In the process of searching for purposeful work it’s easy to focus only on the lofty goals, the things that have a great and obvious sense of worth. But, in doing so, we risk losing sight of that which makes life most worth living: our relationships and meaningful connections with those around us.
Arielle Tannenbaum went looking for meaningful work in psychology, in health coaching and at a nonprofit, but found her fit in none of these places.
Like most of us, Arielle’s path has not been straightforward - and that’s what makes it interesting. Her story is proof that fulfillment can be found in unexpected places, and it’s a testament to the value of nurturing meaningful relationships in our working lives.
‘I always intended that I was going to do something to help people be happier, or to make a difference in some way,’ says Arielle.
‘I originally thought psychology would help me fulfill my goal of helping people to be happier and I had a very traditional pathway laid out for me, which was going to graduate school to become a counselor or psychologist. But it never felt fully right to me. I remember feeling so lost, and so stuck. I really didn't know what else was possible,’ she recalls, ‘seeing emptiness in front of me was unsettling.’
Arielle’s story is a shared one: who amongst us has not wondered what we could do that would matter in some way? And, as Arielle found, this search for something worthy can elevate the quest meaningful work to impossible levels or push us into directions that don’t actually suit us.
There can be a big difference between what you think is valuable work and what actually feels authentic. If you parents ever pushed you towards becoming a lawyer or a doctor against your own interests you probably understand this. Similarly for Arielle, the idea of becoming a psychologist seemed to fit the profile of valuable work. It had all the markings of ‘a calling’, but ultimately proved to be the wrong path.
What happens when what feels like a calling turns out not to be?
After it became clear that psychology wasn’t the answer, Arielle tried other career paths but was still restricted by her idea of what meaningful work looked like:
‘I felt so lost at the beginning of my career. I wanted so badly to do something that mattered, but I didn’t know how to do that or what looked like.
‘The first moment that I felt really stuck I was working at a nonprofit. That was the only clear direction I had, other than graduate school for psychology.’
At the time she had a preconceived notion that for-profit businesses didn’t benefit society at large. This didn’t did fit her idea of meaningful work and so the thought of leaving the non-profit world was something she resisted at first. But, in the process of testing out new opportunities, she learnt the value of experimentation in finding her direction:
‘When I made the change to leave the nonprofit I kept wondering: “Is this really a step in the right direction?” But it ended up being the entry to everything else.’
The move she made was to run a coworking space, which appealed to her social and supportive nature. While it wasn’t the perfect fit, it taught her more about what she enjoyed working on.
The sorting process: what to keep, what to let go
When Arielle reflects on her career so far she describes it as a kind of sifting process: ‘Everything I've done has built on the last thing. With each new job I always take something with me and I leave something behind.’
Now leading community development at Buffer she notes: ‘If you would’ve asked me when I graduated from college seven or eight years ago if I'd be doing this sort of work I would never have thought this would be fulfilling at all.
‘I always intended that I was going to do something to help people be happier, or to make a difference in some way. What's interesting about the work I do now is that it's more about the people I'm with and the team I'm on. That has been the most fulfilling piece of it.’
The value of meaningful connections
What Arielle has found most satisfying in her current work is the meaningful connections she’s been able to forge with her colleagues and their wider community of customers. Although everyone on the team works remotely, they have tight bonds and live by the principle that you bring your whole self to work.
‘What’s important to me is that my colleagues want to hear my story. It sounds like a very simple thing, but in past jobs I remember starting and having no one ask me anything about myself.’
She describes the initiation process that each new employee goes through: ‘you have a different person to talk to every week... The whole point is for you to share your story, and others share their story in return. It's a powerful thing to have someone want to hear you. I think that's a big thing about community building: giving people space to have a voice and letting people feel heard. It’s important get to know each other, because we're not different people at work and at home.’
On deviating from your ‘passion’
Arielle acknowledges that working in social media is not her dream or her passion. Instead, the nature of the business she works for and the close relationships she has formed there have given her a deep sense of fulfilment.
There’s so much written about chasing your dreams and passions that it can feel like that is the only way to live. But, for so many of us, there isn’t just one dream or one path.
Personally, I used to feel so frustrated when I heard people say ‘you should follow your dream’ – I didn’t have one, and their proclamations left me feeling like non-starter.
Arielle faced a similar situation. She has a passion for health and wellness but when her plan to become a psychologist turned out not to be her calling she was left with an open horizon and no clear sense of direction. By testing out new opportunities she was able to find work that feels consistent with her personality and her values. It might not be ‘a calling’, but it is meaningful.
When I asked for her advice for others feeling lost she said: ‘I would encourage people to just try something new. It's not necessarily going to be the perfect thing, but if you try something different you learn more about yourself in the process.
‘I learned from the nonprofit world that positivity mattered to me in the workplace and then learned at the coworking space that community development mattered to me as a role. When I tried starting my own business I learned that I work really well on a team.
'Ultimately, I learned that I could find fulfillment in my work through community culture and closeness.’
Arielle is community lead at Buffer - ariellemargot.com