The Professional Studies Program

Home » Posts tagged 'Work and Meaning'

Tag Archives: Work and Meaning

Article: A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love’

We recently sponsored a panel discussion on campus on work and meaning; a fascinating conversation that touched on elements of feminism, justice, meaning, purpose, and more. This article, an opinion piece from the New York Times, continues that conversation, reminding us that duty as much as passion is relevant to finding meaning in work.

It reminds me of a book by Dr. Mary Pipher in which she shares the experience of asking her grandmother if she has had a happy life. After trying to dodge the question, her grandmother, who has faced many challenges in her life, tells her that the question of happiness isn’t relevant to her; what is important is the question of whether she has done the right thing. This powerful idea of choosing the right thing over that which might make you happy can be lost in today’s culture, but this article offers a reminder of some grounding truths.

What do you think? Where do you find meaning in your life? Where do you seek it?

BeyondHere’s an excerpt:

The universally recognized paragons of humanity — the Nelson Mandelas, Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Martin Luther Kings — did not organize their lives around self-fulfillment and bucket lists. They, no doubt, found a sense of meaning in their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but they did not do what they were doing in order to achieve that sense of meaning. They did — like my father and some of those kids from town — what they felt they had to do.

Dr. King taught that every life is marked by dimensions of length, breadth and height. Length refers to self-love, breadth to the community and care of others, and height to the transcendent, to something larger than oneself. Most would agree with Dr. King’s prescription that self-fulfillment requires being able to relate yourself to something higher than the self. Traditionally, that something “higher” was code for God, but whatever the transcendent is, it demands obedience and the willingness to submerge and remold our desires.

Perhaps you relish running marathons. Perhaps you even think of your exercise regimen as a form of self-improvement. But if your “something higher” is, say, justice and equality, those ideals might behoove you to delegate some of the many hours spent pounding the track on tutoring kids at the youth center. Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.

The rest of the article can be found here.


Image (and article) courtesy of

Sharing an Article About Finding Your Passion

Find Your Passion With These 8 Thought-Provoking Questions

Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, collected the provocative questions top designers, tech innovators, and entrepreneurs ask themselves to spark creativity.  (This was posted at Fastrak at the link above.)

In a previous post, I shared questions that can help in overcoming fear of failure. But sometimes, there’s an even more basic problem that can stop us from pursuing bold challenges and ambitious goals: not knowing which challenges or goals to pursue. These days, you’re urged to “follow your passions” and “lean in”–but what if you’re not sure where your particular passion lies? What if you don’t know which way to lean?

This can be an issue not only for those starting out in a career, but also for some who are established, even highly-successful, yet unfulfilled. It’s easy to find oneself on a path determined by others, or by circumstance (i.e., the job offer or project that comes along unexpectedly and is too good to turn down, then becomes a career).

Whether you’re starting out or considering a possible change in direction, asking yourself the right questions is critical. The following eight–shared by a noteworthy lineup of entrepreneurs, innovators, consultants, and creative thinkers–can help you figure out where your heart lies and what you really ought to be doing.


What is your tennis ball?


This question, derived from a terrific commencement speech given at MIT last year by Dropbox founder Drew Houston, is a good place to start because it cuts to the chase. As Houston explained, “The most successful people are obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball.” To increase your chances of happiness and success, Houston said, you must “find your tennis ball–the thing that pulls you.”

Sometimes, we may not be aware of what truly engages us until we examine our own activities and behaviors from a detached, inquisitive perspective. “You almost have to ask yourself, What do I find myself doing?,” explains the author and happiness guru Gretchen Rubin. “What you spend time doing can also tell you what you should do. Because sometimes the things we do without thinking really are things we naturally enjoy or are good at.”

So pay attention to what pulls you. For instance, “when you’re in a bookstore,” says author Carol Adrienne, “what section of the store are you drawn to?” That will not only tell you what books you love–it may point to where your tennis ball can be found.

For a slightly different spin on the “tennis ball” concept, ask: What am I doing when I feel most beautiful? This is about identifying not only what draws you in, but also what makes you shine. Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of The Acumen Fund, told me that in her globe-spanning travels she often asks people this question, sometimes in unlikely settings. She once posed the question to women living in a slum in Bombay. At first, “one woman said, ‘There’s nothing in our lives that’s beautiful,’” Novogratz says. “But eventually, a woman who worked as a gardener said, ‘All winter long I slog and slog, but when those flowers push through the ground, I feel beautiful.’”

Novogratz says it’s important to think about “that time and place where you feel most alive–whether it’s when you’re solving a problem, creating, connecting with someone, traveling.” Whatever it is, Novogratz says, identify it–and if possible, find a way to do more of it. (A different version of Novogratz’s “beautiful” question is suggested by consultant Keith Yamashita of SY Partners: “Who have you been, when you’ve been at your best?”)

What is something you believe that almost nobody agrees with you on? This question, which PayPal co-founder and Thiel Foundation chief Peter Thiel has shared publicly in interviews and lectures, is designed to do two things: help you figure out what you care about and also determine whether it’s worth pursuing, based on uniqueness. Thiel concedes that it’s a challenging question because it can be tough to find an idea or belief that isn’t shared by many others. “Originality is deceptively hard,” he told Pandodaily.

But if you can find a problem or challenge no one else is tackling, you can carve your own niche and create value. “You don’t want to be interchangeably competing with people,” Thiel says. Though we’re taught to do what others are doing and try to succeed by out-competing, this, in Thiel’s view, amounts to “beating your head against the wall–rather than going through the open door that no one is looking at.”

