What Does Work Mean To You?


A while ago I tweeted:

Work is neither a persuasion, nor a penance; it is a solemn promise and a heartfelt prayer.

This insight emerged from a series of books I read recently.

These books had me thinking, what did work mean to me?

Work is often viewed through a variety of lenses – as a job with a focus on money, as a career with a focus on advancement, or as a calling with a focus on contribution.

To understand where my views landed on this spectrum, I started cataloguing my beliefs about work:

  • It was the way I showcased my knowledge and skills
  • It was my duty; my responsibility as a daughter, a wife and a mother
  • It illustrated my self-worth
  • It influenced my values, my beliefs and my strengths
  • It was the vehicle of my growth as an individual
  • It was my conduit to the community
  • It connected me to my peer group
  • It gave meaning and purpose to my life
  • It was the locus of my identity
  • It was my legacy in this world

My beliefs clearly indicated that for most of my career I had viewed work as a job. This was a very narrow perspective; no wonder I felt unfulfilled by my work!

However, the books I read, and my journey into coaching, cast a different light on the meaning of work. My new insights prompted me to declare a new definition of work.

Work can be a promise and a prayer when it is linked to higher overall purpose.

We must admit that our perception of work is broken. But, before we can repair our flawed ideas about work, we must understand what it means to us and why we embrace these distorted views.

If you are struggling with finding meaning in your work, I hope this post will generate greater awareness. I hope it dispels some of your misperceptions about work.

For most of us, work is the way we support our basic needs. Work provides all the comforts of life and our place in society.

For the luckier ones, work is a lifelong commitment. Work is a dream, as is love.

However, even for a Corporate executive earning high six figures or a Professional with a lucrative practice, work can devolve into living a li(f)e in golden handcuffs.

How does work become a penance?

There are a few people we all know, to whom work really is a penance. How often have you heard them complain about having to work? It seems like there is always some drama in their life related to work! They work too much. They don’t make enough money. Their boss is just horrible.

Maybe their lack of positive thinking affects how they are perceived at work. It might even turn a perfectly decent boss into a horrible one.

Work is not indentured servitude to a profession, a company, a boss or even a salary!

Viewing work as a penance comes from a mindset of insecurity. It arises from a feeling that who you are is not enough.

Truth is that you are more than enough.

This doesn’t mean that you are perfect. Instead it shows that you accept your entire self, weaknesses and all.

Self-acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t want to change. To the contrary it indicates that you are ready to let go of pretenses and embrace the real you. You are ready to exert every muscle and sinew towards developing your authentic self.

What is your frame of reference for work?

When we believe that we are not enough, we are afraid of our own motivations.

We fear that all those authority figures might have been right after all! We may need to be coerced into working. What makes us (someone unworthy) so sure we know what to do? Maybe we do need a boss or manager to extract the best work out of us!

Maybe we perform best under conditions of duress. Maybe work is a battle or a competition, where the winner takes all. Our very own corporate Hunger Games.

The metaphors we use can greatly influence our interpretation of any given situation. Metaphors play a pivotal role in decoding our beliefs about work.

I experienced a paradigm shift when I came across these two manifestos – the servant leadership manifesto and the agile manifesto.

Before embracing these two concepts, I had no unifying metaphor for work. If anything, the metaphor I commonly encountered was one of competition. No wonder it provoked anxiety!

But, Agile and Servant leadership concepts have provided a different frame of reference.

Now, my work is about creating and serving. Work means collaboration, communication and coaching, not competition!

When your work arises from a feeling of love and not fear, there is no persuasion; there is only freedom and joy.

Do you work to live or live to work?

Your life’s purpose cannot be encapsulated by your work alone.

I repeat this belief in many of my blog posts, because I have lived through the pain of defining my identity solely through my work. And I know now that it is a barefaced lie.

Identity is a complex representation of self that develops as a result of relationships with others. We are more than just our work.

We have many identities – as a son or a daughter, as a sibling, as a spouse, as a parent, as a friend and as a leader.

Your life becomes a multi-hued tapestry abounding with purpose when you embody all of these identities. Basing your self-worth or your identity upon your work alone deprives you of the dynamism and richness of life.

Everyone you touch is impacted in some way by your words, your compassion, your zest and your purpose. Your legacy is your contribution through all of your identities, not just your work.

Lastly, you grow as a person through your experiences in life. By stepping outside your comfort zone, by taking leaps of faith, and by transcending your limitations, you open yourself up to new information and new perspectives.

Work offers but a fraction of these life-changing experiences.

Expecting your work to be the sole provider of adventurous opportunities is a travesty. There are many avenues that you can utilize to explore your full potential.

So, once you are aware of your distorted beliefs about work, how can you rectify them?

How can you transform your work?

By gaining clarity on what work means to you, you set the stage for personal change.

Rather than work influencing who you are, you can change your beliefs, actions and thus your identity. You can look to people who inspire you – writers, innovators, philosophers, scientists and artists – to hone an identity that echoes your beliefs.

You can discover a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose by focusing on the content of your work, instead of being held back by your self-limiting beliefs about work.

You can overcome unproductive habits and negative thinking to take control over what really matters, the quality of your work.

You can give up pointless self-flagellation and self-sabotage and learn to believe in yourself, thereby projecting a more positive attitude at work.

Eventually, through repeated experimentation, persistent practice and conscious self-discipline you can steer your life towards work that aligns with your overall purpose.

Your life transforms from a dim shadow of your work to a radiant reflection of your identity.

Your work becomes a solemn promise and a heartfelt prayer.

Over to you…

What does work mean to you?

What are some of your beliefs about work? Who would you be without those beliefs?

How can you develop a more positive outlook on work? How could altering your mindset improve your perception and performance?

What might be a powerful metaphor to transform your approach to work?

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