Ondrej Markus

Entrepreneur in ed-tech, building the future of education as a founder and CEO at Playful.

I write about the future of education, designing learning games, and running a startup.

I'm a generalist, introvert, gamer, and optimizing to be useful.

stickman sitting at a desk

Find meaning

How to create meaning and purpose in your life and work?

Find meaning

(This is the third part of my Life Design Series. Start with the first part if you’re new here.)

Last time, we practiced paying more attention to the things we enjoy. Today, we will cover the second part of designing our life around meaningful work we enjoy doing: Meaning.

People throw around the word meaning and purpose a lot when talking about work, so let’s do a super-quick visual definition.

Meaning is a connection between two things.

So what is work for? How do we bring meaning and purpose into the work we do?

Align what you do with what you want

I think we sometimes make the search for meaning too complicated. We seek some higher objective meaning to make sense of life. But there is no objective meaning behind work. You decide what your work means.

To make your work meaningful, you need to align what you do with what you want. Meaning is simply the connection between your needs and your actions. (Remember the slides?)

Meaning connects your work to your needs.

Meaning connects your work to your needs.

If your actions are not aligned with your needs, your life feels meaningless.

Misaligned actions and needs = Meaningless work.

Misaligned actions and needs = Meaningless work.

Once you align them, your work will start to feel meaningful to you.

Aligned actions and needs = Meaningful work

Aligned actions and needs = Meaningful work

Meaningful work happens when your actions are aligned with your needs and values.

When you align them, you know what you do and why you do it. You know what your work is for, and it feels great.


It moves. The alignment is rarely there because all the pieces constantly move as you and your environment change over time.

That’s normal. And it’s why life design is so helpful.

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Have you ever experienced misalignment of what you do with what you want? Have you ever thought: “My life is so meaningless, I’m so sad?"

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Back to the article

That was… weird.

Anyway, where was I? Meaningful work. Right.

My point is: We need to figure out the meaning of our work repeatedly. So we better get good at it.

Understand your needs and values

To get what you want, you first need to know what you want. It’s impossible to hit a target you don’t see.

I’m combining needs and values here because they’re the same thing from a different angle:

So whenever we talk about one of them, the other is just around the corner.

Now, I want to show you a framework for understanding the inner psychological needs, values, and motivations behind what we do.

At its core is the Self-determination theory, which is probably the most science-backed model of how human motivation works.

It describes three major psychological needs we need to fulfill to feel good about our life:

I don’t know about you, but this pretty much sums me up. Throw in some money to secure my physiological needs (food, shelter, iPad), and I’m set.

I like to imagine this as a triangle because the parts feel connected.

Self-determination triangle (my interpretation of the original theory, so anything that doesn’t make sense is on me)

Self-determination triangle (my interpretation of the original theory, so anything that doesn’t make sense is on me)

You can also think about these parts as your relationship with your self (autonomy), with others (relatedness), and with the world (competence).

I’m not showing you this to give a lecture on psychology. So I’m going to stop here. You can go on a Wiki run for more or read my article on the Self-determination tringle if you like it.

I share this here because it helped me make sense of my own work, needs, and values, so I hope it might help you too.

Okay, now that I dumped my best diagrams on you, let’s use them on something practical.

Write your work manifesto

Hopefully, the Self-determination triangle was helpful for making a better sense of your needs and values. Or it confused you. One of those two.

Feel free to think, “This is BS. None of this applies to me. My needs are different.”

People are different. That’s okay.

In either case, it’s worth taking some time to think about the role of work, needs, and values in your life.‌

Work manifesto Take 20 minutes to write about what meaningful work means to you. You can use any of these prompts to help you start and keep going:

Now, you’re probably thinking. “Writing something? Yeah, sure, I’ll do this later." And then you won’t do it.

I know because I’m the same.

Whenever I read about some clever exercise that requires me to write something, I think, “Yeah, okay." And then I don’t do it because of course I can just imagine what I would do and I move on.

But that’s not how this works. You won’t know what you really believe until you go through the process of thinking about it. Your answers might surprise you

However, if you still don’t do it. It’s okay. We can continue without it. But please really consider giving it at least a few minutes of your life.

We don’t do this enough. We don’t take time to stop and reflect on what is important to us. We just assume and keep on living blindly, wondering why we are not happy with what we do.

Figuring out what you want even a tiny bit better is a huge deal for your journey of designing a better life.

We’ve been thinking about stuff a lot so far, I know. The first three parts are the getting-to-know-yourself-better parts, which are crucial for what’s coming next.

On Monday, we will start using everything we’ve learned and come up with concrete ideas to improve your life and work.