(This is the second part of a four-part guide to meaningful work. If you’ve stumbled here by accident, go to the first part.)

Day 2: Find what you enjoy

Focus more on activities than outcomes

Our work culture is built around achievement. In it, we are perceived and judged more by what we’ve accomplished (our semi-true CV), than by who we are and do as a person. When we want to succeed by the rules of this culture, we usually plan our careers or projects around big goals and milestones we need to reach. We plan outcomes first, and then we try to grind our way to them. No matter what it takes.

I think there is a better way to do it.

There is nothing wrong with plans, dreams, and visions. But I burned myself more than once trying to set an ambitious goal with a 10-year roadmap and to then tunnel vision my way to it. Only to soon realize, after the initial hype calmed down, that I am swamped in work I don’t want to do. Visions and plans change often on our way to them, and I don’t want to get stuck in work I don’t enjoy doing day-to-day. Life is too short to wait for better days, while we do things we don’t enjoy.

That’s why focusing primarily on outcomes is a trap. If we give outcomes too much attention, we get easily sucked into the culture of never being enough, and no amount of achievement will ever fill our need to be enough, because there is always more we could do.

To find meaning in what we do, we have to learn to embrace our present state as it is and strive for improvement, not coming from a place of resentment towards our current self, but a deep love of who we are continually becoming.

We have to focus more on what we put into our work (the activity) than on what’s coming out of it (the outcome) because we can control the input, but never the output, as long as the output is judged based on what other people think about it. And it, naturally, often is. Because to be helpful is to serve others, and the value of our actions is in the eye of the beholder. If we do our best and the work is not useful to others, there is nothing we can do about it. It’s not our decision. It’s not under our control.

The only guaranteed thing we can do is to try to be the best version of ourselves right now and do the work. Focus on the activity rather than the outcome.

Joy beats fear

Joy is the best fuel. Unlike fear, it’s fun and it has fewer greenhouse gas emissions. (True story.)

We can use joy to fuel our learning. There is always something new to learn to improve our work, and without joy, the learning process gets painful, therefore the work gets painful.

Sadly, most of the time, we are running on fear fuel. Its main weapon is the deadline. And it works. We get things done under the fear of consequences the deadline imposes. There is no time left to think about whether the work is meaningful to us. We just have to do this thing, otherwise, we don’t get paid, or get ridiculed publicly, or let someone down. We choose a self-oppressive way to live out of necessity to finish urgent tasks.

I’m not saying that deadlines and fear aren’t sometimes useful. They can help us get unstuck and follow through with important responsibilities. What I’m saying is that if I’m not able to finish anything without a deadline, am I really doing the work I want to do?

While growing up, we separate work from play. We convince ourselves or get convinced, they are different things. “Play is what you like and want to do. Work is what you don’t like but have to do.” But does it have to be that way?

Sure, I could finish my dissertation on artificial intelligence in healthcare in the last 48 hours before the deadline while running on fear fuel, but how stressful is that? Wouldn’t it be easier to switch to joy?

Kids don’t need a deadline to finish a lego castle. They do it out of joy. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to work for it. It’s a challenge to do it, therefore not everyone can do it, and that’s how they create value through their abilities.

That’s what useful work is: using your strengths to create value others can’t.

Easier said than done, I know. The world isn’t perfect. We need to make a living and work with what we already have. But what if we could do at least a bigger part of our work out of joy rather than fear? Would you want to?

Step 4: Find your joys and strengths

Joy is at the core of what we are looking for. It’s a powerful engine for meaningful work, and once we learn to set it up, it can take us to any outcome we want.

We’ll search for what we enjoy and don’t enjoy, what we are good at and bad at. Together, they’ll create a map of work-life options we could pursue to fulfill our longings through work.

Thinking about joys in the context of work isn’t natural for most people. Don’t worry, if it’s difficult for you at first. If no particular joy comes to your mind, just begin by listing what you hate to do, and you’ll be off to a great start. Also, there are some guiding questions to help you in every section.

Finding joys isn’t just about activities, but also about how we enjoy being. For example, do you prefer working in a team, or alone? Do you like precise logical work or more uncertain creative work? Do you enjoy quickly changing tasks or complex long-term projects?

Use worksheet: Step 4: Find joys and strengths

What do you enjoy?

  • What do you do for fun? - What do you enjoy talking about? - What did you enjoy doing as a child? - What parts of your current work do you enjoy?

What you don’t enjoy?

  • What makes you bored quickly? - What activities do you dislike in your current work? Our next move is to examine our strengths and weaknesses.

What are you good at?

  • What can you do better than most people around you? - What strengths do you use in your current work?

What are you bad at?

  • What most people around you can do better than you? - What are the weakest abilities you have to use in your current work?

Important: Ask other people

We are not capable of seeing ourselves 100% objectively. To get a more accurate picture of your strengths and weaknesses, ask people who know you and work with you what they think.

Step 5: Detect overlaps

This is where we put joys and skills together to create a map. We identify which joys and strengths overlap with each other–which of them are in some way connected or similar.

Doing this will bring new insights into your current work-life, and it will shed more light on what do you want in your ideal work-life. Connecting joys and skills on an axis create a quadrant that is split into four sections. Look at what you wrote down in step 4 and find connections.

Use worksheet: Step 5: Detect overlaps

Enjoy and good at

The things you excel at and enjoy doing. This is the gold we are digging for.

Maybe you enjoy interacting with people, while you also have good people skills. Or you like to create things from scratch, and writing code enables you to do just that.

Enjoy but (currently) bad at

These are usually things we are curious about and enjoy talking about, but never gave them proper time to develop the skills we need for them to work. They are the best learning opportunities.

It’s the passion for music that you’ve never pursued properly, even though you could talk about it any time it comes up. Or you’re pulled in by web design, but don’t yet know what is the coding stuff all about.

Don’t enjoy and bad at

It’s a pain to have these in our current work, but, naturally, some portion of them will be from this quadrant.

Maybe you don’t like doing paperwork, but still have to do the bare minimum like sending out invoices every month. If your work consists mostly of this quadrant, you should change that as quickly as possible.

Don’t enjoy but good at

This is a trap. Because you are good at these, you will be asked to do them. And because you are good at them, you probably will do them. Before you know it, your schedule is full of tasks and activities you don’t enjoy doing, even though you are great at making them happen.

It’s that one time you’ve agreed to organize a teambuilding retreat, did a great job despite hating it, and now you’re stuck on organizing it every time with no idea of how to get of out of it.

With your longings, joys, and strengths on paper, we are now interested in where they join together. That’s what we’ll dig into next on Day 3.