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The Search for Meaning at Work

Depending on where and how you grew up, the kind of education you had and the friends you keep, you will have known one or two people who started their careers in a blaze of glory, moving quickly up the corporate ladder and all that entails, only to decide that such a life was ultimately unfulfilling. Organizations like Teach for Canada (or Teach for America) have tended to be the beneficiaries of such talented people, putting them to work – traditionally – in under-funded, under-performing schools in deprived areas. It is a version of what the French call it noblesse oblige: the idea that with privilege comes responsibility.

Who can’t, on some level, see the appeal? Sure, you could throw it all in and start up a dog-walking business, a craft brewery, or make artisanal charcuterie or whatever, but if you’re looking for truly meaningful work, is that going to scratch you where you itch? Giving back to society, enriching it somehow, is the goal many people have in mind when they turn their backs on the careers they often sacrificed everything for.

It’s hard not to applaud such selflessness, nor is it hard not to see what drives people to the edge in the first place. Corporate work, in whatever profession you choose, can be tough. You can make a lot of money, there’s prestige attached to famous institutions, and top-tier companies will take care of your every need: gourmet meals, on-site gym, top-flight IT support, car service – you name it. What they ask for in return is your time, your ambition and your hard work. That’s the deal.

But we can’t help feeling that that is changing a little. For sure, corporate life isn’t for everyone. Many people thrive in small and medium sized companies. It just suits them better and accommodates their priorities in life. But a smart company, no matter how big it is, knows that even its brightest stars will still sometimes have moments where they are looking around, or looking at themselves, and wondering if there isn’t something more to life. Burnout happens, and after a five or ten year stretch working flat out and making huge personal sacrifices, people are bound to start asking if it’s worth it.

For people who find themselves at this crossroad, it’s important to weigh your options.  Consider both short and long term goals.  If you just need to take a break, if you want to spread your wings or travel or do something charitable, it may be worth asking for a sabbatical.  If you’ve reached the point where you feel you’ve given the company everything you have, and wondering what it all means, then this may be the time for a major career change.

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