Finding meaningful work (work that uses your talents and strengths, is rewarding, and ignites you emotionally) is not the norm. The sad truth is, most spend their entire careers going through the motions with little connection to what they do. But, it's not for lack of trying.
I think most of us fail to find fulfilling careers because we don't know where to look. Rather than consulting our own conscious taking inventorying of our skills and passions, we mimic others. We don't know how to define meaningful work for ourselves, so we borrow it.
I would know. I spent the first half of my career chasing this "outer" definition of success. You know, the sexy titles, accolades, and spoils of success. I based all of my early career choices on things like perception, life-style, and notoriety. It didn't work out. Five years in and I was disengaged with zero ideas on what I wanted to do.
I'm not saying aspirations like these are wrong, but they are byproducts of building your own conception of meaningful work first. I like to refer to the process as setting up guardrails.
Guardrails should be placed in dangerous spots where the chances you could fly off the road are highest. I would specifically target these seven areas, which were identified from Wharton professor Richard Shell and his book Springboard:
Personal growth and development.
This is work that challenges you to step outside your comfort zone and learn new skills necessary for progress. If too much work is inside your comfort zone, and you're not learning and growing, then it may be a good spot to establish a guardrail to force yourself into more demanding tasks. We're humans, and we hate feeling bored and complacent.
This refers to opportunities to work autonomously and control your own future. If you're being micromanaged and forced down a path that's not consistent with your goals, then you'll either burnout or wakeup in a career you're not satisfied with.
Religious or spiritual identity.
It's important to have the ability to practice your beliefs, faith, or values consistently in service of the greater good. This is the most significant area for me. No job is worth renouncing your morals. At the beginning of my career, I was consistently at odds with my values, and it made me hate my job and the person I was becoming.
Aim for work that helps you support your family and provides them with the means for a better future. Also, finding work that honors those who made sacrifices so that you could pursue your passions. Supporting your family also means actually spending time with them. If your job is consistently getting in-between you and your family/friends, then it's only a matter of time before one suffers.
Expressing yourself through ideas, invention, or the arts.
Make space for opportunities to create and build something new while exercising your freedom of expression. Structure can be great at times, but if it's preventing you from being yourself, then you may need to find a position or company with a more creative and flexible environment.
Find work that allows you to help others in need and serve a cause that's bigger than yourself. Humans are wired to help and support each other; it's a critical evolutionary trait that separates us from extinct species. When we're denied that opportunity, the meaning, and value that we derive from our work is finite.
Talent-based striving for excellence.
Priortize the ability to aspire to the highest level of distinction in a particular area of study. (To become a subject-matter expert.) Similar to the above, distinction and level of expertise is not to gloat, but to turn around and mentor and teach others.
The road to meaningful work is filled with detours, potholes, and hazards. Set up guardrails for yourself, and regardless of your route, you'll find meaningful work as you pursue your goals, morals, and passions.