“Perhaps the most challenging of the five questions to finding meaningful and fulfilling work, this first question can be one of the most powerful.”

Question 1:
Growing up, what did you always need and not get enough of?

On the surface this question may seem “out of left field,” but in actuality, it could hold the key for finding meaning in what you do. Here’s why. Whether we know it or not, we all have unmet needs as we are growing up that we carry with us through adulthood – it is part of being human. We call these needs from our childhood – core needs. Core needs are usually derived from what we didn’t get (or didn’t get enough of) from our nuclear family (mom, dad, siblings, etc…). Core needs are not things (money, toys, etc…), rather they run deeper and speak to what we were looking for from our family that we just simply didn’t get enough of (security, worth, acceptance, being valued, etc…). We often spend the majority of our lives trying desperately to get our core needs met in the relationships we have with others at work and outside of work. The irony is that it is this need which holds the key to meaning and purpose. We are so sensitive to that need as we walk through life that we become expertly suited to meet that need in the world and in others. We can see, sense and notice things tied to that need that others simply cannot. And we have a unique appreciation for that need in the world because of our story. Let me share a few examples:

Jordan’s Story

Jordan’s parents owned a local pet store in his home town. While Jordan’s parents loved their work, they struggled financially throughout Jordan’s childhood. He remembers moving from their home to an apartment because “mom and dad could no longer pay the bills.” That instability shaped Jordan. He always felt as though the family was down to its last dollar and this created a sense of fear within him. A desire for stability, a need for stability, motivated Jordan. For many years he would not pursue anything that involved the slightest ounce of risk – in fact he could “smell” the slightest threat or turn for the worse before it happened. Jordan’s friends envied his financial savvy and were in awe in his ability to know just when to pull his money out of the market before things headed south. He excelled in school, got a stable job with a large company and pursued a graduate degree in business hoping to get an even more stable and “safe” job. What Jordan came to realize is that his unique gift of sensing risk could be used to lead a safe protective life for himself or it could easily be turned into something more purposeful – helping others to navigate risk so their lives could be more stable. He decided that the most meaningful role for him would be to eventually work in a senior finance role for an organization so he could help the organization (his family in a way) avoid risk and preserve stability, thus impacting positively all the people that work for and with the organization.

Annabelle’s Story

Annabelle grew up the youngest of 7 children. Growing up in such a large household, Annabelle was loved and cared for, but felt she was never truly heard. Her older brothers, sisters and parents made all the decisions for Annabelle. Growing up, her need was to be truly heard for her own unique thoughts and opinions. She carried that need into adulthood. Annabelle would become ultra sensitive in any large group. She would shrink into the background and wait for someone to notice and hear her. One day, Annabelle realized she noticed and saw group dynamics that others didn’t see. She was acutely aware of who got noticed and why. She began mentoring others on navigating corporate politics and loved it. Today, Annabelle has her own coaching firm that specializes in helping high potentials navigate the intricacies of getting heard and noticed in their organizations.

In both Jordan and Annabelle’s case, they took their core needs from their childhood (need for stability and a need for being truly heard, respectively) and found meaningful careers by meeting those needs in the world. As one of my mentors nicely puts it, “our core need hollows out the seed bed in us for our strengths, talents and purpose to emerge.” So, as you reflect on your core need, here are some more specific guidelines.

  • Our core need from childhood is often shaped between the ages of 4 -15
  • Look past “things.” Money is not a need, nor is a bicycle, gaming system or a house. A need is deeper. “Things” often translate into needs such as: stability, security, or opportunity
  • Common needs are some of the following: Acceptance, Being heard, Stability, Unconditional love, Being truly seen, Encouragement / support, Being enough, Appreciated, Valued, Honesty, Seen as competent, etc…
  • Core needs often are tied to one’s relationship with their nuclear family so look there first (mom and / or dad are a great start!)
  • You know you are getting close to your core need when there are strong emotions the first time you say it out loud (tears, anger, etc…)

Hint: If you are still stuck, consider the best boss (or teacher) you’ve ever had. Odds are, he or she met your core need and that was what made them your favorite!

Once you are on the “scent” of your core need, consider how you could turn it so that your job allowed you to meet that need in the world in some way or another. That could take the form of a bold shift as we noticed in the cases of Jordan and Annabelle as they undertook job / career changes. With others it can be a more subtle shift and take the form of “how” they do their current job more meaningfully. In those cases, one may choose to develop others around him or her by paying particular attention to giving others what they always needed and didn’t get enough of. Those individuals often become the great managers and mentors that shape our lives and others.

Determining our core need is no simple task, so don’t feel frustrated if after some reflection you’ve “got nothin’.” For some, it comes almost immediately, but for others it is tougher to identify and articulate and may require the help of a skilled professional. Never fear. That’s why there are 4 more meaning questions on their way!