Reclaiming Meaning in Work and Life

Prevent Burnout, Reclaim Meaning

There are parts of my work I love. And there are parts of my work I don’t love. For example, I love teaching. Few things are more fulfilling than being in the presence of people who are committed to learning, growing, and healing. On the other hand, I don’t love sitting at my computer responding to emails. Nor do I enjoy administrative duties, such as sending invoices or creating project timelines.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. A study done by Dr. Shanafelt at the Mayo Clinic asked people how they experienced their work, whether as a job, career or calling. A job was defined as something we do for financial reward to fund the more meaningful aspects of our lives, such as taking a family vacation. A career is defined as something we do for recognition, personal gain or advancement. The aim of a career is to rise to the top of our field and to be seen as a success. Finally, a calling is defined as an expression of our core values, something that has deep personal meaning and importance. When we feel called to our work, we feel intrinsically connected to the difference we’re making in the world. Day in and day out, that felt difference is what moves us forward.

Dr. Shanafelt’s study found that everyone experiences all three categories on any given day. It may come as a relief to know that regardless of how much we love our chosen profession, we all perform job-like tasks throughout the workday. The study also found that those people who experience their work as a calling at least 40% of the time are far less likely to burnout. There is a lot of hope in this finding! Sometimes radical change may be necessary to combat burnout, but there are small and immediate steps we can take to protect ourselves from that insidious, crummy feeling of exhaustion. Namely, we can begin to intentionally reconnect with a sense of meaning in our work and lives.

Bring Your Whole Self
Rachel Naomi Remen, a gifted teacher and physician, has said that meaning requires us to bring more of ourselves into professional situations. I would argue this also applies to the home front. What exactly does it mean to bring more of ourselves, you might wonder? Whether we’re parents, engineers, or physicians, many of us have been trained to wear our expert hats in order to establish trust, credibility and respect. Naturally, we have to know our stuff to do well in the world! But sometimes in an effort to maintain our roles as trained professionals, we forget to let down our guards and show that we, too, are human. We can become blinded by judgment, high expectations, and completing tasks at race pace, which crowd out our ability to see meaning-filled moments, encounters, or situations.

In the end, bringing our whole self means drawing on not only our intellect and training, but also our heart and spirit. Maybe that sounds laughable. You might wonder, “Will people respect me if I come across as connected, caring, and compassionate? Or, will I appear unprofessional or weak?” My wonder is, what if we saw the heart as a source of strength? Something we can draw on for courage, wisdom, and connection. An instrument that protects us from burnout and infuses our work and life with meaning.

It’s been said that “the voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new vistas, but in having new eyes.” Everyone has the capacity to see meaning. We just need to learn to reclaim it.

As a starting point, we can approach work and life with a beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind is about seeing things with fresh, childlike eyes and living our lives with wonder, curiosity and heartfelt interest. Even when we do something as simple as pay attention to our breath, we can practice beginner’s mind. For example, you might grow curious about the feeling of your breath moving throughout the body. You might remember you’ve never taken these breaths before. You might realize your breath takes care of you by itself, without your having to do a thing.

There are many other ways to apply beginner’s mind in work and life. For instance, you can pause to take in how meaningful it is to receive an important email, rather than respond in a robotic fashion. You can catch fleeting moments of inspiration or appreciation when talking to a prospect, client, or family member. You can even bring a sense of playful wonder to a long, arduous project. Can you notice what happens when you approach familiar, ordinary situations with presence, freshness, and curiosity?

I realize it’s impossible to walk around in a state of heightened wonder all the time. But what if we did it 10% more than we currently do? What if we stopped to intentionally experience our spouse, child or colleague doing or saying something that is downright awe-some? Or, what if we paid more attention to the things that touched our hearts instead of being lost in thought? Isn’t this kind of heartfelt connection to ourselves, each other, and the world what matters in the end?

Breon Michel

About Breon

Mindfulness teacher, compassionate community leader, entrepreneur, writer, stress reduction aficionado, hope igniter, adventure seeker, mountain biker, devoted to others