Does Your Work Matter?

Guys, I’m going to be in career-related existential crisis ramble mode for a while. Just an FYI.

As I start looking to other jobs, I’ve been thinking about whether what I do aligns with what kind of person I want to be. Day to day, the work is intellectually stimulating, but is that enough?

Sometimes I crave impact for my work. As in, I wish my work helped real people. Scratch that, not “real” people but rather “normal” people. The kind of folks for whom help makes a big difference in their life versus, say, a giant corporation.

There are times even when I know my work isn’t used by clients. This is part and parcel with the business. I can spend hundreds of hours on work product and the client may decide not to use my findings at all. It’s normal.

But even when it is used, it’s hard to feel that it is “impactful.” As the result of my work, one or another big corporation may gain or lose some money, but the effect on real folks tends to be minimal. If I mess up, nobody will die. It’s all very sanitary and clean, this job.

Sometimes I think about the type of work Fiancé does (social work) and it all seems terribly unfair. His industry is r-o-u-g-h, with intense physical and emotional labor expected daily. Turnover, unsurprisingly, is very high. He worked evening and weekend shifts, got assaulted multiple times, did an average of 20 hours overtime each week, poured his heart out day after day, and never made more than $13/hour. Here I am sitting in my cushy office typing up reports maybe one or two people will ever read and making multiple times what he ever could in his line of work.

That’s not to say I want to be a social worker. I’d crack like an egg. But the impact versus pay here seems off.

Sometimes I assuage myself by saying that after FIRE I’ll do my most impactful labor. So really, what I should do is make a lot of money to expedite my progress to that point. But that also seems like lazy procrastination. The truth is I feel so unsure of what sort of impactful work I may be suited to and too afraid of the ramifications of failure (messing up people’s lives) to try.

Do you feel like your work matters? Is your pay appropriate to your level of impact?

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10 thoughts on “Does Your Work Matter?

  1. My work doesn’t matter to “real people”, except for a very small subset, and they aren’t those in need. I did about a year of work that was mostly “help this business make $ better” and could not find meaning there, but also, the work wasn’t so stimulating for the particular project I spent most of my time on. My other jobs have all been working towards building physical products that I found cool. This motivates me much more than more abstract improvements. And, in some tiny tiny way, I support expanding the body of knowledge in the world. I feel like my pay is higher than my impact….

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    1. Do you feel like moving away from physical to abstract work products has affected your job satisfaction? Or the kind of stakeholders / level of impact? Sorry to interrogate, I’m just curious what actually effects how people feel about their work.

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  2. It is hard to tease out because the job w/out physical products had other, more fundamental, issues, like a manager that wasn’t a good fit (and frankly, he just wasn’t good).

    My job is a lot of project management and coordination, but I like envisioning the end results for motivation. Stakeholders / level of impact is not super relevant for me. When I did consulting for a year, other former engineers said they moved to consulting to have “more of an impact”. But I feel my impact is greater working on a product rather than working more at business/strategy levels. The key word there is “feel”, of course. It is true that I never got a chance to work on anything interesting on the business side. I really like the intersection of product and business/mgmt.

    I do get a little antsy if I’m not “near the top” of whatever project I’m working on, enough to influence the direction and have a voice in the decisions, if I’m not making the decisions myself. But, for me, the most important part is working on interesting problems with good people.

    I reflected on some of this here: https://stackingpennies.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/why-i-love-my-job/
    Some things have changed and there are some drawbacks to my current role, but the fundamentals still apply.

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  3. I get paid a lot to do work that matters. So does my husband. Having a PhD in a practical field helps! (We would both get paid more to do work that matters less, but we’ve chosen not to make that trade-off.)

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  4. I now get paid a lot to do work that generally SHOULD matter but I’m well aware that it doesn’t always translate. The money makes up for it because then I can use the money to help in ways that I can’t help through my work. The cool thing is that when my work does translate, it can make a huge impact on the lives of humans and animals. At the same time, it’s an aggregate effect, that is, it won’t just be my work or even my employer’s alone, it’ll be us plus a host of other actors that make it meaningful. And that’s cool. Like SP, I’ve become accustomed to being at the top of the heap with authority to make decisions and influence policy, and that makes a big difference in how I feel about the work that I do, as well.

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  5. I started in journalism (which was somewhat meaningful) and now in marketing (which is less meaningful but enables me to live the life I want, and also plays better to my individual skills and temperament). Occasionally that horse does rear its head but I guess I’m quite clear on my priorities, and tbh ‘meaning’ is not at the top of the list for me. I value work that suits the kind of person I am, a workplace and team that make work enjoyable, good pay and benefits and commute, autonomy and flexibility, and a product that I am interested in (to be fair, I simply never applied for jobs at many organisations as I knew I could never get excited about their mission). It definitely is important to me that the overall organisation aligns with my interests/values. Sorry for the ramble, I’m not sure if any of that helps!

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