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One Simple Tool to Make Your Work More Meaningful

“Smiley, suck it up. Everyone hates their job. It’s part of life.”


I couldn’t help but wince hearing Smiley recount this brutal exchange with his former roommate Dan during a talk he gave at SAP’s Month of Inclusion. Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky is the author of Amazon bestseller The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, but before becoming an acclaimed thought leader and coach for entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 firms alike Smiley was in the thick of a quarter-life crisis. Think mid-life crisis for 20-somethings complete with a flurry of existential questions like, “What is my purpose?” and “What am I doing with my life?” For Smiley, his crisis was complete with the shingles from sustained stress.

But why the crisis? On paper, Smiley’s job was one many would kill to flaunt: Special Assistant to the Peace Corps’ Director of Global Operations in Washington D.C., earning more than double the average American wage. Yet in reality, while the Peace Corps’ mission resonated with Smiley, something about his own day-to-day work did not. When Smiley would open up to his roommate, Dan would take a swig of beer and offer a few half-hearted words of wisdom.

For some, Dan’s advice might sound cynical. But here’s the reality: 70% of Americans are not engaged at work. For this 70%, most waking hours are spent at a job that is not meaningful to them. For this 70%, Dan’s is the voice of reason. Many are actually disengaged to the point of counter-productivity, negatively impacting their teams and organizations. It’s kind of a crisis. And this stat only stands in the U.S. – there’s still the rest of the world.

To combat his own challenges to the extent that he is now helping individuals and teams reignite employee engagement across the globe, Smiley uses a simple yet powerful tool that helped him turn his dilemma into a breakthrough by aligning his purpose with his work:

Meaningful Work = Gifts + Impact + Quality of Life

According to this simple Venn diagram, finding purpose involves integration of the following:


1. Gifts

Your gifts are what you can contribute to the world. They can be your talents, time, capital, or other resources. Among many gifts, Smiley’s include being a talented people-person, communicator, and inspirational motivator. Yet one of Smiley’s key realizations: his day-to-day work at the Peace Corps was mainly spent working on and interacting with a computer, which didn’t activate his gifts to the fullest.

Must one be born with his or her gifts? Not necessarily. Web development skills and rich networks, for instance, are learned or acquired over time.

2. Impact

Today’s world has many needs. “Impact” identifies the challenges you are passionate about and where you feel your work can make a difference. Before, Smiley felt his day-to-day work amid a large government organization neither translated to the change he wanted to create in the world nor something tangible he could see. As it turns out, Smiley is passionate about tackling the global employee engagement crisis especially among today’s most disengaged generation – the freshest entrants to the workforce. Aligning his gifts and desired impact propelled him to help others facing their own quarter-life crises by writing The Quarter-Life Breakthrough.

In short, identify a change you want to see in the world and channel your gifts to make a difference.

3. Quality of Life

Now, the trick is to combine gifts and impact without starving. Identify your priorities and the quality of life you need to be happy, then leverage your gifts and impact to make it happen. Smiley wanted to move to San Francisco to immerse himself in a community of social innovators, not to mention warmer weather. Throw in a healthy diet and occasional yoga practice, and the tab ain’t cheap. Without turning his gifts and impact into products and services people want to pay for, his current quality of life would be hard to sustain.

We all want to make billions, but there are many ways to spend a buck. Which ways support your life priorities? Ensuring your work supports your life priorities helps you become what my friend Ben Fowler would call “an unstoppable f-ing force for good.”

While this tool is simple, getting to the bull’s-eye is tricky. For Smiley, it meant a major life transformation. For someone else, the change could be simpler. You may be gifted in your current role and passionate about the impact you’re making, but are traveling so often that it takes a toll on your personal relationships; perhaps there’s a way to have your work better accommodate your desired quality of life. You may love everything about your job, except for the fact your gift and passion for teaching meditation is underutilized; perhaps there’s an avenue to put this talent to use at your company. Changing departments at one’s current employer, raising a hand for different assignments, and being an “intrapreneur” by starting new initiatives within your current work environment are a few small yet tangible ways to make your job work more for you. Over time, one’s gifts, impact, and desired quality of life will change – single today, hitched tomorrow.

For me, this map is a frame of mind pushing me to ask – and answer – the important questions: What are my priorities? What are the problems I want to be part of solving? What are the gifts I have, or may not know I have? And for the questions I can’t answer, what experiences would help me figure this out?

And of course, I’ll be happy if this tool helps us turn our Dan’s into Smiley’s – and ward off any impending quarter-life crises and shingles.

Take note of your Gifts, Impact, and Quality of Life. Learn more about Smiley and tweet us at @whatsupsmiley and @apolack!

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