The Four Phases of Your Life’s Work (Which Describes You?)

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phases of your life's work

When I go on hikes, there’s this odd thing that happens. On the way in everything moves slowly. Everything is brand new. The trail twists and turns and every turn brings a new view and a new terrain to traverse.

This is some of the fun of hiking: you get to see new places. But it also is where some of the challenge comes into play. I know roughly how long the hike may be, but I don’t know how far I’ve come or how far I have to go. When it’s late in the day, your pack is weighing on you, you’re hungry, and almost out of water— the joy of the journey is often replaced by an anxious impatience to arrive. I just want to sit down, take my pack off, catch my breath, take off my boots and relax.

But then on the way back down the trail everything seems to move much more quickly. I remember aspects of the terrain. I recall that we crossed a bridge at about half way. I know that the steep section is only so long and that soon we’ll be past it.

The same experience happens on long runs or bike rides.

Once you’ve walked the path before, you have a frame of reference for where you are and what comes next.

The Phases of Your Life’s Work

Over the years of studying work and meaning I’ve learned that there are some distinct phases to the journey. These phases describe in broad terms where a person is in relation to their work and identity formation. And, much like a physical journey, knowing where you are helps you navigate what’s to come.

There are four major phases that people find themselves in when it comes to doing their life’s work. These phases describe a person’s journey toward a deeper expression of who she is in what she does.

Phase 1 – Naïveté

We all begin in the same place. In this phase you’re not asking questions about meaning. You have other things on your mind and other pursuits. For some of us this is because we’re young. For others it’s because of the cultures we’re in and the systems we’re a part of.

This phase often ends abruptly with a major life event. You lose your job or lose someone close to you. You’re then thrust into a place of asking what you are going to do with the precious short time that you have in life.

Or this phase might gradually fade away as work under-delivers on our expectation of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Questions you’re asking about work: None yet.

Phase 2 – Awareness

This phase starts with an awareness that you want more from your work and your time. You get this idea and hope that work can be more than just about getting a paycheck. You start to dream about doing something that feels worthwhile— more than just meeting your needs.

For some, it’s a new awareness of both the opportunity and possibility that your work and career can hold, as well as a dissatisfaction with the way things are.

At its best, this phase is exciting and energizing. At its worst, this phase can leave you feeling stuck, lost, and unsure where to turn next.

Questions you’re asking about work: What’s my life’s work? What am I going to do when I grow up? What’s a better fit for me in work? Etc.

Many people in this phase find this blog and feel a sense of connection and resonance. I hear things like:

  • “I feel like you’re putting words to something that I’ve been trying to articulate for a long time.”
  • “I immediately felt like I belonged here.”
  • “As soon as I started reading, I finally knew I wasn’t crazy for what I’ve been feeling.”

Many of the clients I work one-on-one with are in this phase.

Phase 3 – Tension

Phase 3 is where you have a sense of what you want your work to be about, but you’re not sure how to do it yet. You are able to put some language to the impact you want to have, but you’re unsure how to go about making that impact.

In this phase you often feel the tension between what you want to be doing and what you are doing. You also feel the tension between making money and making meaning.

The trick is to stay in the tension between the two and not sacrifice one for the other (unless you’re independently wealthy, it’s not an option).

This is the long and challenging journey toward a deeper expression of your work in the world.

Questions you’re asking about work: How do I lean into more places of meaning? What is the best way to go about doing my work? How can I become an expert in ________ in order to do more of my work? What other skills do I need to gain to get to a place of deeper meaning?

As you can see, here the questions become less about identity and finding your direction and more about how to continue in that direction. This is where things shift toward tactical moves and strategy.

This is where the support of a cohort or mastermind group can be helpful to hold you accountable and keep you moving forward toward your goals.

Phase 4 – Work Worth Doing

Phase 4 is when you get to be doing work that’s meaningful for you. Here, there is alignment between who you are and what you do. There’s a reciprocity between your self and your work— you give to your work and your work gives back to you. It’s not that work is no longer difficult— it’s that work is worthwhile because of the characteristics of the work itself. You know you’re doing something that makes a difference and you’re doing it in a way that makes sense for you.

There are varying degrees of this phase. You may start by only doing a little bit of the work and over time lean in more fully— but that’s for another blog post.

Here your job is an opportunity to serve your life’s work.

The Alternative: Opposition

There is one other option: Opposition. This is a stance toward meaning that exists outside of the phases. It’s active opposition to the whole concept of pursuing meaningful work. Here you believe that work cannot and should not be meaningful. This person labels any pursuit of meaning as idealistic and unrealistic. He or she is often reacting against hurtful experiences or ideologies.

This person doesn’t read this blog 😉

Which Phase Are You In?

It’s helpful for me to think about these phases of your life’s work as I interact with the Meaning Movement community. Every phase has its own questions and unique needs. Like phases of a journey, these phases help you know where you are and what comes next.

Would you share in the comments what phase you’d place yourself in? What helped you transition from one phase to the next? What do you need in order to take the next step? Share in the comments.

PS- If this strikes a chord with you, would you take a moment to share it in your network? Just hit the share button at the top of this page 🙂

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 2 Comments On This Post.

  1. Nazreen Osman

    I think that I’m just moving into tension. It’s extremely difficult for me because there are so many ideas – and that’s the sticking point. It almost feels like a black hole of possibility.

    This was great & you are articulating things that I haven’t been able to put into words.

    Gratitude as always,

    Nazreen

    • I totally get the “black hole of possibilities” feeling. Well said! It’s easy to get stuck in the fear of making the wrong choice— when there really isn’t one at all.

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Nazreen!

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