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10 best books about meaningful work

not the books you might expect

What? None of these books have “meaningful work” in the title.  

Caleb Crain in his article in The New Yorker suggests that less time reading means, “we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.” If you disagree with Crain, then consider this: research shows that a global decline in reading is accompanied by a decline in communicating and socializing. For me, this begs the question, who will challenge our worldview and how?

When it comes to finding meaningful work, one of the greatest barriers is our belief that certain work is more meaningful, more valuable or more responsible than other work. This belief falls apart when we accept that for every job there is someone who finds that particular job meaningful. So, if every job can be meaningful to someone, how do you find work that is uniquely meaningful to you?

There are over 100 books on Amazon.com that have “meaningful work” in the title and none of them are on this list.

these books inspire us to change

1. The Art of Possibility: Transforming Personal and Professional Life

In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone-Zander and Benjamin Zander present twelve practices that challenge the comforting status quo. In their first practice, It’s All Invented, the Zanders show us that our experience of the world is a reflection of our culture and can be changed, “It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.” Their next eleven practices provide such a framework, and it’s a framework that can propel us into a more meaningful working life.

2. Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, is on many of the greatest books lists. It has inspired millions of people for over 80 years, and it’s a must-read for philosophers and psychologists. It’s the story of how Frankl made meaning of his interment in a Nazi concentration camp and the development of his theory of meaning. The crisis of meaning many people experience in their working lives cannot, in any way, be compared to the horror of the camps, but Frankl’s message is universal, “When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The world of work is not of our construction, but we can reconstruct our relationship with it.

3. The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife

You don’t need to be middle-aged to benefit from The Middle Passage by James Hollis. I’ve recommended it to most of my clients, friends and family. Anyone left unfulfilled by success in their working lives, and anyone feeling like a failure in the world of work, may be living what Hollis calls a provisional personality. While living this personality, we necessarily devote ourselves to all the things that others require us to do. Once we’ve succeeded or failed, we’re left feeling empty and thinking that there must be more to this life. Hollis challenges us to finally become our unique, individual selves.

these books expose powerful forces we must overcome

4. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

If you ever wondered why it’s so hard to find meaningful work, Start with Why, by Simon Sinek is one of the most informed perspectives on how other people and organizations are incredibly effective at getting us to do what they want and buy their products. Sinek says, “We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.” We’d rather think that we’re doing what we want, that we are being our “authentic” selves, but Start with Why shows us that we are often doing what someone else wants. Creating a meaningful working life often means silencing all the noise from the all-powerful them.

5. Creating Freedom

But even if we can recognize and control our response to influential marketers described by Sinek in Start with Why, we are still our parent’s child, our teacher’s student and our country’s citizen. We are influenced by the circumstances of our birth. In Creating Freedom, Raoul Martinez makes us question many of the often-comforting beliefs that hold us back from making the world a better place. This book was the inspiration for the film Creating Freedom: The Lottery of Birth. The film includes some great insight on the world of work by Jeff Schmidt. Schmidt wrote the next book on this list.

6. Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System that shapes Their Lives

In Disciplined Minds, Jeff Schmidt shows us how professionals survive in the world of work by maintaining ideological discipline. Why must they do this? Because if the employer can’t trust the professional to make decisions that are in the employer’s best interest, then the professional is out of a job. This might sound like a reasonable job requirement, but the disturbing thing is that we are already socialized (brainwashed) to do the bidding of employers. If you disagree with my last sentence, then challenge yourself by reading Disciplined Minds. Remember what Caleb Crain said about what happens when we avoid reading, “we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.”

these books shift our thinking about the world of work

7. The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work

In The Working Life, Joanne Ciulla says, “Perhaps the demand for meaningful work grows because we see the supply shrinking.” But The Working Life is not a story of doom and gloom, it’s about consciously choosing how we will live and work. Ciulla builds our capability to make those choices by exploring the history of work, our beliefs and values about work, and all the management theories that influence how employers design their relationship with their workforce. Along with Disciplined Minds, it’s one of the two more academic books on this list, but it covers a lot of ground that is usually spread across many books.

8. The History of Work

If you want to do a deeper dive into the history of work that starts with our Stone Age ancestors and ends with the Internet of things, then Richard Donkin’s The History of Work, brings it all together. My greatest learning from this book is that technology and industry change much faster than our experience of work. Although our children and grandchildren might participate in a kinder and gentler world of work, our own world of work isn’t going to change much before we reach the end of our working lives. If we want a better working life for ourselves, then we need to change ourselves.

9. Luck is No Accident: Making the Most of Planned Happenstance in Your Life and Career

Much of the research on career development shows that success in the world of work has more to do with chance than all our careful planning. In Luck is No Accident, John Krumboltz and Al Levin guide us through one of the most effective ways to create the career we want. Their theory is called Planned Happenstance, and it shows us how to prepare for and take advantage of the unrecognized opportunities presented to us every day. We have more career choice, and more opportunity to create a meaningful career, than what we’re already aware of. Embracing planned happenstance is a great way to kickstart the next chapter in your working life.

10. The next best book about meaningful work is . . .

What’s the last book on my list? To say that there are only ten best books would be to deny the uniqueness that’s in each of us. Books that have helped me, my friends and family, and my clients may not help you. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that there is no one path toward meaningful work, and we must each walk our own path. Book ten is the one I haven’t read yet. If another book has helped you along your path, tell the world and tell me at WorkFeelsGood.com.

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