Meaningful Work, The Ultimate Oxymoron?

It’s a question that I probably am asked more than the average person. And given my line avocation, workplace advice columnist, it shouldn’t be surprising.

“What is the key to a satisfying career?”

For most of my work life, I would have really struggled to answer that question. It would be as close to an imponderable question as why laundry detergent companies continue to call the little scoop that comes inside their box a “free” scoop, like you could use it after all the detergent is gone to serve soup when company comes to visit. Okay, maybe it’s time for me to get a real job and stop contemplating such questions.

The obvious way to tackle the satisfying career question is to not answer it. To decide that everyone is different and therefore must find their own answer.

But after a decade of writing this column I’ve decided that this question is too important to be left to answers such as, “I can handle the commute,” “My boss mostly leaves me alone,” or “If work were satisfying, why would they call it a job.”

Dear readers, I wish I was creative enough to come up with those answers on my own. But I’ve actually had people write those exact words to me through the years.

Outside of a few artists or entrepreneurs, most people seem to approach work as something not to be enjoyed, but to be tolerated. In fact, there was one guy who really got in my face at a speech a few years ago. “Work sucks, and if you think differently about it you are only going to be disappointed.”

This is where I must disagree. The “S” word of work doesn’t have to rhyme with stuck. Work can provide a sense of meaning, contribution and joy in your life…I’ll give a minute’s pause to allow most of you to stop laughing at that last sentence before I continue.

Work can provide meaning, contribution and joy AND a lot more. But it takes the blood, sweat and tears to find the right job for you. Which isn’t based just on your degree or boss or job title. It takes a good hard look in the mirror to sort out what you were really meant to do in your time here.

But that is just the first step in the journey. Just because you’ve found the right vocation doesn’t mean anything until you find the right place to practice your gift. The right company, the right team, the right boss and the right circumstances.

This is not science fiction. I’ve met people who’ve found the promised land at work. And I would count myself in this category.

As they say, a journey of a million miles begins with the first step. And I heard the best first step to a meaningful career in an interview with actor Peter O’Toole. He was asked about the best role he’d had in his amazing career. His response was simple, “The best role is always the next one.”

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning If you have a question for Bob, contact him via

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.