Meaningful Work is Hard



“It is not what we get. But who we become, what we contribute… that gives meaning to our lives.” — Tony Robbins

It’s tough stuff.

Doing meaningful work means stretching past your limits and taking risks.  As such, the most meaningful work often comes with the greatest challenges.

Meaningful Work is Not Easy

You become more as you grow past the hurdles.  As you grow your ability to take on bigger challenges, you create new arenas and capabilities for deeper engagement and more fulfillment.

It’s the place where you find your “flow” and get “in the zone.”

Failure comes with the territory.  As one of my mentors put it, if you’re not failing enough, you’re not trying enough.  You learn more when you fail, and a healthy habit is to carry the lessons forward.

Meaningful Works is the Key to Meaningful Process

By recognizing the value of meaningful work on our inner lives, and what we become in the process of growth, you set the stage for a healthy environment of meaningful progress.  The key is to have a high tolerance for risk and failure and create a learning environment.

In the book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, the authors write about focusing on the progress and positive feedback, while embracing the failures along the way.  It’s part of the journey of meaningful work.

Failure is Inevitable Along the Way

The most meaningful work also often comes with the greatest challenges.

Via The Progress Principle:

“By its very nature, meaningful work is hard; people often get the greatest satisfaction from overcoming the most difficult challenges.  Failure is inevitable along the path to innovation.”

Focus on Catalysts and Nourishers

You can’t avoid all the problems.  Instead, you can respond to the problems, and you can focus on the wins along the way.

Via The Progress Principle:

“Thought you should try to minimize obstacles and setbacks under your control, you can never create a problem-free bubble for your people.  You can’t nourish inner work life if you drive yourself and your team crazy trying to avoid all problems. 

Rather, focus on providing people with the catalysts and nourishers they need to overcome the obstacles they will inevitably face. “

Failure is a Chance to Start Over Smarter

You’re not failing forward.  You are learning forward.

Via The Progress Principle:

“As legendary industrialist Henry Ford once said, ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.’”

Grow your skills by leaps and bounds as you take on more meaningful work, and remember that the most important meaning maker in your life is you.

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Photo by mkd.


  1. My favorite here is “Focus on Catalysts and Nourishers.”
    It has proven to me time and again – stay away from drainers and stick with catalysts, no compromises.

  2. Failure and meaningful work can often go hand in hand. I really like that about this post.

    Often my friends and I can get discouraged when we don’t see amazing results from our efforts. It’s not easy.

    Thanks for the realistic and hopeful look at meaningful work.


  3. For me creating new stuff means challenging new “problems”.

    The clue is to overcome lazyness and get to like these challenges, and tackle them 🙂

  4. This reminds me J.D. that greater risks mean greater rewards. Going for the brass ring can reap you more than you ever dreamed, but you have to put in the meaningful.

    “Failure” is a door to open to better things.

    And yes, one of my mentors also said “If you’re not making at least 10 mistakes a day you’re not trying hard enough.”


  5. Yes and no JD. Our meaningful work also includes the stuff we enjoy and are good at. To be growing I think is essential if we are in touch with our meaning, but there’s the fun stuff too.

  6. Hi J.D,
    Meaningful anything can come at a “price”. It also often comes with joy & satisfaction attached. To determine what a high meaning is for you is the ‘work’. The joy & satisfaction comes from the achievement of that ‘meaning’.That’s the way I look at it anyway. Thanks for your work again.
    be good to yourself

  7. @ Alik — Yes indeed. And the onus is on us to find our catalysts … we can’t expect others to do it for us.

    @ Bryce — I remember one of my mentors describing the awkward and challenging parts of growth, and he said simply, “That’s what growth feels like.” It was a powerful lesson because rather than avoid it, it’s about embracing it, and recognizing that it’s part of the journey.

    @ Mark — Exactly, that is the clue — liking and tackling the challenges.

    @ Jannie — Along those lines, it always reminds me of the saying that “Sacrifice is the price of success.”

    And I always found solace in the saying, “When one door closes, another opens.”

    It sounds like you had a wise mentor that challenged you to surpass your limits.

    @ Evan — I agree. I don’t think people shy from the fun stuff. I think the meta-point is to be open to the tough, non-safe stuff.

