Episode 15: Does Meaningfulness Matter In Your Creative Work?

The pursuit meaning in our work, while a universal pursuit, and a fitting goal, also has a universal trap—which if we’re not careful, can leave us desperately unfulfilled.

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I take it as an axiom that all people everywhere want to be happy. That the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental motivation. This pursuit can take many forms and can be pursued directly or indirectly. It can be grasped for immediately, or built up through deliberate delayed gratification.

And so we should not be surprised that we also pursue happiness in our work. And one of the most common ways of trying to make this connection is by feeling like our work is meaningful. To waste time toiling at work, feeling as though our efforts are pointless, contributing little to the world, or having no impact undermines our happiness and contentment in work.

And so when we have the opportunity to engage in a project that feels like it has meaning, or will have an impact in the world, we will find ourselves motivated and energized. Many creative entrepreneurs deliberately focus their marketing on the non-profit sector, knowing that they won’t make as much money as they might otherwise, but happily trading profit for the pursuit of meaning and therefore greater happiness in their work.

The desire for meaning is built into our nature, and to pursue it is a noble endeavor. Using our talents and our skills in a way that feels meaningful is a highly motivating experience. And while this can be a healthy source of motivation, there are some dangers to consider. Because as much as we desire meaning, and are motivated by meaningful work, the flip side of this motivation is that if we don’t feel like a particular task or project is as meaningful as another, then our motivation will drop accordingly. And so we might avoid mundane tasks, or projects that seem common and ordinary, that don’t give us a sense of meaning or of making and impact.

But let’s be honest, the most meaningful projects you could possibly conceive of are pretty rare. Life is made up of far more routine and ordinary moments, and routine and ordinary businesses than those that transform the world. And if our happiness and motivation are tied to meaning, then we will more often than not be less motivated, less inspired, and less content in our ordinary projects than those we dream of, that we think would bring greater fulfillment.

What’s more, to fulfill this desire for meaning is elusive. If we try to look for it it flies away, if we chase after it, we often end up further away.

The elusive nature of meaning, and the desire to find it, is universal. But the more we strive after it the more our angst increases—if we fail to fulfill it. And when it comes to creative work, our appetite for meaning and impact is pretty high—in part due to that deeper connection with artistic identity that we discussed in episode 13.

And so the more we strive for meaning and impact in our work—to the extent that we fail to achieve it—our motivation will be drained from disappointment. And since the gap between creative ambition and realistic impact is so great—this motivational trap is a particularly dangerous occupational hazard for creative entrepreneurs.

I hope that the past few episodes, diagnosing some of the motivations associated with creative work, have not brought you down. In the next episode we’ll look more toward solutions and advice for overcoming some of these dangers—so that you can find stability and joy in your work.

So until next week: don’t let the business of creativity overwhelm your creative business.