The Pursuit of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in Work

What is meaningful work? Andrew Soren suggests that meaningful work can emerge from various facets of our professional lives, including our tasks, roles within organizations, and interactions with others.

Having work that is personally significant and worthwhile

Nick: Let's start with the title. I do forget that a lot of people might not have heard the word eudaimonia before. So how would you define meaningful work? And what is your eudaimonic vision?

Andrew: So maybe I'll start with meaningful work because it's easy, relative eudaimonia which is hard. Meaningful work in the literature, there's, first of all, there are lots of definitions of what meaningful work is, if you actually peel back the academic literature and look at it.

There's one study that looks at just the definitions alone. I think it was published in 2018, and at that point, there were 36 different definitions of what meaningful work could be. So there isn't necessarily consensus on this one.

But most people tend to default to a definition that Pratt and Ashforth came up with in 2003, that says that meaningful work is simply work that is personally significant and worthwhile. Work that is personally significant and worth my while.

Meaningful work tends to show up in various ways in the work that we do. So it can be in the tasks that we do, in the roles that we play in our organizations, in our interactions with other colleagues or with managers or with customers or with the community, and as part of organizations in and of themselves. Meaningful work shows up in all of those different places.

Now, you might ask, where does meaningful work come from? That requires the much more complex answer that at least Carol and I start way back 2400 years ago with Aristotle. I'll try not to completely derail this entire podcast.

But basically, if you ask Aristotle what's the meaning of life, he would probably have waxed poetically and took you for a long walk. And we'd say, well, you know, no one agrees on what the meaning of life is. But as far as I'm concerned, it's virtuous action moderated by reason, or what he would shorthand that as eudaimonia.

Eudaimonia, let's just break that down. In ancient Greek ‘eu’ is good, and ‘daimon’ is spirit or demon, or God. So if you think about eudaimonia as this good spirit that lives within each of us, that has the potential to be manifested in some way to do something worthy of you, and you is going to be different for every single one of us.

You know, what, what you're here and capable of doing in this world is going to be different from from me and from every person that you encounter. But in some ways, the work of life, is to try to figure out what that purpose is that you are here to be manifesting and potentiating in this world, and to try to figure out how do you bring the best of yourself to do it, and that's probably going to be really hard work, it's definitely not going to be easy work.

You're probably going to fail a lot of the time, it's going to require an understanding of virtue, which in and of itself, is an incredibly complicated things. And, in fact, Aristotle was writing mostly about Eudaimonia in the context of ethics and trying to understand what's the ethical life.

And so you're going to constantly be having to figure out, you know, every strength has its weaknesses. So how do I figure out how to kind of go my own swim lane towards my purpose, and moderate my virtue and do stuff, so that I can try to ultimately reach my full potential.

Aristotle would say, a life of doing that would be a life well lived. And you'd probably only understand it, if you kind of look backwards at the end of it. And again, it might not feel very good. So it'd be lots of other people around that period of time would be like, ‘No, Aristotle, you're wrong. You know, sex, drugs, rock and roll—that's the answer to a good life.’

And he was like, ‘No.’ So in many ways, meaningful work has its origins, at least in the Western tradition, in some of that kind of thinking, a virtuous action moderated by reason. And of course, many people have taken that and translated it into all sorts of different ways.

If you asked Thomas Aquinas, he would have said that it's like a classical calling, you'd have taken that Eudaimonic ideal and said, ‘Let's like apply that duty and orientation to the church. And it's not the good demon inside of you, suppress that good demon, and focus on God.’

That very much grows out of this Eudaimonic orientation that a calling—a classical calling to the church is part of it. And then of course, you have the Protestant Revolution, and folks like Martin Luther, and were like, ‘No, it's not just about God, secular work can be a divine calling, too.’

So that very much takes us into kind of throughout the Industrial Revolution and Protestant work ethic, and into the 20th century. Then you have a whole bunch of existentialists like Viktor Frankl who might say that we actually have a psychological need for meaning and purpose that's really core to who we are as human beings.

And then a whole bunch of organizational psychologists taking that kind of, you know, championing it, and saying, ‘Hey, work should be significant and worthwhile.’ All the way up to the Simon Sinek’s of our day, who have to say, ‘You know, start with why, if you're not doing meaningful work, you're doing something wrong.’ Which is maybe an unfair characteristic of Simon Sinek.

But nonetheless, I think that all of that kind of takes us to where we get to today. And where I started with it said, people say Eudaimonic work is work that is personally significant and worthwhile. And I think what we tried to do in this article is say that actually is missing a whole lot of so many other things that Aristotle was trying to get at that are much more virtuous, that are much more ethical, that are much more about the broader world, and not just about ‘the I’ feeling that my work is significant and worthwhile.