A Guide for the Unguided
I Didn’t Have to Quit My Job to Find Meaning in My Life
I didn’t have to quit my job to find meaning in my life. I thought I did, but it wasn’t true. For 6 years, I had been working in a public policy nonprofit in Washington, D.C. even though I realized I was not a policy person during my second year. I was a writer. A creative type in an academic world.
In order to find my life’s true meaning, I assumed that I would have to quit the ill-fitting job. That my day job needed to fit neatly into the creative definition of myself. During many of the public events I had planned over the years, I had yearned to hang out with the C-SPAN cameramen in the back of the room wearing blue jeans rather than the fancy VIP speakers at the stage. I was a blue jeans person — I was from the Midwest, damn it.
Then I read Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness. She opened my eyes to the real source of meaning, and it surprised the hell out of me.
She said that we could find meaning in our day-to-day.
What Daily Interactions Can Bring Us
According to Esfahani Smith, I already had a purpose in my life. It was already there, in my day-to-day. I didn’t need that salary bump or promotion — or even a job — to find meaning.
Apparently, meaning was all around me.
Honestly, I groaned when I first read this, thinking it was another mindfulness lesson.
What? I thought. That’s her solution? I had heard this crap before. Be present in the day-to-day. Pay attention while you wash the dishes. Look your dog in the eyes while you’re petting her.
Maybe that worked for other people, but I had found mindfulness difficult to implement. Daydreaming was too much fun for me.
But then she wrote that it’s enough to “say hi to the newspaper vendor” or “reach out to someone at work who seems down.” Those were extremely small acts.
Those things helped, I was sure, but didn’t you need to make a bigger impact than that to have a meaningful life? Like start a charity or become a U.S. Senator?
How I Gave Daily Interactions a Shot
I figured it was worth trying this day-to-day thing. Trying to be kinder and more open to others couldn’t be a bad thing.
So here’s what I did.
Over the next three months, I got to know as many people in my office as I could manage. I already had a friends because I had worked there for years, but now I dug beneath the surface. I aimed for quality connections by asking how their daughter was doing in design school or how their family was back in the Philippines. I finally made the museum date my co-worker and I had been talking about for over a year happen, and I listened when he told me big, personal news that only one other person in the office knew at that time.
I Talked to Strangers
Having a dog helps in this department, so when people stopped to ask if they could pet my dog, I talked to them instead of smiling impatiently. I shared a funny story about my dog or asked if they lived nearby. At the bus stop, if I noticed someone was looking around to see if the bus was arriving yet, I pulled out my phone and told them what time my app said the bus would arrive. Sometimes we chatted, and sometimes we didn’t. Or if the other person made a joke, instead of laughing once and looking the other way like I used to do, I joined in with my own addition.
Important note: I never wore earbuds in public. Now I believe those buggers provide the straightest path to feeling disconnected and lonely.
I Put Myself Out There
I openly told friends and family that I was going to pursue writing. I talked about being from the Midwest. As I was planning a wedding, I was honest with people that I was nervous and anxious and exhausted. If I was feeling guilty about something I had just said, I would clarify — in the moment or later — with the person what I had actually meant, to make sure I hadn’t insulted them. In the past, I would have been too nervous to do that.
All of this took vulnerability, that’s for sure. It wasn’t easy. It was downright scary at times. Like when I attended a local author reading by myself to try to meet fellow writers in the D.C. scene, and I almost walked out. As I stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at the crowded room, I almost backed right out the door behind me. But I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the worst that could happen was that it might be a little awkward.
In the end, I met two fellow writers and felt more connected to the D.C. writer scene.
How These Daily Interactions Led to More Meaning
Esfahani Smith’s definition of meaning actually made a lot of sense:
“It begins by stepping outside of the self to connect with and contribute to something bigger.”
So, putting others first. I had heard that before. I had heard that I would have to serve others to find true contentment in my life.
But here I was, employed at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that focused on international peace, and I didn’t feel content at all. My previous internship experience was with a different non-profit that worked with people who were homeless. I was doing all the things in my career that should bring me satisfaction and knowledge that I was making a difference.
