Finding Meaningful Work (When What Has Meaning to You is Changing)

What to do v3
I had another duh! moment yesterday.

The first part of my upcoming book The Natural Enterprise is about finding meaningful (for you) work. It’s essentially about finding or creating work that is at the ‘sweet spot’ where your Gift (what you do uniquely well), your Passion (what you love doing) and your Purpose (what is needed) intersect — area 3 on the graphic above. My agent and publisher, not surprisingly, are hopeful that I will find my own second career in that sweet spot before the book is published (we all need to practice what we preach).

So the onset of my ulcerative colitis last month had me quite concerned. One of the first things I did was to give up my innovation consulting practice, which I had initially hoped would be in the sweet spot but which turned out to be in area 2 on the graphic (i.e. unappreciated) — and produced far more stress than was good for me. I had initially thought that in order to find unstressful work I would have to settle for (another) area 5 job — something I’m good at, and in high demand, but probably something I wouldn’t be passionate about.

But then I realized I was thinking about this all wrong. If my Gift and my Passion are shifting (from really ambitious, exciting work to more modest, local, fun work), the answer isn’t to give up on finding the sweet spot, but rather to (a) redefine the type of work I am searching for, (b) research and assess the need for that kind of work, and (c) find work partners, people to make a living with, whose Gifts and Passions are complementary to my own and who, in partnership with me, could allow us all to fulfill our purpose while collectively meeting a currently unmet need.

My Genius (where my Gift and Passion overlap) is imagining possibilities — coming up with novel, creative answers to challenging problems, answers that no one else has, or would be likely to, come up with. I also have some Gifts that I am not particularly passionate about (research, analysis, intelligence-gathering, and applying my experience, learning and other people’s stories to solve business problems) and some Passions that I am not particularly gifted in (creating sustainable intentional communities, facilitating P2P information exchanges, and developing personal sustainable living programs). For me, meaningful work might well include those Gifts I am not particularly passionate about (provided that isn’t all it includes), and ideally would allow me to learn about, develop and try out some of the Passions that I am not currently very gifted in. So, for example, my business partners might be very good at creating sustainable intentional communities, and that might be part of our collective Natural Enterprise’s mandate, offering me the opportunity to participate in this type of activity without getting over my head.

My Purpose (what I’m meant/destined/on Earth to do) is fomenting (provoking) change. Recently my thinking on this has been shifting as well, as a result of my research on complex adaptive systems. My Purpose may now be more catalyzing Let-Self-Change, coaching people individually and in groups to understand how to understand and allow themselves (individually and collectively in groups) to adapt to and accommodate ever-changing social and environmental systems, rather than trying to futilely impose change on these complex, uncontrollable, unpredictable systems.

Finding the sweet spot all comes down to the iterative, complex challenge of finding the ideal partners for your enterprise — those whose skills and interests complement your own, and which allow each partner to exercise his/her Gift and Passion and fulfill his/her Purpose while collectively meeting a currently unmet need. In my experience, sole proprietorship, trying to do everything in your enterprise yourself, is not the way to go — it is unnecessarily tedious, risky, exhausting and stressful. Much better to share the load with people you love to work with.

This is an iterative process — it will evolve depending on who I partner with and what they have to offer, but my initial thinking is that my critical role in this Natural Enterprise would be doing one or more of three things that, for me, are clearly in the area 3 sweet spot:

  • Coaching displaced and disenchanted baby boomers and entrepreneurial young people in high school and university on finding meaningful work, including:
    • how to find their own area 3 sweet spot work; 
    • the possibilities and advantages of creating a Natural Enterprise instead of creating or working in a traditional business; and
    • the process of researching and establishing such an enterprise.
  • Coaching teens in a very progressive school (one where study is self-directed, not taught at a lectern, and where you learn by doing and by discovery, not by being told what to do) in critical life skills (one of which is finding meaningful work).
  • Coaching groups and organizations about how to use complex, adaptive processes to deal with intractable problems.

I am no longer interested in providing services to big corporations: They’re too change-resistant, and for the most part they’re part of the problem, not the solution.

Coaching is an art — more learning and listening than teaching, customizing answers based on context and circumstances, a lot of one-on-one back-and-forth, some brainstorming, imagining possibilities, telling stories from personal experience, and a few organized collective activities when group learning and discovery of diverse groups is appropriate.

My initial sense (though this could change too depending on who I partner with and their skills and perspectives) is that the traditional employment and consulting business models of this kind of coaching are inappropriate for these applications, for two reasons:

  • This coaching is urgently needed, but those who need it cannot afford to pay for it; and
  • Government has a vested interest in supporting this kind of coaching, above and beyond what they are already doing: It’s good for employment, it’s good for workforce education, it reduces the need for social assistance for those earning too little to live on, and it’s good for local business development.

For that reason I think we might try to persuade governments to fully fund this coaching, and hence offer it through a foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to making citizens better equipped to make a living for themselves. In the US, which is less inclined to fund such ventures publicly than Canada, we might look for progressive-minded private sponsors. There may even be a business model where entrepreneurs and wealthy individuals with the ability to pay for these services would subsidize those who don’t have that ability.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and these decisions will ultimately made collectively and iteratively by the whole partnership of the Natural Enterprise. The traditional approach to getting such a venture started would be either (a) wait for some enlightened government to offer an opening for such work, through the department of labour, education or business development, and then apply for it, or (b) make a formal proposal to government suggesting they provide this service to citizens, and offer to provide it on a turnkey, not-for-profit basis (I’ll probably do that anyway, since Canada does have some enlightened governments).

But, as I suggested in an earlier article, perhaps the best way to launch this would be convening an Open Space event where anyone looking to establish a Natural Enterprise would be invited to bring their Gift, Passion and Purpose, and their wish list, ideal work description and initial thoughts on appropriate business models, and let’s see what happens. My guess is that a lot of powerful partnerships could emerge from such an event, and a lot of very meaningful workcreated.

Time to give Chris Corrigan a call.

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3 Responses to Finding Meaningful Work (When What Has Meaning to You is Changing)

  1. Karen M says:

    Please delete the above. Obviously my code didn’t work… one reason I like “preview.”Forget the code. Here’s a link from Salon’s Broadsheet: you also read everything you can about Chicago’s urban green plan, you might decide it would be a natural market for your ideas.A city government with imagination, and a state government with some compassion.

  2. Mariella says:

    I hope you are thinking about an “E” Open Space event….

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Dave, check out the Hudson Institute’s coaching program. I know the founder, Frederic Hudson, very well (founding president of the Fielding Institute). I believe the coaching program is very good. Mariella (and Dave) .. there is an online OS capability, at, complete with methodology for carrying out E-Open Space.

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