What are your superpowers? The idea behind this question from Yamashita is to “unpack the combination of personality traits and aptitudes you bring effortlessly to any situation.” The filmmaker Tiffany Shlain of The Moxie Institute also explores strengths and natural “superpowers” in her new web film “The Science of Character,” which suggests that if we can identify our inherent character strengths and build on them, we can lead happier, more successful lives. Having trouble listing your powers and strengths? Check out the “Periodic Table of Character Strengths” in Shlain’s film, or refer to Gallup executive Tom Rath’s popular “StrengthsFinder 2.0” program, with its menu of 34 traits. Once you’ve identified your own strengths, you’ll be in a better position to make the most of what you already have going for you.

Sometimes by looking back into the past, says Rubin, you can get a glimpse of who you really are and what you loved doing before others started telling you what you should do. So what did you enjoy doing at age 10?

Eric Maisel, a psychotherapist and author, agrees, adding: “The things we loved as a child are probably still the things we love.” He suggests drawing up a list of favorite activities and interests from childhood–“and see what still resonates with you today. And then it’s a process of updating those loves. You may have loved something that doesn’t even exist now, or doesn’t make sense in your life now–but you may be able to find a new version of that.”

What are you willing to try now? One of the best ways to find your purpose and passion is through experimentation. For many people, this is counter-intuitive. Herminia Ibarra, a professor at INSEAD and author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, points out that there is a tendency to devote extensive time, research, and planning to figuring out the ideal path before taking any action. This may involve poring over self-help books, soliciting advice, and waiting for the epiphany that shows you your “true self”–at which point you can strike out confidently in a new direction.

But that’s all wrong, according to Ibarra. “To launch ourselves anew, we need to get out of our heads,” she says. “We need to act.” That means devising a series of trials and errors: Ibarra advises looking for temporary assignments, outside contracts, advisory work, and moonlighting to get experience or build skills in new industries; executive programs, sabbaticals, and extended vacations also can be valuable in providing opportunities to experiment. She concludes, “We learn who we are–in practice, not in theory–by testing reality.”

Looking back on your career, 20 or 30 years from now, what do you want to say you’ve accomplished? In an interview, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said that he often asks prospective employees the above question. “You’d be amazed how many people I meet who don’t have the answer to the question,” Weiner said. So here’s your chance to answer it (without the pressure of having Weiner across the table, awaiting your response). Think of this exercise as a less-gloomy version of write-your-own-obit. What would you include on your list of hoped-for achievements? Or, even better than compiling a laundry list, why not figure out…

In the end, simplicity is best. What is your sentence? is a question designed to help you distill purpose and passion to its essence by formulating a single sentence that sums up who you are and what, above all, you aim to achieve. It’s a favorite question of To Sell is Human author Daniel Pink, who acknowledges in his book Drive that it can be traced back to the journalist and pioneering Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce. While visiting John F. Kennedy early in his presidency, Luce expressed concern that Kennedy might be in danger of trying to do too much, thereby losing focus. She told him “a great man is a sentence”–meaning that a leader with a clear and strong purpose could be summed up in a single line (e.g., “Abraham Lincoln preserved the union and freed the slaves.”).

Pink believes this concept can be useful to anyone, not just presidents. Your sentence might be, “He raised four kids who became happy, healthy adults,” or “She invented a device that made people’s lives easier.” If your sentence is a goal not yet achieved, then you also must ask: How might I begin to live up to my own sentence?

[Images: Multi colored sands and sand art via Shutterstock]

Panel Discussion: What Makes Work Meaningful?

What are you doing with your one wild and wonderful life?  Join us at 6PM on Tuesday, April 8 in the Cunningham Chapel for a panel discussion about work and meaning.

Work and Meaning Panel FlyerProfessor Carolyn Chen is living in the Silicon Valley this year, doing research for a book about the rising spirituality in corporations within the Bay Area.  I met her earlier this year and had a fabulous conversation about one of my favorite topics – finding meaning and purpose within the definition of work.  I knew when I talked with her that this was a conversation I wanted to continue on campus.  She is particularly drawn to NDNU’s mission and Hallmarks and we spoke of the difficulty of working for organizations that lack a grounding purpose that you can believe in.

She will be joined by Andrea Robb, who most recently worked at Lucas Film but who has also worked in other Bay Area corporations.  For those convinced that corporations are the embodiement of evil, I suspect you will have a much changed view by the end of this discussion.  Andrea is experienced and wise; I worked with her for many years on a Board of Directors in which we tackled many difficult questions related to women and social justice issues.  I was always impressed with her thoughtful leadership and the results that emerged from Board discussions under her direction exceeded even ambitious expectations.

Dr. Marianne Delaporte Chairs NDNU’s Philosophy and Religious Studies Departments.  She has been engaged in important and groundbreaking research into mysticism and motherhood and will also be joing us on this panel.  Many NDNU students have been fortunate to have been in her classes and speak highly of their introductions to new and important ways of understanding spirituality and religion.  She was last year’s Teaching Excellence honoree and we are delighted to have her contribute her expertise to this panel.

I am the final panelist.  I have been researching meaning and work for many years and am especially interested in the journeys of those who have found meaning in their work.  I am also fascinated by various definitions of work and look forward very much to being in conversation with each of the individuals on this panel.

Hope that you can join us!  We will have snacks afterward for those panelists who are able to stay (some of us have to dash back to class, but hope to continue the conversation in other forums soon).  Let me know if you have any questions; I can be reached at:



Dr. Therese Madden

Human Services Program Director