Recently, a coaching client asked a powerful question that has been on my mind:

“Why do I feel that that what I do is not meaningful when supposedly I am working on ‘important’ world issues?”

If you are an international worker – you might be asking yourself this same question, as I have.
Can you relate to this in-the-gut feeling – when things look one way to the outside world (i.e. people think that you are a ‘hero’ working in service of a better world) but feel another way to you on the inside (i.e. you feel that what you actually “do” is not meaningful enough).

What constitutes a meaningful life?

One relevant definition that I have found lies someplace between psychology and philosophy and is offered by Susan Wolf in her book “Meaning in Life and Why it Matters”.

Wolf proposes: 

Meaning in life arises from a combination of passionate engagement in what you love and there being an objective value in your passion and goals.

What does this mean?

It means :

  1.  Most of what you “do” and who you “are” is directly related to your passion and intellectual interests, meaning it represents closer to 80% rather than 20% of your life;
  2. Your passion and your goals are valued by society, your family and friends.

Why Meaning Matters A sense of meaning is something that is so critical to international work, for (at least) three different reasons:

  1. Without meaning, eventually you burn out.  It’s exhausting and eats away at your motivation.
  2. Without meaning, things feel rather flat, and so your postivity and creativity never gets expressed.
  3. Without meaning, it is hard to enjoy life outside of work.

It may be that you have this same feeling- or a variant of it.

My bias:

  • This is one of the real feelings in the international workspace that few people voice;
  • There are very legitimate and concrete reasons why this feeling of “meaninglessness” periodically arises within each of us while doing international work;
  • International workers who strongly seek meaning and a sense of purpose in their work suffer the most.

Examples of how international workers get stuck in the “meaning trap”:

  1.  Idealism Stuck:  You have strong ideals – like helping people, good governance, improving the environment, etc, and cannot reconcile this idealism with the reality of your day-to-day work.  You get overwhelmed by the vastness of the “problem” and feel your work is a tiny piece of a quasi-solution. Many countries don’t seem to improve making your past work seem worthless. Year after year, people need more help and you wonder what this work is all about; Increasingly the politics behind humanitarian work make it feel less “humanitarian” and less clean to you;
  2. Relationship Stuck: You think because humanitarian work is noble that humanitarian workers should act accordingly.  You dreamed you would be working with great people on amazing teams on essential issues and it seems that you work in isolation with less than supportive colleagues on projects that are marginalized.  You are disappointed to learn that humanitarian workers are in it for different reasons – personal glory, money, escape, ex-pat lifestyle, etc;
  3. Temporary Stuck: You have ended up on a dead-beat project and/or in a posting that is not working for you.  This temporary dip in your career is eating away at you;
  4. Entitlement Stuck: You think you are entitled to a sense of meaning because you chose international work; logic like this: since international work is meaningful, I should feel a sense of meaning;
  5. Meeting Stuck: Your work is remote from your perceived reality of humanitarian/development work – your time is spent in unproductive and endless discussions, email communication, meetings or in front of a computer screen. The bureaucratic processes and realities are taking more of your time and energy than what you consider essential work.

My suggestion: stop ignoring this feeling (i.e. feeling bad that you feel bad) and start taking action to create meaning for yourself. \

What you can do about it

There is no quick fix for creating a sense of meaning.  But with the right mix of personal honesty, internal intention and external focus, and of course courage, you can do it, and do it faster than you think.  Here are some ideas that will help you get started. 

  1. Reframe:  When we experience emotions that are unpleasant, our first reaction is to get as far away from them as possible and/or to blame ourselves or others.  Either way, a negative loop. However, it is helpful to reframe the ‘lack of meaning’ as a helpful personal alarm – one that is signalling to you that something is not right. Reframing will often lead to a shift in perspective or circumstance, getting you into a more positive loop.
  2. Focus on the now:  Our tendency is to think about meaning as something that will mysteriously arrive in the future.  Thinking like “When I finally get my ideal position, it will be meaningful” or  “When things stabilize for me professionally, I will find a meaningful personal life”.   Sorry, but in order to have a sense of meaning, you need to work on creating meaning in your current context. Focusing on the present moment gives importance and urgency to your needs and preferences rather than projecting them in the future.
  3. Active engagement: Meaning is ultimately personal and will come from inside of you, not only from your professional context.   Meaning is not something to search for or something we just find.

Meaning is something that you actively create by first identifying your dreams, motivations, preferences, talents,  and values, and then acting on them.