Growing up, many women received the message that the ultimate mark of a meaningful life is having a career.
Women who were smart, beautiful, and ambitious were meant to study hard, go to university, and eventually, end up in a high-powered professional role. Anything less was an injustice against us. A career, we’re told, is what would fulfill our true feminine potential and most honor our abilities.
Many of us followed that path, only to discover the corporate life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Having a job often means long hours at a desk, a stressful commute, menial tasks, a lack of control and creativity – in short, the absence of a sense of meaning, not the presence of it. Our careers often meant there was little time left to take care of our homes, cook, plan social gatherings, or tend to our relationships.
I’m very grateful to have a job I really enjoy and find impactful, but that’s probably not the case for most women, despite what society has us believe. And this modern attitude that says fulfillment is found in a career has left many women in a miserable state. Women now make up the majority of the workforce, while unhealthy habits binge drinking and rates of antidepressant use among women are on the rise.
Career is the mechanism to support life — it isn’t meant to be your life.
In the past, men worked jobs with the ultimate end of providing for a family and the community. Career was the mechanism to support life — it wasn’t meant to be your life. The job wasn’t the end in and of itself. Yet, like many of our other cultural attitudes, this idea has been flipped on its head. Instead of seeing work as something that allows us to create meaningful lives, we have reduced the meaning of life to work. And it’s total folly.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities to find meaning in life beyond our careers. Here’s how.
Don’t Pressure Yourself To Change the World — Practice Gratitude Instead
Everyone thinks they can change the world through their career. But not all of us are destined to become the next Steve Jobs, start the next big tech company, or revolutionize an industry. There's nothing wrong with finding meaning in a normal life — in the ordinary, everyday things.
Instead of railing against the world or trying to radically change it, we can cultivate a mindset of gratitude for the everyday. Gratitude enhances the sense of meaning we find in normal things and makes us feel that we have enough. When we can appreciate a meal with friends, a walk in the woods, the blossoming of a spring flower, fresh bedsheets, a smile from a neighbor, or any of the million and a half other tiny little things that encompass our entire day, we can be thankful just to be here.
Gratitude for the little things gives a sense of meaning and imbues us with a happiness that radiates to those around us.
Focus on Developing Virtue, Not Amassing Career Success
Russian writer Leo Tolstoy put it best when he said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." When we focus solely on career achievement and material success, we often neglect to develop our virtue. In fact, in many professional circles, you’re rewarded precisely for not being virtuous. You don’t have to go far into any business or industry to see that there’s plenty of corruption and perverse incentives that will distort good character.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." - Leo Tolstoy
But the good news is, developing our character is one of the few things that’s within our control — jobs and money come and go, but our character doesn’t. If we choose the moral option over the financially or professionally rewarding option, we can develop qualities of moral excellence that help us to realize that every choice we make and everything we do is impactful.
Qualities such as patience, chastity, endurance, loyalty, sacrifice, self-control, and optimism mean more than a career ever will. Every choice we make echoes into eternity, and focusing on virtue can help us to escape careerist nihilism that tells us only temporal things like money and workplace achievement matter.
Cultivate Your Feminine Gifts and Creativity
From time immemorial, women have been driven by the instinct to cultivate community life and beautify their surroundings. Yet focusing solely on professional life requires cultivating masculine qualities like competitiveness, decisiveness, and drive. This can stifle the feminine gifts and creativity that give our lives meaning.
Women should always make time to focus on things such as nurturing children, making a beautiful home, preparing food, fashioning crafts, making art, upholding holiday traditions, caring for animals, and participating in community life.
Women can derive deep meaning from focusing on tasks that connect to our innate feminine nature. Our nurturance, empathy, intuition, compassion, and eye for beauty lend themselves to myriad endeavors that will fall outside the corporate realm, yet give our lives a lot of meaning.
Remember That Work Doesn’t Have To Be Revolutionary To Matter
There are plenty of positive and meaningful careers out there, but remember that revolutionary work and meaningful work aren't always synonymous. A janitor who cleans restrooms does meaningful work — but not revolutionary work. A barista who smiles at you and is pleasant while getting your coffee does meaningful work — but not revolutionary work.
Too many of us think that our careers are going to dramatically change the world — that we’re going to disrupt an industry, change public policy, or even save lives. But do you want a clean bathroom or a dirty one? Do you want a friendly barista or a grumpy one? Even work that falls outside the scope of a “career” matters. The service we provide to our neighbors by being a good janitor or barista or whatever it may be helps us to glorify one another.
Helping other people — in any job — is meaningful.
It takes a lot of skills to live this life, so helping other people is meaningful. It's amazing how many things we take for granted that someone else is in charge of — treating water, sweeping the streets, putting up stoplights, stocking shelves, picking fruit, driving delivery trucks. We should remember this in our own lives, too, so as not to limit the fullness and goodness of life or limit it to career success.
Focus on Your Relationships, Nature, Hobbies, Spiritual Life, and Everyday Tasks
We all have a vocation in life, and it can certainly include a job or career, but it also includes human relationships. You're not just a marketing professional or a sales analyst or an events coordinator — you’re a sister, mother, aunt, neighbor, church member, citizen of a country. The idea of only finding meaning in your job title reduces you.
The idea of only finding meaning in your job title reduces you.
We can find meaning in a whole list of things we do and see and experience: walking in nature, being a part of a community, making art, singing, cleaning, making a meal for loved ones, attending church, helping a neighbor, planting a garden, visiting a grandparent, calling your mom, babysitting. Focusing on our relationships, enjoying nature, and cultivating hobbies and a spiritual life are sources of deep meaning in our lives that should never be placed in the backseat for a career.
Our modern society often reduces meaning to our professional success and material achievement, but there are plenty of ways to find meaning in life that aren’t through a career. While many careers are impactful, we shouldn’t reduce meaning in our lives to professional endeavors only, lest we lose sight of all the things that really matter.
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