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Finding meaning in work — how giving gave me career clarity

Have you ever sat at your desk and wondered if what you do matters? Maybe you’ve even stared longingly out the window of your office building and wondered if there might be more to life than this. Based on personal experience, I can assure you that you’re not alone. Based on research from Imperative, only […]

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Have you ever sat at your desk and wondered if what you do matters? Maybe you’ve even stared longingly out the window of your office building and wondered if there might be more to life than this.

Based on personal experience, I can assure you that you’re not alone. Based on research from Imperative, only 33% of working professionals are fulfilled in what they do. A coin has a better chance of showing heads than the average worker has of loving their job.

I remember those days. I’ll never forget when a window washer, dangling 40 stories above the street below wearing a spiderman outfit caught my attention in a client meeting where a heated debate was going on about the color of buttons on a web page. It dawned on me that window-cleaning-spiderguy was bringing more joy to people than I was in my job.

Later that week, while volunteering with the American Cancer Society, I reflected on how I loved working to build and scale new fundraising initiatives, even though it meant many more hours in front of a computer screen and less time with friends and family.

Like so many others, it’s not that I don’t like working, the opposite of that is true. In fact, science is pretty clear that humans strive to find purpose, and doing things we’re good at in tandem with learning new things makes our brains feel very much alive and our souls warmed. Volunteering taught me the type of work I loved doing, and it made me realize I was doing the wrong type of work in my day-to-day.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Years after spiderguy helped inspire me to quit my job and spend a year traveling and volunteering my skills around the world, I ended up starting MovingWorlds.org where I published an article explaining 5 Surprising (and Research-Backed) Benefits of Volunteering. In the years to follow, we built up award-winning programs with companies that harness social impact projects as a way to develop higher-quality leaders. We also launched a career-growth professional Fellowship that helps people advance their careers through social good. We’ve learned a lot in this past decade of helping people volunteer their skills, and perhaps the most important lessons is that not all giving projects are created equal.

Mark (the author) volunteering in Nepal with the Nepal Wireless Initiative

How to give in a way that gives back to you

So how do you give a way that will help you? When you think about your giving, we encourage you to pick projects that are like “SODA“:

Solves a real need for an organization. Don’t push your ideas on an organization. Rather, focus on building up ideas that need your experience and skills to scale up.

Obviously going to help, in that you know your contribution will have a direct impact to the organization you are supporting this year.

Develops your strengths by completing projects you know you can accomplish, but that also stretches you to to grow in the project.

Additive to your professional story and journey, meaning the experience will help you take next steps in your career by exposing you to a new industry, network, and/or way to deliver results with your know-how.

The more you grow, the more value you can give

Even though the social enterprise I co-founded exists for a social good reason, I still volunteer as a CEO. I believe it’s everybody’s responsibility to contribute to society in all walks of life. But on a more selfish note, I do it because it helps me learn, grown, and be more effective in my job, too. This becomes a virtuous circle. The more successful I am, the more value I am able to provide to organizations I give to.

For many, thinking about your own gains while thinking about giving seems out of place, or even just plain wrong. But without a question of a doubt I’ve learned that it’s OK to be selfish in your giving, because in the end, it’ll result in you and those around you giving even more.

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