So why wasn’t it working?
Esfahani Smith quotes Viktor Frankl, the author of the powerful Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that chronicles Frankl’s time in a concentration camp during World War II. Frankl writes:
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Interesting. So they were both saying that I had to forget myself in order to find meaning?
At first, I wasn’t sure I could do that. Or that I wanted to.
But the more I did it, the more contentment it brought me.
What Happened Next
I decided to quit my job. It felt like the right time. I was getting married, so I would have access to health insurance and a salary that could support us for a while. This was very lucky, and not everyone has this opportunity.
But in quitting, I realized that my office life was filled with meaning all along, even though the job didn’t fit with my creative pursuits. One experience that happened during my last week in the office opened my eyes to this fact.
I had been getting to know everyone better, and had shed my selfish desires for a promotion — at that office or at any office. Luckily, I didn’t need those things anymore. I was launching out on my own now.
After I made these small daily shifts, surprising changes took place inside of me.
I started to feel really good about myself. I became less afraid to talk to people. I became less afraid of people in general. And more comfortable at the prospect that someone might look at me or talk to me. (Social anxiety is fun).
My confidence grew. I felt more connected to the world.
It felt like the real world had opened itself up to me. I had just been too afraid to see it before.
I felt like I was making a difference.
Those daily conversations with my co-workers lifted their day, possibly more than I realized.
Esfahani Smith quotes a study led by Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan that has stuck with me. In this study, they interviewed cleaners at a large Midwestern hospital. One janitor named Ben came to work with a stomachache so painful he could barely use a broom. A doctor noticed and came up to him, telling him it might be an ulcer, which it was. After that, when the doctor saw Ben, he would call him by his name and ask how he was feeling. Ben reported that this made him feel like a part of the hospital team and more connected to the higher goal of healing patients.
It doesn’t matter what job we have. As Esfahani Smith writes:
Anyone, in any position, can change how they feel, and how their coworkers feel, simply by fostering small moments of connection.
I had been doing exactly this with my coworkers.
And guess what?
The most amazing thing happened.
My boss arranged a farewell breakfast gathering around my cubicle. My team ordered coffee and pastries. I chatted with folks as they came up and then my boss began his speech. I hadn’t looked around the room in a while, but at the start of the speech, my boss said that you never know how many people are going to show up. And that it was quite a crowd.
As I looked to my left and to my right, I saw the group of people who had come. For me. The entire space was packed. I couldn’t believe it. Scholars, support staff, junior fellows, comms staff, program staff — all had shown up for me. I was so touched that I started crying, even though I had promised myself I wouldn’t. Then I went on to give a tearful farewell speech in front of everyone, telling everyone I didn’t know what my plan was, and I wasn’t sure where I would end up, but I was going to focus on writing. Finally.
It was one of the coolest moments of my life so far. And something that unbelievable would never have happened if I had not opened myself up to others. If I had not actively cared about them.
That is my definition of pure joy.
The Road To Meaning Is Right In Front of You
In order to find your true path, your true sense of purpose, you have to pause and hold the door for the older man in the golf hat who is exiting the Shell gas station.
Or say good morning to the new employee in your office building who seems a little shy.
Or allow yourself to enter a conversation with the woman waiting at the bus stop next to you, and maybe share a laugh.
These small actions will remind you of the most important thing of all: You are alive. Right here and now. And you just made that old man’s day a little better. You helped someone. Maybe that woman at the bus stop just lost a dear friend and needed a good chuckle more than anything.
How do I know this is true? Because it worked for me.
It wasn’t quitting my job that finally brought purpose to my life. It started months and months earlier when I made it a point to get to know as many people in the building as possible. This led to a gathering where so many people showed up I wept my eyeballs out.
In the next act of bravery, I launched a freelance writing business. And it is going well. But I didn’t need the business to go well in order to find purpose. I already had meaning in my life. We recently moved to a new apartment, and I wave to the maintenance man named Clyde when I pass him on the street.
The good news is you can start on your path to meaning today.
Go get ‘em.