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The "Ask Cynthia" column focuses on the “big questions” that come up when you’re thinking about transitioning to the nonprofit sector or social impact space… but that you're not comfortable asking out loud! These vignettes tell the stories of job seekers like you and give you a glimpse into their worries and concerns, while revealing at-the-moment advice and insights you can use today. Today’s question:

"I don't want to leave my job, but I want to find more meaning in what I do. How can I integrate social impact into the work I already do?"

If you’re feeling like this at work, it’s likely that you are looking for a creative way to combine meaningful social impact and your current role. Maybe you’re frustrated by the sense that your organization's ultimate aims aren’t in line with your highest values. You may have even contemplated going back to school or a full-on career switch. But perhaps a large shift doesn’t feel right at the moment, and you’re struggling to discover what to try in your current context.

This was just Jordan’s situation. In many ways, he loved his current work as a Research Analyst for a pharmaceutical company. He felt like he was learning fast and building his skills. While it wasn’t necessarily his dream field, it was providing stability, and as much as he dreamed about it, the time didn’t seem right for a big change.

Instead, he used one of the most powerful tools when looking for such non-obvious solutions: metaphor.

As author Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Happiness Hypothesis, "Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know." Let's apply that principle here using the following steps:

Recall and Reflect

Conjure in your mind an experience that has been meaningful to you. Actually, recall three of these types of experiences (that way you have the option of working with three different meaningful moments that stick out to you).

Hone in on the particular moment that gave the experience meaning. Give yourself an ample amount of paper to use for notes. You may want to use a separate sheet for each experience you recall, or color-code your notes.

For now, let go of how or if each of the three experiences connect to your career and ambitions. They could all be from one life-transforming journey. Or, maybe there are moments of connection to others.

Let them flow to you in whatever order they appear as much as possible without judgment or reaction. Sometimes seemingly simple moments come to the fore. Maybe they are part of a daily practice you have like meditation, walking or journaling.

Record (In Words or Images)

Write a paragraph or draw about each, in deep sensory detail - what do you remember seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Finally, what do you remember feeling?

It’s fine if some senses aren’t a strong piece of the memory - just recall as best you can and notice what stands out.

Remember that it doesn’t have to be your most meaningful moment, just ones that came to mind when thinking back to situations that had meaning for you.

For example, Jordan's meaningful moment was when a professor helped him understand a reading in a new way. He had been struggling to see how a complex passage in the work of the philosopher Kierkegaard could have any application in a modern context. Jordan had been focused on the specifics of the situation that Kierkegaard was describing - a broken engagement, which seemed like it was very dated in the historical context. With a well-placed question, “What do you think Kierkegaard is feeling in this passage?” his professor helped him realize that he could actually relate pretty directly to what Kierkegaard described. He responded to the meaningful moment question as follows:

  • Where were you? I was in a college seminar room
  • Who was with you? My professor and about 10 other students
  • What did you see? I saw this elderly man, with so much life wisdom etched into his face.
  • What did you hear? That question - “What do you think Kierkegaard is feeling in this passage?” - helped me see a whole new aspect. I wasn’t so hung up on what it mean to be Engaged in Kirkegaards time or to break an engagement. Instead he redirected me to the feeling that was being described in the passage, which was something I could relate to, not just the context.
  • What did you smell? I don't remember.
  • What did you feel? Curious! and alive, excited - these big ideas felt relevant to my life because I saw that, while the circumstances were very different, the feelings described cut across to the ones I was feeling myself. He had felt a kind of despair and then seeing a new direction that was actually pretty close to what I was feeling at that point in my life.

Jordan used a metaphor to indirectly express what it is that made that moment full of significance: "it was like I was standing at the bottom of a mountain and a new path to go up appeared".

Finally, he moved from those memories to the present. What if making his career more meaningful was about creating more moments like those? Here's the amazing thing: it can be. Right away.

Bring it to the Present

Ask yourself what it would look like to experience the metaphor you discovered in the context of your current work. Ask who would be there, what objects you would see and what you would be doing.

Jordan asked himself, "what would it look like now to be standing at the bottom of a mountain and a path to go up appeared?" and responded:

  • Who would be there? Students and a teacher.
  • What objects would you see? Books.
  • What activities would you be doing? Talking and listening to one another.

Now, make the final leap. You are looking for the smallest significant step you can take towards the vision of meaning you have just defined.

Jordan came up with a monthly brown bag lunch on social justice issues. He knew that there were a few co-workers who might be interested. They would read articles in advance of each discussion on a social justice topic.

Notice that the group wasn’t exactly “students and a teacher” but it was a group of peer learners. The point isn’t to make your idea exactly match the specifics, it’s to use the metaphor to discover new situations that will spark the same sense of meaning for you.

If you don’t develop an idea that grabs you right away, work through your other two metaphors. You can also try combining them to come up with more ideas. Sometimes people find there are several ideas you like. It's generally best to start with just one. Go with whichever will be easiest to put in place. It can also be good to try the idea that is most connected to your current functions.


By Cynthia Jaggi

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