Find Meaning in Your Work by Helping Tackle Wicked Problems

woman working

Our recent brush with a pandemic and its negative effects has highlighted many people’s dire economic and financial situation. Millions of people lost their jobs. The spotlight inevitably falls on improving the national employment rate and ensuring more workers receive adequate compensation to make ends meet.

It’s easy to forget that before the downturn, over 90% of employees sought more meaningful work, even if it meant leaving money on the table.

That demand may be obscured by the immediate needs of today’s crisis, but it won’t go away. There’s something wrong with the relationship between most employees and the jobs that they are offered.

Surprisingly, the solution towards which every individual can aspire is related to complex issues like pandemics, poverty, and climate change. You can find meaning in work that’s aligned with efforts to solve these ‘wicked problems.’

A massive task for all

The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined by designer and urban planner Horst Rittel. He encountered many challenges in city planning that were highly complex and couldn’t be solved through the traditional linear systems approach.

Wicked problems have several characteristics in common. Foremost, they are ill-structured, interlocking, and evolving. You can’t even definitively state what the problem is without first considering its context, talking to various stakeholders, and beginning to work towards a solution.

Another common feature of such problems is that they don’t stay solved. In fact, there is no ‘correct’ solution and no real alternatives. There are only different attempts to solve them, which can be deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to varying degrees, and these can also spawn further issues.

The modern world is faced with many issues that could be classified as wicked. Healthcare, for instance, is a complex and multi-faceted problem. A policy-maker might focus on subsidizing palliative care for patients with chronic disease yet face the subsequent issue of determining who gets priority coverage.

Climate change, environmental degradation, and the depletion of non-renewable resources could be grouped as a wicked problem set. Inequality can encompass issues of poverty, social mobility, gender, or the treatment of minorities. These are massive challenges we all face collectively.

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Reclaiming your agency

We are all familiar with these problems and how they affect the lives of millions of human beings. Yet at the same time, many of us invest time and energy each day in a job that makes no difference in such matters.

This leads to cognitive dissonance. Knowing that humanity faces urgent issues in need of solving and that our daily activities make no contribution to the cause, we feel disappointed. When leaders and decision-makers seem to fail to do their part, we experience frustration.

A job that pays well nevertheless fails to satisfy this need for meaning. Moreover, people lose their sense of agency, which was underscored by the pandemic and the general feeling that we are powerless to do anything about it.

The best way to fill this gap in terms of meaningful work is to address the root cause. How long can you tolerate working for the money alone? At some point, you’ll want to align your efforts with a greater cause to reclaim your agency and give purpose to your career.

Making an impact

It must be emphasized that no individual effort will solve the world’s wicked problems. Such expectations can only lead to even greater frustration. Recall the nature of the challenges we face. They don’t have a single solution and will continue to evolve.

Dealing with these complex issues is often, in the short-term at least, centered on amelioration. You can help by mitigating current effects or analyzing the unexpected issues created by current or proposed solutions.

Optimal allocation of resources can make a difference. Per dollar spent feeding a low-income family in America, for instance, you might be able to feed dozens of poor families in Africa. Making such decisions is a burden for leaders in government and non-profits alike. Contributing to data analysis or process improvement can ensure that limited resources are used wisely.

In the long term, you can shift your career towards areas of urgent need where individuals can make the most impact. Global priorities research has been identified as one such opportunity. Helping to evaluate which issues are the most time-sensitive and which interventions best address them can maximize your contribution towards this end.

Shifting to more meaningful work may not happen overnight. But knowing that you can take your career in this direction, you can begin to make the right steps towards landing a more meaningful job.


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