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A Message to Those Aspiring to Blend Meaning and Money

rodin_facing_right.jpg“I love advertising. If I could just get paid decently to do what I’m doing now, I’d be as happy as a pig in … mud.”

I looked across the table at Ted’s face, a face I’ve known for more than 30 years. The salt-colored flecks in his neatly-trimmed beard show he’s no longer young. But 25 years into his career, his enthusiasm for the advertising world burns bright.

Ted recently launched his own small agency, and is now discovering the tough reality of serving not only as creative director, but as head salesman—a new, difficult role. He’s achieved his long-held dream of agency ownership, but struggles to pay the bills.

I know how Ted feels. Teaching, to me, means what advertising means to Ted.

Yet too often, pay doesn’t parallel passion. Fortune falls behind fulfillment. Money and meaning are mismatched.

What’s a seeker of reasonable balance to do?

First, it’s helpful to recognize that work doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. In Meanings of Life, Roy Baumeister suggested three different meanings for work:

Work as Jobmeanings_of_life.jpg
This means working for the sake of a paycheck, without much personal involvement or satisfaction. “The job is an instrumental activity—that is, something done principally for the sake of something else,” Baumeister writes. Nevertheless, jobs can produce valuable feelings of skill and satisfaction, not to mention sustenance that enables the worker to pursue meaning in other areas of life.

Work as Career
Work as career is motivated by the desire for success, achievement, and status. The careerist’s approach to work is not a passionate attachment to the work itself, writes Baumeister. Rather, it “emphasizes the feedback about the self that comes in response to work. For the careerist, work is a means of creating, defining, expressing, proving, and glorifying the self.” Work as career can be an important source of meaning and fulfillment in life.

Work as Calling
The word “calling” derives from the idea that one is “called upon” to do a certain type of work: either externally, by God or community, or internally, by a natural gift whose expression cannot be denied. It’s done “out of a sense of personal obligation, duty, or destiny,” writes Baumeister. Work as calling offers tremendous potential for meaning and fulfillment.

Clearly, these categories overlap, and any one person’s work can contain elements of each (Baumeister recognizes this). Nevertheless, the three categories point to how work can furnish us with more or less meaning in our lives.

People with “jobs,” for example, may derive more meaning from family, hobbies, religion, or other activities outside work.

“Careerists” tend to have much of their life’s meaning invested in work. Some may sacrifice family or other interests in order to rise in the world and achieve more prestige, wealth, and accolades.

rejoicing_at_sunset.jpgThose who are “called” may experience great spiritual fulfillment, yet suffer deprivations unknown to the conventionally employed (think artists and missionaries).

In every case, though, meaning in work derives from one, or both, of two things: mastery and service.

Work of any type requires mastering skills. Those with “jobs” can derive satisfaction, and some meaning, from skill mastery and further skill development. The higher the level of mastery, the greater the satisfaction.

Work also involves serving others. In fact, payment for work is ordinarily measured precisely in terms of its service value to others (yes, we can acknowledge exceptions such as subprime mortgage bundlers).

But “service” also means helping in a spiritual, or at least a non-financial, sense—being needed by others, and connected to them. This kindfulfilled_mother_with_daughters.jpg of service, when combined with mastery, produces deep meaning.

No wonder psychologists have come to the same conclusions as the great spiritual traditions: Meaningful work requires both mastery and service.

How does all this help us blend meaning with money?

Maybe it means ensuring that 1) one’s work serves worthy customers, and 2) one’s customers are satisfied with value transcending finance.

So if work lacks meaning, maybe it’s time to find a new customer base. And if it produces insufficient financial rewards, maybe it’s time to ratchet the mastery level up a notch.

How do you blend meaning with money?

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12 Comments to A Message to Those Aspiring to Blend Meaning and Money

On Dec 4, 2008, Adam Steer, Better Is Better commented:

It is interesting that this post should come up now. I have been spending time lately pondering a concept that I came across a few days ago.

You get what you deserve.

I know, hardly revolutionary. But it was put in a new context for me recently…

from Latin deservire “serve well,” from de- “completely” + servire “to serve.”

To serve completely! That totally helped me re-frame the idea of getting what I deserve. By seeking out ways in which I can serve more completely, I will shape a more desirable return on what I do in life.

Thanks for the post. Once you start thinking about something, it has a way of popping up everywhere!


On Dec 4, 2008, doe commented:

i am an artist, and actor and a writer, to be specific. so i guess i fall under the “calling” category. money comes and goes, there are sharp ups and downs. i have an ongoing fantasy i like to call my “trader joe’s fantasy” in which i find myself working hard for a small but decent paycheck, in a happy helpful environment, being proud of my work but not identified with it, and never ever take my work home with me…it is fantasy after all. :) out to an audition i go…

On Dec 4, 2008, by Tim commented:

Adam, what a powerful reminder.

Your comment woke me to an unspoken conviction underpinning Soul Shelter:

“Words matter.”

Many thanks for stopping by! Tim

On Dec 4, 2008, by Tim commented:

@doe: Why not Trader Joe’s? I’m always impressed by the good cheer their employees show.

I hear you about leaving work behind at work—priceless!

On Dec 4, 2008, Adam Steer, Better Is Better commented:


Thank YOU for maintaining Soul Shelter. Your words definitely do matter.


On Dec 5, 2008, ZigZag Montefusco commented:

Wow – I love this post. Although I am a life coach and writer, I often get myself in a tangle when attempting to focus on solving money issues I’m having with running a business. I get by, and in many ways it’s a success, but not always profitable. My callling is writer, whereas my career is life coaching. However, my job is the business woman hat I wear. I hate jobs! lol …so it makes sense that I’m not the best sales person. However, making a mental shift of taking on sales as my career is interesting. Linguistically it makes more sense to look at it like that. I believe in the power of words. You rock. Thanks!


On Dec 5, 2008, ZigZag Montefusco commented:

Oh – and one more thing. I think this post is important because it really helps people understand what they are looking for. Some people are looking for a calling, when others just want to switch careers. Again, Bravo!

I’ll be sure to share this link!

On Dec 5, 2008, by Tim commented:

@ ZigZag: Thanks for sharing that even career coaches struggle with meaning at work :-)

Years ago I thought career counseling might be my calling, so I’m thrilled that you find this post useful!

On Dec 6, 2008, Hank commented:

There are those who talk glibly about life balance, not having been truly been informed by the years of “shoe leather” experience required to be authentic. You, on the other hand, speak with authority because you’ve made most of the necessary steps in the work world to give this discussion meaning, and to resonate with others who consciously work this out in their own lives.

About 10 years ago Os Guinness, the British journalist, helped me to shape my understanding of work as Calling in his book, aptly titled, The Call. He was the first author to help me break down the perceived, but false, boundaries between faith and work, and between the sacred and profane. For those with a spiritual inclination, I highly recommend it. It has remained on my short list of books worth re-reading.

On Dec 8, 2008, by Tim commented:

Hank, thanks for overestimating me so kindly. Here’s my secret: Age.

Thanks, too, for the excellent book recommendation. I’ve put a hold on it at my local library, and look forward to some powerful reading.

On Jul 29, 2009, Soul Shelter » Fulfillment: A Work in Progress commented:

[…] “A Message to Those Aspiring to Blend Meaning & Money” […]

On Jul 30, 2009, Soul Shelter » A Message to Those Confused About Career Direction commented:

[…] “A Message to Those Aspiring to Blend Meaning and Money” […]

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