“Find a job you’ll love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” There are different claims about who coined this phrase but it’s stood the test of time. Like most one-liners, it’s easier said than done.

Most people need two things from their work. They need to earn enough to support all the other areas of their life and they need to feel dignified while doing it. Neither is an easy find.

We tend to know how much income we need but a sense of dignity and meaning can be elusive. You might want creative output, a good work/life balance or a sense of achievement earned through a ‘hard day’s work’. It’s easier to know what kind of work will suit you if you’ve taken Socrates’ advice: know thyself.

Still, insights from philosophy and psychology can help us spot some of the things that tend to give people a sense of meaning in their jobs.



You’ve gotta want it

This is the basic idea behind the ‘find a job you love’ proverb. If you’re doing something you enjoy, it won’t feel like a chore. If you’re motivated by income, prestige or something external, it will be hard to find the work itself fulfilling.

The philosopher Bernard Williams distinguishes ‘internal’ and ‘external’ motivations. We have an external motivation to do something if it would be good for us to do it, whether we want to or not. Internal motivations are things we personally want to do.

For example, if we’re sick, it is good for us to take medicine – that’s an external motivation. If we actually want to get better, we’ve also got an internal motivation. If we want a few more days off work, there’s no internal motive to get better, even though being healthy is better than being sick, generally speaking.

Williams thought external motivations alone couldn’t make us do something. We need some internal motivators to get us off the couch. Williams might not be right. Lots of people probably show up to work because they need to make ends meet but there’s still a lesson in his distinction. Salaries, prestige or fringe benefits won’t be enough to give us a lasting sense of meaning – we need to feel personally engaged with what we’re doing.

Look beyond official duties

Sometimes the core activities of our work won’t give us internal motivation. It might be some unofficial role our job enables us to fulfil.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz uses the example of Luke, a hospital janitor (his official title was “hospital custodian”). It’s unlikely Luke wakes up passionate about working light bulbs and shiny urinals. He found meaning in the parts of his work that extended beyond his official duties:

“The researchers asked the custodians to talk about their jobs, and the custodians began to tell them stories about what they did. Luke’s stories told them that his “official” duties were only one part of his real job, and that another central part of his job was to make the patients and their families feel comfortable, to cheer them up when they were down, to encourage them and divert them from their pain and fear, and to give them a willing ear if they felt like talking.”

The meaningful work Luke performed sat outside he things the hospital paid him for. Despite this, it still gave him enough satisfaction to keep showing up.

See your role in the bigger picture

Hospital janitors are a font of wisdom. Schwartz also describes how Ben and Corey, also janitors, found meaning. They recognised their role within the broader purpose of the hospital – to provide care for people who need it:

“Luke, Ben, and Corey were not generic custodians. They were hospital custodians. They saw themselves as playing an important role in an institution whose aim is to see to the care and welfare of patients.”

They would stop mopping floors if patients were walking the corridors for rehab or hold off from vacuuming when family were sleeping in the patient lounge. They weren’t just keeping things tidy and in working order. In a hospital, cleanliness staves off infection and can save lives. The context and purpose of their work gave it new meaning.

Find space for choice

Peter Cochrane, entrepreneur and technologist, thinks many jobs are taking what’s human out of their human employees. In the documentary The Future of Work and Death, he says, “When I go into companies I often ask the question, ‘Why are you employing people? You could get monkeys or robots to do this job.’ The people are not allowed to think – they are processing. They’re just like a machine.”

At an absolute minimum, feeling dignified at work means feeling like our humanity is being recognised. We want to be treated as people, not things. It’s important we find spaces in our work where we can be autonomous: making decisions for ourselves, exercising our creativity and asserting our ability to think freely.

It’s not a perfect fix

We must acknowledge the limitations of this advice. Our basic needs for food, housing, and the rest require many of us to persevere with work we find undignifying or meaningless.

But if you’re lucky enough to enjoy some choice in where you work and are unhappy in your current role, take a second to think – are you missing one of the above? At least you’ll know what to look for next time!