So You Want to Do Something ‘Meaningful’ With Your Life?
It’s my sophomore year of college, and I’m lying on my extra-long twin bed, talking to my mother on my hot pink Hello Kitty cordless phone. I’m telling her about my classes, and wondering aloud if it’s time for me to declare a major. Marketing, maybe?
I stop and think for a moment. “I don’t know,” I say. “It’s just kind of meaningless, you know?”
My mom laughed. She and my dad had spent their professional lives in the advertising industry. I spent my childhood begging to tag along to their offices, where there were neon signs and free pop and lots of weirdos saying swear words and putting their ideas up on walls. I was always thrilled when I saw that work out in the world.
But, you know, it wasn’t like advertising was as meaningful as something like teaching, or social work, or medicine, or-or-or…
I can’t remember when my dad chimed in — maybe he was listening to the conversation from my mom’s phone, or maybe she recounted it to him later. But I remember his response to my comment.
“I didn’t realize that providing for my family was meaningless,” he said. “I didn’t realize that sending you to college was meaningless. I didn’t realize that feeding you and clothing you was meaningless.”
It sounds harsh — and my dad generally was — but he didn’t say this harshly. He said it with a little bit of hurt, and I suddenly realized how hurtful it was.
Recently, I found a letter that my father had written to me when I was in kindergarten. A proper paper letter, with a stamp. He had moved up to Minneapolis from the small town we were living in, to take a job that would help pull his family of six out of debt. His letter told me about his daily routine: how he’d wake up on his brother’s couch in South Minneapolis, pack himself a sack lunch, and take the bus downtown where he’d work until after dinner, take the bus back to his brother’s house, and do it all over again.
Reading that letter, I wept. My dad spent his days writing copy about fishing lures and fitness equipment. He ate at his desk to avoid spending money on restaurant lunches. And when he could, he moved us all up to the city to be with him. He did such meaningful work for us. I hated that I’d forgotten all about it.
My work today — as an author and a speaker and a podcaster and a founder — is meaningful to me. But it isn’t more meaningful than the brand strategy work I was doing when my husband Aaron was sick with cancer. That work paid our mortgage and our medical bills. That work gave us health insurance and FMLA and short-term disability.
There’s a quarter-to-mid-to-late-life crisis that floods through people who experience loss and trauma. When you see the truth of life, finally — that it is fleeting and gorgeous — it’s so, so normal to feel like you need to upturn the entire apple cart and make sure that everything you do is infused with a “deeper meaning.”
As Aaron was dying, I told him that I would go back to school and be a nurse, or maybe a hospice worker?
He laughed in my face and said, “I love you, but you’d be terrible at that.”
Rude. And true.
Here is the thing: Everything you do is infused with meaning. You do not have to try to squeeze depth and richness into every morsel of your life, because it is already there. It is inherently meaningful to be a person on this earth, living life. And the work that feels meaningful does not need to be the specific mechanics of your job, but instead, what that job enables you to do. Does it pay your electric bills? Does it feed you? Let the meaning of your work not be the tasks, but the impact.
If you want to make sure you’re doing something meaningful with your life, just know that you already are.