David’s Articles

David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

The Work We Do: Reflections on Work and Purpose

Jul 9, 2024 | Reflections

Sigmund Freud got at least one thing right – love and work are massively important.

person grinding pipe steel wool photography
Photo by Karan Bhatia on Unsplash

If you work from age 22 to 65, on nearly 11,000 days, you will be going to your job – nearly a third of your life.

With such enormity, you really do not want to screw up your choice of vocation.

Yet as I reflect on my professional path – which has not been straightforward nor stress free, in hindsight, much of this stress was self-inflicted – loading the job decision with a crushing amount of pressure.

Maybe I (and others in the same boat) have come by this honestly. Early influences on my thinking about this question stacked the deck.   As an Xennial (on the line between Gen-X and the earliest Millennials, pop culture of the late ‘80s and ‘90s was fraught with poor thinking about work.

The root cause is unknowable – maybe it was “latch-key kids” of the 70s and 80s joining the writing rooms in Hollywood or just a sign of broader societal concerns, but work was not immune from negative story telling.

Consider in short order how movies like Hook (Peter Pan too busy at the office to spend time with his own kids), The Santa Clause (a dad too busy to celebrate Christmas), or Liar, Liar (dad just a jerk) all hit the silver screen to success.  Even the comedic goldmine Mike Judge’s Office Space celebrated a despondic nihilism about the meaning and value of work itself.

The combined impact of this was to take a large decision, what should I do professionally, and then layer upon this questions of personal fulfillment, family, and meaning.

If that wasn’t enough, the common place advice at the time was to ‘follow your passion’ to find meaningful work. The dangerous assumption embedded in this thinking is that ‘your passion’ is some sort of fixed quantity that all you have to do is discover in some sort of Archimedes-esque bathtub moment.

The ingredients were set for a distasteful experience at the least.

Coming up on my 20th year in the workforce, my perspective on work has changed dramatically. A critical discovery for me was that fulfilling work is best found along two vectors – our skills and our service.

Skills and abilities are the things we have learned how to do and what we are innately wired to do, respectively.  Developing your abilities and finding a place to apply them are powerful clues pointing towards our long-term vocation.

While passion can be cultivated, and waxes/wanes. Thinking in terms of skills / abilities and their application was a significant insight for me.  I’m forever grateful to Chip Roper, the career coach I worked with who opened my eyes to this.

The second vector is service.

Our work is most enjoyable to us, when we are being useful in the service of others.

The enormity of work and the accompanying pressure we may associate with it makes it far too easy to keep our work entirely self-centered. How we feel about our job, how it does or does not provide for our material wants, desires for meaning and significance in the eyes of others – keeps us firmly as the main character in our story.

Yet, as I have seen in my own life (and which Arthur C. Brooks and others highlight in the research), paradoxically, as we think of ourselves less and work in service of the needs of others, we actually find a pathway to meaningful work.

As my 7 year old reminds me regularly, being helpful to others feels good!

This post marks the beginning of a much longer series of posts where we unpack work. Over the coming weeks, we will consider several of the personal dimensions discussed above. We will also begin uncover how organizations (of all sorts) can become places that activate us along our journeys of skill development and service to others, and how leadership of those organizations is a critical enabler.

I’ve been reading about and researching these topics for the last 3.5 years, and I’m excited to share – more to come.


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Nashville, TN