Does what I do really matter as a creative?

I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that I’ve asked myself the question. It’s a common thing to wrestle with, and it spans every job category and type of career. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a creative, an executive, a fry cook, or an insurance agent, you’ve probably looked in the mirror and asked it, or at least thought about asking it.

“Does what I do really matter?”

Or maybe you caught this haunting interview in The Economist about “bullshit jobs” and how they ultimately contribute to class resentment.

Regardless, we all struggle with the question at some point. For me, it has struck this year at times when I was physically exhausted or burned out (and to be fair, it’s generally a pretty common struggle in advertising). At the end of the day, what does producing content for brands add to the world? I’ve had to ask myself some tough questions about pursuing this future.

As millennials, we’re programmed to expect more from our work than just to clock in and out every day, build a pension, get benefits, and push some white papers around. We expect to be happy—and that’s a good thing. After all, if you have a choice between happiness or not, you might as well set high expectations.

As freelancers, we get an inordinate amount of control over the types of projects and tasks we take on, but we’re also slaves of the chase. The next thing, the next bid, the next paycheck. It’s easy to get lost in that, and before long you look up and realize you’re foggy on why you started and how you got here in the first place.

For those of us who are making something tangible, the answer is a little more obvious. If I’m making a table, I can see that it’s a table. It exists to support objects, to use as a tool for other tasks, and to bring people together. It has a function and solves a concrete problem. I think that’s why so many creatives & content makers have a hobby like woodworking where they can make something in their spare time. We’re starved for concrete satisfaction.

Same for teachers or social workers… You’re clearly helping someone. You get psychological income (actual income? not so much). Chefs get to see the results of their work, so do firefighters, so do welders, so do builders. Actuaries? Well, it’s not always built in. Same for advertising. Just because I can market something, should I? Is it something that’s really bringing value to the world? …Should this even exist?

To be honest, it’s a privilege even to consider the question in the first place. There are enough people in the world that have to work day in and day out to feed themselves and their families, and they don’t have the luxury of time to stop and consider whether they’re helping anything. It borders on arrogance to indulge in the comfort of options. Nonetheless, producing content is a choice, so here we are.

From personal experience after a year and a half as a freelancer, there are a few things I’ve found valuable as I move forward. But I hope these thoughts will help bring a little light to any of you who might be grappling with the meaning of your work.

Personal growth is vital

I’ve found tremendous personal reward and meaning in exploring my creativity. I’m developing skills in building and managing client relationships, visual storytelling, directing motion, project planning, and storytelling. When I see myself actively growing every day, I know what I’m doing is good for me. There’s a lot of value in having a skill, flexing it like a muscle, and feeling it strengthen.

Find great coworkers

Not only do I get to enjoy growing in my medium, but I get to choose my coworkers and collaborators. Many of the industry professionals I work with are also close friends who are supportive, creative, and driven. That, to me, is an immense privilege that makes the work really enjoyable. Work hard to surround yourself with people that you love, and you’ll find yourself more motivated in your work.

Find projects you believe in

Choose projects you believe in — make sure you have something you’re really passionate about at least once in a while! Even if it pays a little less, psychological income is powerful.

If I take on a project I don’t really believe in, or, worse, maybe even believe against, it becomes my worst project. So far this year, I’ve been privileged to work on projects advocating for the formerly incarcerated, entrepreneurship coaching, travel & tourism, educational technology, women in leadership, injury rehabilitation, humanitarian awards, and more.

But the reality is, no matter what, you sometimes have to do work you don’t find intrinsically rewarding. You have projects you’re passionate about, and you have projects that pay bills. That’s the freelance grind.

Stories have power

Not every story I get to tell has meaning. But maybe not all of them need to? Visual storytelling itself is a skill, and the better I get at it, the better stories I can tell in the future when the story really makes an impact.

Last week, we finished shooting a short film I helped produce. Not only was it a fantastic experience to do something like that surrounded by brilliant creatives, but narrative has meaning. Fiction is powerful, and the purpose of fiction is to entertain, but also to touch on deeper truths that teach us something about ourselves as characters in our own story.

So…what’s the point?

Ultimately, responsibility for your own happiness lies with yourself. Perhaps it’s a simple reframe or finding the value of that product or service that you or your company is working on. Perhaps it’s a more extreme problem, like doing more than going from work to Netflix to work and back, or even finding a different path (if you’re able). Start by looking for intrinsic reasons to love what you’re doing, and if you can’t, at least find something external about it you can love. If you can’t do that, you might have a a bigger problem to solve.

For me, it’s keeping focused on the fact that I get to tell powerful stories, I get to do it with people I love, and I’m getting better at things that in the future will enable me to make an even bigger impact.

Have you been feeling this way? Feel free to leave a comment or share a story. Thanks for reading!