NZS, Episode 0010: Which Comes First—Finding Meaning At Work Or In Life?

Nate: Hello everyone and welcome to episode ten of the Nate Zeisler Show. Before we begin, I just want to give a shoutout to Buzzsprout, the platform I use to record this podcast. Buzzsprout is a super easy to use website and it quickly gets your show listed in every major podcast platform, including apple podcasts, spotify, and google podcasts. Now is the time to get your podcast going and I encourage you to click the link in the transcribed version of this podcast on my website or in the link in my shownotes to get started! 

Now on with the question from Jonathan. 

Jonathan: To what degree would you say that finding meaning in your life must happen before you can find meaning in your work? 

Nate: Jonathan, excellent question. Whenever I meet with clients, we end up talking about one of three things: achieving work/life balance, attaining financial stability or finding meaning in their work or life. 

What’s interesting is that finding meaning is almost always the part of the discussion we get to last. I think this is largely because it can be the most difficult of the three areas to suss out. Budgeting your time in the case of work/life balance, or budgeting your money in the case of financial stability is an actionable, process oriented task. Finding meaning requires a lot more thought and work over a long period of time. 

I remember visiting the father of one of my friends here in LA a few years ago in his downtown office. He’s an investment banker working for one of the major banks and has an incredible office with sweeping views of the LA basin that stretches all the way out to the ocean. After about ten minutes of chatting back and forth, I asked him how his work was going. He just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said “Meh, it’s ok.” I said, “Just ok? Look at where we are!” His response was that there wasn’t any creativity or meaning in the work he was doing and he was basically bored all the time. So, I asked him what would he rather be doing if he could do something besides investment banking and, in that moment he lit up, shouting “That’s easy, I’d be coaching high school baseball!” When I asked him why he wouldn’t go for it, his response was simply that he couldn’t afford to take the leap while solidly in mid-career with four kids. He had the work/life balance, and he had a lot of financial stability, but his work wasn’t meaningful to him and it was stretching into his life beyond the office. 

Jonathan, I absolutely agree with you that the very first place I look for meaning is in what I do outside the typical workday. I have always felt more energized to do my best work when I’ve had something to go home to afterwards. There are four places I encourage people to find meaning outside their office doors:

  1. First, spend time with your family—Having a partner, kids or even an extended family close by is often one of the best places to find meaning. When times get rough at work, I always know that I can lean on my family to get me through. I know a lot of you might be thinking that family can withhold you from finding meaning at work, but I find that the depth of connectivity and longevity of the relationships that we form with family are ultimately a balancing force to the intensity of work. 

  2. Second, serve your community—Identify a cause, give generously, and volunteer your time. Showing up and committing yourself to serving an organization over a long period of time can be some of the most rewarding and meaningful work you will ever do.When I commit to serving an organization, I generally make a three year commitment and know exactly how much I can help, both from a financial and a time perspective. If you want to serve your community, start by shadowing the organization which you would like to serve for a period of time and build a relationship of trust before you make a longer-term commitment.  

  3. Third, find your tribe—Having a good group of friends outside of work can create a support structure and meaning that parallels, or even surpasses, strong family ties. Search for meaningful connections with friends who are close by and support each other. This is especially helpful when your family is a long way away. 

  4. Finally, take up a meaningful hobby—One great way to find meaning is to identify a hobby, trade, or craft that is special to you and devote time to the practice of something that you don’t consider work. I find that creative pursuits outside my comfort zone are the most effective because I’m diving into something that is not easily attainable. It sounds a bit crazy to say but focusing on a new hobby that you have not yet mastered can be an incredibly important way to find meaning.

While I do believe that it’s best to start your search for meaning outside of work, I can tell you that it’s also very important to find meaning at your place of employment. If work wasn’t meaningful to me, I would probably have left my current position years ago.  There are three things that allow me to find meaning in my work:

  1. First, I’m able to make an impact. I took my current job because I knew it would put me in a position to make a difference in the lives of young artists. The further I go into my career the more I want my work to provide a lasting impact on those I serve. 

  2. Second, my work is flexible. My work has meaning because I am free to pursue the things that I believe most align with the job I’ve been given. I’m at an organization that gives me the freedom to create programming and develop content based on things that are of value to me. This is because I have built up trust from the leadership at my place of work over a number of years. When it comes to meaningful work, flexibility matters. 

  3. Finally, my work is valued. Meaningful work can come in a number of ways but one of the biggest reasons I keep showing up is that I feel that work I do in my current position is valued. Do not underestimate the role that feeling valued plays in your pursuit of meaning. 

To close, I’ll say this. Like just about everything else I pursue in life, I have come to believe that finding meaning is the most powerful when I can find it both at work and in life. I have a great balance between work, my family and my creative pursuits, all which bring great meaning to my life. Your search for meaning should come with self exploration and healthy questioning of where you are in your life and career. Doing this work on a regular basis will allow you to find meaning.

Thanks so much for the question, Jonathan and to those of you listening, I’d love to be able to answer one of your questions on a future podcast. Please send me an email with a recorded question to and I’ll do my best to help. Finally, if you like what you hear on this podcast, I encourage you to join my newsletter, 5 Tips For The Unrelenting Twenty-Something, it’s completely free, easy to digest and specifically created for unrelenting twenty-somethings just like you! Thanks for listening. 

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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