10 principles for creating meaningful work

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” (Viktor Frankl)

Work, work, work. Unpaid or paid, we all do it and it consumes a lot of our time.

According to the OECD Better Life Index we work, on average, 1765 hours per year and 10 percent of us work significantly longer (more than 50 hours per week or at least 2600 hours per year).

The answer to the oft-posed question, “what gets you out of bed in the morning?” is hardly a secret — work and the demands of life is an apt response. Specifically and personally, my hungry 2-year old son vigorously slapping my face at the crack of dawn gets me out of bed in the morning (but that still fits under the broad category of work and the demands of life).

Neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, posited that the principle drive of human beings is for a deep experiential sense of meaning. (That and trying to avoid being slapped in the face). Meaning in life, Frankl contends, comes from three “possibilities”:

  • work we create;
  • loving relationships; and,
  • hope amidst suffering.

Work, in and of itself, is not necessarily meaningful. Many people would contend that they work in unfulfilling jobs and that they pursue meaning elsewhere.

But if we’re going to spend so much of our time working don’t we want it to be meaningful? How can we find meaning in the work we do?

I would argue that any work can become meaningful when it is principled and creative.

Before you decry this statement as propaganda of the creative class, hear me out. Creative work is not about the type of work being done. It is not about us all becoming artists, filmmakers or musicians, buying pottery wheels or learning to knit. The level of creativity in our work is about our approach, attitude and perspective.

Our way of working can determine whether what we do is meaningful both to us and the people in our sphere of influence, or not.

As a Dad to 7 children and a social entrepreneur creating work in and with diverse communities, I’ve landed on a few key principles that consistently bring meaning to my work regardless of what I’m doing.

I’d like to share them with you. My hope is that it will spark a conversation not simply about what gets us out of bed in the morning but how we can do our work differently.

Here are 10 principles that guide my work:

01 Value all stakeholders

People most affected by decisions are often not the decision-makers. Value, engage and empower the people who will be affected and provide opportunities for them to describe, and be involved in, making change.

02 Begin with Why

Why are we doing this? Why we do we believe this is important? Why will it make a difference? Why will anyone care? Answer the ‘why’ of what you’re doing first, and then consider ‘how’ and ‘what’.

03 Creativity is for everyone

Creativity is not the exclusive domain of an industry, job, practice, institution or demographic. Support people to develop and harness their creativity so that they can make a positive difference.

04 Challenge the status quo

Tested and leading practice and wisdom should not be ignored. However, opinions founded on fear not facts, or statements such as “that’s just the way we do it”, are often a sign that something needs to change.

05 Start small, but start

Don’t wait until you’ve got the biggest, best or most exhaustive idea. Many ideas and many actions eventually lead to massive change. Start small and start now.

06 Actively collaborate

Open-source platforms, Creative Commons and Social Networks are tools that assist sharing, collaboration and innovation. A collaborative approach avoids unnecessary duplication, creates more opportunities and enhances scalability and impact.

07 Build authentic relationships

Social media and digital communication are great, but they can never replace the power of getting people together in the same place. Strive to build relationships that are sincere, responsive and growing.

08 Communicate the real stories

Through effective storytelling, ideas can be understood, embraced and applied more effectively. Share the stories that need to be told. Stories that dispel myths and inspire change.

09 Be remarkable

Choose to rise above the culture of mediocrity. Be willing to take risks, or nothing will ever change.

10 Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly

Faith, hope and love are verbs with their sleeves rolled up. Don’t just talk about it, live the change you want to see in the world.

Human-centred systems thinking

Much of the way that I work is influenced by human-centred systems thinking.

Human-centered systems thinking brings together the analytical, holistic tools of systems thinking with the creative human-centered process of design thinking. It’s a mindset and methodology for tackling complex systemic challenges in a human way: staying grounded in the needs of multiple stakeholders while also seeing larger dynamics at play so you can diagnose the real problem, design more effective solutions, and drive real behavior change and positive impact within systems.


The process a number of stages that aren’t always linear, can occur simultaneously and are often repeated:

01 Define – Articulate the project scope and challenge.

02 Discover – Observation, research and stakeholder mapping.

03 Develop – Brainstorming, synthesis of ideas and prototyping.

04 Deliver – Implementation of the agreed strategies and solutions.

05 Document – Collate data/feedback, assess project outcomes, adapt and improve.

That’s me.

What are some of the principles you apply to the work you create?

One response

  1. Chris Chirnside

    I do my best to value individuals above what I can get out of it – pretty much your point #1.

    All of your points hit home & are challenging. Great post Aleem!!!!

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