When Work Doesn't Fulfill

I was once tasked with writing a weekly company-wide newsletter as a part of my job. It was to include things like: birthdays, baby announcements, team member profiles, photos of staff at different client sites, and updates about health insurance and retirement accounts.


This was menial work requiring me to pester everyone in the firm to submit poorly lit pictures of their team dinner at an Applebees in Wisconsin last week. The newsletter was to go out each Friday morning and every week I found myself waiting until the last minute to collect information from people. This was neither enjoyable nor fulfilling. It felt like a waste of my time and talent.

Then one week something happened.

I have a creative writing practice I do first thing every morning before I get started on my work. In those days I tried to publish a personal blog every once in a while - maybe a few times a year. That Friday morning I was low on content for the newsletter because I didn't want to ask anyone for their stupid baby photos earlier in the week and had meetings all afternoon. I needed to fill up space and get the thing published stat. In desperation I recalled something I wrote that morning about finding beauty in small moments. I spent a few minutes repurposing the content into an introduction to the newsletter and made it a letter from the editor. I hit send and went on with my day.

Sometime Saturday afternoon I checked my email and found a few messages in my inbox from members of the team thanking me for the reminder to enjoy each moment. Interesting.

The following week I introduced the newsletter with an anecdote about the power of relationships. Someone wrote back almost immediately to thank me for the reminder, as it had been a hard week and they needed a shot of encouragement. Fascinating.

Slowly, writing the weekly newsletter became the most important part of my work. I began to think all week about ways to bring more purpose and meaning to the firm. This thing I detested being asked to do evolved into a way for me to make a truly unique, meaningful and incredibly fulfilling contribution. To this day, when I see old coworkers they still mention how they miss those weekly insights. In fact, it was the newsletter I never wanted to write that shaped the tone and direction of this weekly blog today.

An opportunity to contribute at a high level was hidden in plain sight.

If you're the kind of person who believes your work could and should be fulfilling you have to realize one thing above all else: Your ability to engage in fulfilling work is entirely up to you.

We grow when we realize every moment is an opportunity for growth. We make our greatest contributions when we accept that making our greatest contribution is our responsibly and ours alone.

What do you wish others called on you to do? Who do you wish you were able to be right now? Look for opportunities to make a contribution more aligned with what you want to do and who you want to be, then start running mini experiments. Your direction won't be completely clear in the beginning and some of your experiments will fail. Sometimes you'll try to add value on a certain project and hear crickets. Other times you'll think you've found a fulfilling way to approach a responsibility but it loses its luster and you have to pivot. That's OK.

The best stories, the most creative solutions, the most inspiring career trajectories - they all involve someone who decided to make something new out of what they were handed. They realized no employer, supervisor or market was ever going to ask them how to tailor their role to be more suitable. We must get hip to the idea others aren't spending their time developing solutions for us to make our lives and careers more fulfilling.

Rob Bell calls this turning the gem. When we're handed a certain mindset or collection of thoughts or workload or list of tasks, it's our responsibility to recognize everything has more to offer than we first see. Any moment, any task, any relationship - we get to choose the perspective we adopt. Pick up the challenge as if it were gem and turn it, watch how the light hits it from another angle. See where the light passes through. Gain a new perspective on something for which you first had only one perspective.

We add real value by first recognizing any contribution we make has the potential to matter, and second, by accepting we have complete control over our attitude and quality of contribution. 

Perhaps the greatest adventure is the chance to take work we were not excited about and turn it into an opportunity to add value no one was expecting. 

We're not always handed the kind of role or responsibilities we wanted in our careers. Sometimes the work to be done is kind of regular work. This is great news because most of life is kind of regular. Yet there are those who have managed to turn it into something extraordinary. This magic certain people experience is simply their ability to see opportunity in each moment to create meaning for themselves and others. 

Complicated? No. Still magical? Absolutely.

Every time I've practiced this I've grown - because I decided to participate instead of ponder why everyone isn't catering to my needs. When we realize our lives and our careers are not about us and choose instead to focus on adding value to others in the way we're uniquely designed, we find the fulfillment we were searching for all along.

Turn the gem, and transform your current circumstances.