It might not always be some great selfless charitable act that makes your job meaningful to you. There are several people who will say they find their work meaningful because they find meaning in them for different reasons. Meaningfulness does not always mean the same thing.
Let’s take Erik Soderberg, a structural engineer, for example. Here he talks about his job and how he finds it meaningful: I have been in my current position for almost ten years. When I was a kid I always built things. My father built little clubhouses in the backyard. At first I would just put nails in the table, and then I started nailing pieces of wood together. I was four or five when I actually nailed something together that resembled something in real life.
I thought I was going to be a carpenter; then I actually worked in construction, and I noticed that the young guys were having a good time but the old guys were looking haggard and worn out. It seemed like it would be more fun to dream [things] up.
When I was first learning math the teacher was always presenting the problem as “This is how you solve for X or Y”—they never explained what use that would be. It was actually when I started learning engineering and physics that I became less ignorant and realized math could be used to solve real problems. I like that you can model something physically and understand how big you need to make a column or beam just using numbers. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it — you can sit down with a piece of paper and design everything before you even build it.
My work is always varied and generally challenging, especially now that I can give tedious work to the people below me. Usually someone will have a problem — they will run a ship into a crane, for example — then the first half of the day, I look at the damage and figure out what needs to be done to define the problem. I wouldn’t say my work is fascinating, because the types of problems I deal with aren’t spectacular. I think it’s meaningful because I facilitate a solution.
I am paid appropriately. I could be making more money in other professions that I wouldn’t like as much, so money is not the top priority. I don’t think that there should be a huge disparity in what people are being paid. This company culture is pretty unique. If I knew that my boss didn’t look out for everyone, then I might have a different attitude. Basically it’s a mutual relationship and not me working hard for my boss to buy his fourth house.
I liked every job I ever had. I worked some jobs that I know other people didn’t like. If I were 35 and still the hot tub guy, I might not have had a good attitude. Some of the work that we do, there’s a risk that people will die if we don’t get it right; that’s probably 10 percent of the time. If I write a report, my name is on it as the author; for that reason, there’s incentive to do a really good job. But I invest enthusiasm, joy, effort into what I do anyway. I have a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for how the work turns out.