develop. For example, maybe you prize creativity. Consider how you can operate more creatively — regardless of your job description. Does your office have a stubborn problem that needs your ingenuity? Is there a better way to approach a tired, manual process? If you believe in supporting others, ask yourself how you showed up at your last meeting. Did you truly connect with your team? Could you be a more encouraging, inspiring leader? Every day is another chance to live out your values.
Track how you feel
If you don't know what would give your professional life more meaning, try this exercise from researcher Leah Weiss, author of How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind.
First, pick one task on your calendar. Think about the role it plays in your job, your career, and your calling. "Reflect on how you approach the task when you think of it as a duty for a job, versus something you do as part of a calling," writes Weiss. "Does your motivation change? Do you feel a shift in excitement?"
Next, choose a distinct period of time, like a week, and try to notice when you feel most engaged in your work; the moments when you feel like your work has a real purpose. Note what you're doing, and what it feels like. According to Weiss, you might feel excited or absorbed. Or you might feel at peace. Says Weiss: "Purpose can also make you feel calm, because when what we're doing lines up with our higher purpose, our inner critics have less to talk about."
At the end of the week, review your notes and look for patterns. If possible, start to prioritize your "purposeful" tasks and notice how your feelings shift. Stay open and curious. While you might not find your capital P "purpose" in one job, activity, or mission, the lifelong process of learning what lights you up can be the most meaningful experience of all.