Most people would say yes to those questions, but many are at a loss to figure out how. They’re not in a job that’s obviously making a difference, and they can’t or have no interest in changing to one that does.
If that sounds like you, here are several ways you can think about the difference you make with your work:
1. Having a direct impact
This is the option that typically comes to mind when we think of making a difference with our work. My Passion Catalyst work falls in this category (helping people create richer and more energizing lives for themselves). Other examples include social entrepreneurs, teachers, and activists.
2. Supporting a positive-focused company
Not everyone is meant to do a job that has a direct positive impact. Another way to make a difference with your work is by supporting a company or organization that’s making a difference. You might be an accountant, for example, working with a non-profit or a company where making a difference (for example, through sustainable practices, volunteer programs, community outreach, a commitment to a supportive employee culture, etc.) is woven into the company’s values and actions.
3. Mentoring and transferring knowledge
Even if you aren’t working directly to make an impact or working with an organization that is, you can still find ways to make your job more meaningful. It starts with a simple question: “Who needs help, and how can I help them?” Mentoring, whether formal or informal, is a classic and feasible example.
Do you have knowledge that someone newer to the picture could benefit from? Could what you’ve learned about the way things work at your organization help a newcomer navigate their way to success? Is there any how-to knowledge you can pass along?
4. Fostering community
Not all the ways you can make a difference with your work are directly related to your job description. In fact, many aren’t. For example, anything you do to improve the work environment for yourself and others will have a positive impact.
One way to do this is by helping to build a sense of community and connection. Clearly, unless you’re part of senior management, you don’t have the power to steer the whole company culture, but you can have an impact on your immediate surroundings. One way to foster a sense of community is to simply instigate chances for people to connect and talk outside the normal work setting, like group lunches, after-work drinks, even events like a baseball game. Start small, and keep building.
5. Showing up positively
Sometimes making a difference at your work is simply a matter of how you choose to show up. Look for ways to be proactively positive in an authentic way. Admire someone’s work on a project they just completed? Tell them. Know of a book you think someone would benefit from? Let them know about it. Even better, give them a copy. (Speaking of book recommendations, a great book that deals with this very topic is Tim Sanders’ Love Is the Killer App. It should be required reading for every new graduate.)
6. Refusing to contribute to the negative
On the flipside, sometimes making a positive impact requires a little addition by subtraction. Refuse to contribute negativity to your environment. If there’s a group of complainers that regularly kvetch about you-name-it, resist the urge to join them. Complaining with no action to make a change is a toxic habit. It does neither you nor the people within earshot any good. If you need to be critical, make sure you’re doing it with a constructive purpose, not just because you’re irritated, or worse yet, because it’s habitual reaction.
7. Finding the meaning
This last idea is less about doing anything different to make a difference and more about recognizing the difference you’re already making. Whatever your work, it can feel more meaningful if you can see what you’re contributing to. That increased sense of meaning might be significant, or it might be slight.
[See Why Loving Your Work Matters.]
Start by asking questions. Who benefits from what I’m doing? How is the situation better because of what I’m doing? How does what I’m doing impact what the organization is focused on? Who can be more productive because of what I’m doing? Who benefits indirectly from my work? What outcome does this enable someone else to achieve?
A great place to start putting some of these ideas to use is to take a look at your job and ask, What difference am I making here? What difference could I make here? What difference am I interested in making here? Use the different categories listed above to guide your explorations. Ask those questions on a regular basis, maybe weekly or monthly. Better yet, bring others into the exploration and have regular conversations about it.
The more you focus on making a positive impact, the more opportunities you will recognize, and the more potential you will have to experience a sense of meaning in your work.
After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.