You Don’t Have to Choose Between Meaning and Duty
There's no conflict as long as you're the one defining both.
In navigating the career path – and by extension, life – many of us experience conflict between our senses of meaning and duty. We’d like our work to be meaningful but see this as somehow at odds with our perceived duties to provide and conform.
Our environment seems to suggest it’s a zero-sum game, wherein we must decisively choose and align with one or the other, and much of the evaluating, we discover, has been done for us.
The pursuit of meaningful work is paradoxically given reverence by the dominant culture and media, yet on the individual, more practical level, it’s generally seen as something of a luxury, perhaps a bit naïve, maybe even a selfish quest.
Conversely, duty is altruistic, respected, and therefore safe. Signaling it as the top priority – by accumulating wealth, having a ‘real job,’ and ladder climbing – is a good way to ensure acceptance of the herd. It’s the reason we grownups think it’s so virtuous to do things like ‘buckle down,’ ‘grind,’ and ‘stick it out.’
A struggle ensues, though, because we’re fundamentally compelled toward meaning, and only genuinely fulfilled when we find it in our work. When we forego it – in the name of duty or anything else – we suffer.
The common early consequences come in the form of stress, low energy, and disengagement, which in the corporate context have achieved sufficient ubiquity to not draw much concern.
It’s of course quite possible to act with dutiful intention and have work that’s meaningful, but the reconciliation gets so sticky and complicated because we’re not exploring and developing these concepts with the necessary amount of independence and confidence.
In other words, we’re too worried about what other people think, and as a result, we head toward the bland middle ground where we neglect individual meaning and assume an external definition of duty.
It’s not fulfilling, but there is a certain safety in numbers.
When I left my corporate job to create a new, more meaningful career and spend more time with my family, I was not met with much warm and fuzzy support. At best I received innocuous logistical questions, a few seemed to regard the move as eccentric, and a couple of longtime friends were stupefied into utter silence (a condition they’ve yet to recover from). My decision had no tangible impact upon anyone outside of my immediate family, and since it, my integrity hasn’t wavered and my kids haven’t missed a meal, but I nonetheless experienced some ostracism for bucking the trend and choosing my own path.
That was unexpected and hard, but by that point, I was clear in what mattered most, and anyway, the choice had been made so forward I went.
When you make a resolute decision to pursue what’s meaningful to you and give up the pretense of accepting duty that wasn’t self-imposed, know that the pushback is coming. What compels you to move through it is clarity and conviction in the reasons behind your choices, a state that’s reached only by way of honest, objective, and earnest self-exploration.
Just as you need to separate your thoughts from those of others, you need to consider meaning and duty independently of one another. Despite the propensity for them to be viewed as opposing ends of a single spectrum, they are, in fact, distinct, and can only be wrangled when isolated.
In looking for your truth, you might start by examining the motivating factors for your professional decisions up to this point. To what degree are your choices and actions influenced by a desire to signal buy-in, how steadfast you are, or how much you care? Have you chosen an ill-fitting but safer trajectory because the alternative might not be as widely accepted or unquestionably supported?
There are value-related questions to confront as well. For instance, what do you value more, time or money; things or experiences? How much is enough? To you, is love best expressed through presence or by creating resource security?
You might also have to define for yourself success and what a life well-lived looks like.
Keep coming back to what’s true for you. The only wrong conclusions you can reach are those informed by external opinions and values.
Finally, you need to be prepared to accept and act on what you discover. Determinedly pursue the meaning and wholeheartedly embrace the duty you’ve chosen.
Be ok with being the only one on your particular path.