What to Do When Your Work Doesn’t Matter

Simple Takeaway:

Most jobs are replaceable, and most companies are forgettable. Instead of trying to find meaning in your work and becoming unforgettable (which is often driven by insecurity) focus instead on investing in the lives of those who are close to you, being faithful with what you have, and finding personal satisfaction in the small things. When you do that, you’ll be more productive in the only way that truly matters – improving the lives of the people around you.

Is what you’re doing right now having an impact?

I had an odd thought the other day.

I walked into a public restroom and as I walked by one of the stalls for some reason I noticed the little sign next to the door handle on the stall that indicates whether the stall is “vacant” or “occupied”.

This is how weird my brain works:

My first thought was, “I wonder what font they used to make that little sign.”

I know, strange observation. You’d be surprised how often my mind goes down weird rabbit trails like that.

But then it led to a deeper thought.

I thought, “I wonder if the person who designs bathroom stall signs feels like the work they’re doing matters.”

Maybe you felt that way before, and maybe you’ve asked a question like that before.

Most people don’t have glamorous jobs or work that allows them to clearly see some sort of deeper impact they’re having on the world.

Teachers and doctors and motivational speakers can all pretty clearly see the change they’re making in the world. But what about the rest of us?

What about the industrial designers and assembly line workers and utility workers? Is it possible for them to see that their work is changing the world? Or is their work changing the world?

It’s depressing to think that what you’re doing doesn’t matter.

But here’s the truth:

Most of our jobs are replaceable. Most people are not workplace linchpins.

If someone with a boring job doesn’t show up to work tomorrow, their employer will post a job opening and have them replaced within a matter of weeks.

We’ve grown really uncomfortable with the fact that in our ever-expanding capitalistic society, most jobs just don’t matter that much. If your company vanished tomorrow, another one would rush in to fill the void.

But here’s the most valuable question to ask:

What’s the threshold to “meaningful” impact? How many lives does your work have to change for it to be valuable?

Picture the designer who creates bathroom signs.

Picture their family.

Picture the house they’re working to save for so their kids can grow up in a safe neighborhood.

Picture them buying a swing set and going on weekend camping trips and purchasing school supplies – all so their kids can make memories that will forever shape them and last for generations.

Picture the money they’ll save for college because their kids want to become architects and doctors and engineers.

Picture the work ethic they’ll instill in their kids so when they get to college they won’t party, get arrested, and drop out (like a lot of us did).

Picture the values they’ll pass along to their kids – values that when you’re faithful with a little you’ll be faithful with much.

Then ask yourself a tough question: 

How would you feel if you knew that your life‘s work was for an audience of five? 

What if only your immediate family or friends were the only ones you focused on impacting?

Would that be enough?

I’m not encouraging you to think small, and yet, at the same time I am. 

What if instead of striving for personal significance in the large things we started striving for personal satisfaction and investment in the small things? 

And I don’t mean begrudgingly doing the little things so you can one day have a meaningful life. I’m asking, what if the small things are the point?

Here’s what will happen:

Once you start focusing on doing the small things well and making those the point, they will inevitably snowball into bigger things.

The man who loves his wife well and does his daily work with pride almost always ends up gaining more in other areas of his life. 

It’s not because he was working his way up to that. He just simply cultivated a character that could naturally carry more weight.

But having more isn’t what makes him happy; he understands what living a meaningful life truly is.

We’ve gotten it backwards in America. We’ve come to believe that large-scale impact is the most important goal of our lives. We think if we can make a large-scale impact, then we can justify small-scale neglect.

This line of thinking goes like this:

  • It’s okay to be rude to some people because I’m on my way to doing important work
  • It’s okay to go into a little debt here and there because what I’m working towards is worth the trade off
  • It’s okay to spend less time with my family for an extended period of time because I’m building something for their future

Let me be a little more direct:

Modern American culture makes us believe that as long as we are doing what makes us happy, then we can neglect the needs of the people around us. But that simply isn’t true.

Let’s be honest, the bathroom sign I saw that day is never going to change anyone’s life.

Sometimes we try to apply the “purpose-chasing” culture we live in and apply it to the little things in life.

We’ll say things like, “You never know how your work can impact another person.” While that may be true, sometimes work is just work that needs to be done. But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

Most of the time, the menial ends up being the most meaningful.

It’s okay that the designer of the bathroom sign probably isn’t going to change anyone’s life with the signs she or he creates.

The point we often miss in American culture, and the thing that’s driving people to anxiety and depression, is that your meaning is not found in your work.

Let me re-iterate:

Your purpose is not found in your work.

It’s found in your audience of five, whatever that looks like for you. Then it will naturally expand from there.

Here’s the takeaway: 

Who has God given you the ability to invest in right now? 

Life is about the people we get to interact with, not the projects we get to build. The projects we build are only as valuable as the lives they impact.

Building things that impact people is a worthwhile pursuit. But using or neglecting people to build things will always leave us empty.

So who’s your audience of five and what’s your bathroom sign?

Who can you set an example for and invest in today?

What’s the work you have in front of you that you can do with excellence to invest in others today?

Because regardless of how cool or boring your work is, your investment in other people is the only thing that will create a meaningful life.