Companies don't have to steal your soul. Here's how to find meaning at work.

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It’s Sunday afternoon. Monday is imminent. You’re dreading a job that isn’t meaningful, and you suspect that your company is stealing your soul. 

That’s because Life’s Great Search for Meaning has historically been a journey for eccentric hippies, not career-driven professionals. There are familiar tropes: the recent graduate on a gap-year volunteer trip; the retiree who joins a charity board. We’re conditioned to believe that a purposeful life and a profitable one are mutually exclusive. Giving back is something you bracket your career with, making time after graduation and after retirement. 

As for the life calling in between, there are two extremes: take a vow of poverty and move to Calcutta (the idealist), or secure a corner office in the C-Suite and sell out (the capitalist). This dichotomy is a myth with real consequences for how we view our work lives. 

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Most of us slog away in unfulfilling roles: 87% of the global workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged, which means dreading work is a cold reality for the vast majority. Most people feel that their jobs lack a greater purpose. And since the average person spends about one third of their waking hours at work, this adds up to a purpose deficit in our lives overall.

Don’t dig a hole under your desk just yet. You don’t have to choose between purpose and profit. As our book title says, you can find meaning, make a living and change the world.

Increasingly, the most successful companies are working for the greater good instead of just the bottom line. As an employee — at any workplace, in any department — it’s easy to leverage this conscious capitalism to create a job that you love.

If you’re selling or developing a product, use purpose as a launch point for marketing, or even innovation. Typically when launching a venture, you’d start with a market gap. Instead, identify a social problem that resonates with you. Climate change, urban density, ocean acidification — these problems could all benefit from product solutions. Or, apply the technology your company has already developed to do good.

Sproxil is a digital labeling system that allows customers to identify the provenance of their purchases. Founder Ashifi Gogo developed the system to help upscale shoppers suss out and avoid genetically modified produce by attaching ID numbers to fruits and vegetables.

In 2008, Gogo read about a health crisis in Nigeria. Babies were dying after ingesting poison that was disguised as cough syrup. Fraudulent manufacturers passed off cheap and deadly chemicals as real medicine, and mothers didn’t know the difference. 

Gogo pitched Sproxil to Big Pharma, and now his product saves lives, authenticating the real stuff and pushing toxic junk out of the market. 

Read the world section of your newspaper, subscribe to non-profit newsletters. Attend charity events. These are the ideal breeding grounds for purposeful innovation, product differentiation or marketing. This is where you’ll find your next great business idea.

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If you work in HR or lead a team, use purpose as a recruitment or retention tool. New hires need to know the dress code, but they also need to know that employees volunteered thousands of hours last quarter, mentored youth and launched a recycling program. And they need to know that those efforts are recognized and rewarded.

At the global consulting firm KPMG, social impact is tied so closely to job descriptions that an employee’s purpose efforts are rated in annual reviews alongside traditional performance metrics. The firm also encouraged their team to share stories in a huge purpose campaign that asked: What do you do at KPMG?

Tens of thousands of responses revealed a team of more than just accountants. I keep jobs in the USA, read one reply (by helping companies with federal tax credits); I combat terrorism (by helping financial institutions guard against money laundering). 

This purposeful framing, combined with encouraging community-driven efforts, led 90% of partners to report a greater sense of pride in KPMG.

Whatever your department, encourage your office to make small changes. Donate leftovers from meetings and events to food banks. Lend pro-bono services, products or ad-space to cash-strapped NGOs. Let charities in on your bulk purchase discounts by combining orders. Invite local non-profit groups to a guest speaker series (they can’t afford the appearance fees). 

If you are the boss, purpose should already be on your radar. If you need to convince the boss, it’s easy to make a business case for doing good. Purpose-driven companies tend to make more money. Products infused with purpose can boost sales and differentiate your brand in a competitive market — customers are willing to pay a premium to good corporate citizens. And employees connected to a meaningful purpose are more engaged.

Don’t feign enthusiasm for a job that’s completely removed from your personal values. Give back to a cause you care about and find purpose while on the clock. 

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-authors, with Holly Branson, of the new book WEconomy: You Can Find Meaning, Make A Living, and Change the World. 

 

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