    @ David — Well put … “the joy and satisfaction come from the achievement of that meaning.”

    I would say, the art part is, where the joy and satisfaction, also come from the pursuit along the way. It’s how we enjoy the journey.

  8. Thanks JD–great article. I so agree that doing meaningful work is hard work. But as you say, this effort creates growth, so it’s well worth it.

    And the reminder about “failure”–another great point. There is no failure, only learning!

  9. I’m writing a memoir about the search for meaningful work, and how empty it feels when you don’t have it. I think the title of this post says it all… lots of people are afraid to take the leap (I’ve been scared, too) because they want it to be easy. But it’s a price worth paying, I think.

  10. @ Sean — “Follow the growth” has been a guiding principle for my career path and it’s served me well.

    @ Angie — It sounds like it will be a great memoir. The price we pay for meaningful work has a high ROI and payback, while the price we pay for non-meaningful work is insidious.

  11. Nice article. I get from it that I should take chances. Make mistakes along the way. Learn from the mistakes and move on.

  12. @ Mike — Thank you. Yes, it’s about taking chances, and learning from mistakes, rather than fearing them. The opposite is trying to play it safe, and avoid mistakes.

    A great quote along these lines is, “Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

  13. I am working on cleaning up a mistake right now and wow am I learning so much more than when I was wrestling with the software program I could not “do”….

    You share a lot of wisdom here and this is a valuable lesson.

    The message too I am getting is to stop again and just focus on one thing, which right now is another bout of needing healing…those voices are loud….

    I just wish at my age – my new age!- that I could figure out how to do this without it costing me so much money….health wise and software wise…so I am working on these issues and asking for guidance to not make such costly mistakes 🙂

    I also made chicken soup just to be sure.

  14. @ Patricia — What I’ve always found works for me is to get back to my basics, and work from a place of strength.

    I focus on something I know very well, and I pair up with somebody on what I want to learn. I try to spend less time in my weaknesses, and more time in my strengths. This is actually how the best businesses thrive. They play to their strengths, and that’s why SWOT analysis is so popular. Similarly, a key concept in the book Good to Great is to focus on what you can be the best in the world at.

    The only way I’ve found to limit the cost of the mistakes is to constrain the risk and use mentors as the short-cut to avoid dead ends and fruitless paths. The trick is to ask the people that have actually been there and done that. Otherwise, it’s anybody’s guess.

    It also helps to find people that have the balcony view. For example, I check with my accountant on what businesses are working for people and which are not.

  15. JD, got to confess I’m not a fan of meaningful as it suggests everything has to a) have meaning (some things don’t they just ‘are’ and b) be full, as in be deep or powerful in this aspect. It may make people feel they aren’t contributing enough or that their work is unimportant. Every single job gives and provides something to society and so I prefer to focus on people considering their efforts to be fulfilling in some personal way. That what they do matters to themselves and who they are. When we are fulfilled we are enough and are happier. Just my take brother!

  16. Hi JD

    I find your post offers great reminders, and I am especially Loving ‘Focus on Catalysts and Nourishers’. Yes! I am fine with making mistakes, as the failures mean I’m trying new things and moving out of my comfort zone, where really meaningful work resides. But the reminder to stick with the few catalysts and nourishers who share the vision is appreciated today. 🙂 Cheers!

  17. @ John — I was in your shoes until I learned a new lens for making meaning. (The irony is, in one sentence you say not everything has to be meaningful, and in the next, you made every job and person meaningful 😉

    This echoes the big idea that meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and we attach the meaning (things don’t come inherently meaningful.) I think what sometimes gets lost, and here is the magic, is how we can make our own meaning by connecting to our personal values, whether that’s learning, quality, contribution, just being, etc. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose … it simply has to work for you.

    Simple “chores” can be our greatest joy when they’re a “chance” for self-expression.

    @ Antonia — Thank you. I’ve always liked the saying, “What you focus on expands” and I find that it tends to be true (if for no other reason, because we notice more … Just like if buy a new car, and suddenly you notice everybody on the road has the same car.)

    The main challenge with catalysts and nourishers is knowing what truly floats your boat, and then knowing how to find it in the simplest of things.

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