How to find meaning in your work? My story.
Is it possible to love your work? Here's the story I share in Episode 9 of my Principled? Podcast:
”I'm gonna make money and conquer the world!” That was essentially the career vision of most of my fellow economics students, during my degree. My attitude wasn’t much different; work, for me, was about accomplishments and growth. I wanted to be a leader in a large organisation, moving up the ranks of the consulting firms I idolised. To achieve this, I knew I’d have to work hard, but that was to be expected. Work was supposed to be tough, right?
During the final year of my bachelor, I started reflecting on my future. I borrowed my first personal development book from the library and completed its exercises. This led me to apply to those prestigious consulting firms and… I was rejected. So I thought, why not do a master?
This extra year before entering the job market gave me the time to reflect more deeply. In autumn 2015, I read the Code of the Extraordinary Mind, and it was fantastic. The book was like nothing I'd ever read before, triggering multiple shifts in my worldview. Through stories about real meaning and impact, I realised that contribution is a crucial element of life. It's only by giving to others that can we find true fulfilment. Since work is such a large part of our lives, we must ensure it makes a positive impact on society.
Still, I admired those consulting firms, so I jumped at the chance to intern at Deloitte. After graduation, I scored a job in their corporate strategy office. It felt like an achievement, but, to be honest, I wasn’t that excited on the day they offered me the position. A few weeks later, I discovered why.
I gave a speech at my graduation ceremony at the Rotterdam School of Management. In a packed theatre of 700 graduates and proud parents, I told the audience that as a graduate of a top school: “you have the freedom to pursue the things in life that give you meaning”.
As I walked off the stage, I realised I was a complete hypocrite, because I wasn’t pursuing the things in life that gave me meaning. I had ticked all the societal boxes of success: working in a prestigious company, with a decent salary and a cool job title, but I lacked the meaning I was advocating. Who would benefit from my excel spreadsheet strategic analysis? How would these perfectly formatted PowerPoint slides make the world a better place? When I look back on my life, will I consider this time well-spent?
Unsatisfied with the answers, I decided to commit to living a meaningful working life. Because of this new standard for my career, I became aware of how differently most of my colleagues and fellow graduates viewed their jobs. Everywhere at the office, I saw wasted potential, disengagement and unhappiness. Too many people watching the clock, having another coffee chat to pass the time, just waiting for the day to end. That wasn't for me anymore, but it felt like a shame seeing it as a reality for so many.
I thought that maybe I could change this situation – but how? I knew public speaking was a talent of mine, so I decided my way of making my life meaningful, was to help others to make their life meaningful - by giving personal development workshops. I wanted to redefine how we see our working lives, so professionals could use their talents to do work they love while creating a better world. And secretly, I dreamed of one day, doing this full-time.
I committed to giving as many workshops as possible, as fast as possible. Excitedly I promoted my first workshop on Facebook and... 3 people showed up. And it sucked. But I kept going. I used my university network, approaching study associations to volunteer, asking “can I give a workshop for you?” Over time, people heard about me; it went from “can I give a workshop for you?” to “Tom, can you give us a workshop?” Like a snowball effect. More and more events, impacting more and more people.
About a year later I had a whole team supporting me and we hosted our biggest ever event – at the Ahoy Stadium in Rotterdam, in front of 5000 people, including the mayor of Rotterdam. We went from 3 people to 5000 in 18 months. Continuing to build up my experience and skills, I quit my “9 to 5” day job in December 2019 to live a meaningful working life full-time.
This is my 9th principle for an extraordinary life:
Work can be a meaningful service to others. Find the meaning in what you do and who you do it for.
Want to learn more? I explore these ideas further on Episode 9 of my Principled? Podcast together with my guest, Josh Allan Dykstra, Co-Founder of Work Revolution. We discuss how we can craft meaningful careers that energise us and make an impact.