The 4 S’s of Meaningful Work

Never retire.

There’s a big reason the healthiest societies in the world have no word for retirement. I believe retirement is a false concept based on assumptions no longer true. Age 65 retirement was invented when average lifespan was 70.

What’s the solution?

Keep working.  

And make sure whatever you’re doing includes the 4 S’s of meaningful work:

S – Social

We are the most social mammals on the planet for a reason, and it’s not just the extroverts who can master this. Look, according to Stumbling on Happiness by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, our social relationships have a greater effect on our happiness than our income, religion, gender, or even health. What does a good workplace foster? Small team dinners. CEO AMAs. Lunch walking groups. Work sports leagues. If these are missing, start one.

S – Structure

There are 168 hours in a week. Fifty-six are for sleep (eight hours a night if you can get it), 56 for work (including things like commuting and extra work at home), and 56 for your passion.

three 56-hour buckets

On structure, there are two things to point out. One, work helps create and pay for your third bucket—the fun bucket, the passion bucket. And two, if everyone in this structure has a third bucket, what can each person bring in from outside of work? Can the word nerd start a book club? Can the hospital volunteer start a company volunteer program? Can the late night DJ plan the Christmas party?

Work structure should allow outside work passions to be big parts of our lives.

S – Stimulation

Always be on the lookout to learn something new. In every job you have, ensure the steepest possible learning curves are between “value giving” and “value getting.” Examples to make sure this happens are things such as staying a maximum of two years in roles, initiating job sharing or job trades, planning regular development sessions, and scheduling quarterly growth meetings with one- and two-up managers. Make sure you can always say yes to the question “Am I learning a lot and adding a lot?” If your answer is tilted one way, it means you’re giving something else up.

S – Story

There’s a reason why Medtronic, the medical devices company famous for popularizing the pacemaker, has family members of patients read letters at company meetings. How would you feel about your job if an 11-year-old girl thanked you for giving her five extra years of memories with her father?  

“Story” is all about feeling that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. It’s about first ensuring the company’s mission and higher-level purpose capture the heart and then bringing the mission to life by regularly sharing customer stories, hanging anecdotal posters on walls, and talking about it at open or closed meetings.

At Facebook, you’re connecting the world. At Wikipedia, you’re giving the world the sum of human knowledge free. At your local paper, you’re increasing community.

What’s your workplace story?

So, I say never give up work. Meaningful work. Work you love. Because you’ll be giving up the 4 S’s—Social, Structure, Stimulation, and Story—you get every day from being there.

Forget the money. You’ll lose the 4 S’s, and they are much more important.

Share your thoughts.

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  • LVS

    56 hours for your passion? What about grocery shopping? What about childcare? What about dealing with your finances? What about looking after the house? Or is someone else going to do all of that for me?

  • Phillip Fine

    You may believe that retirement is a false concept, Neil, but if your employer thinks you should be retired and shows you to the door, you now have a very real concept on your hands!

  • I have no retirement plan. It has been my goal to find the work that brings value to people and that I enjoy sufficiently that I do not want to retire.

  • Phillip Fine

    I hate to say it, but Neil sounds like a Gretchen Rubin clone. When I don’t read Neil, I feel happy. But when I do, I don’t, indicating that Neil is creating a problem where no problem now exists. Indeed, the more one tries to be happy, the more unhappy he is likely to be. Mark Manson has noted this in his blog. Has anyone ever wondered why there has been such an explosion of happiness gurus over the past few years? Our parents and grand-parents seemed to have got along without someone telling them how to be happy. But now, it seems, we need professional coaching

  • Donna Rowe

    Great advice for the middle and upper classes, but, speaking as a peon in the fast food business (in spite of a B.A.), I can’t wait to retire! The only good part of my current job are the people.

    • I get you, I’ve been working in a food industry for almost two years. I found people the best part, I enjoyed the work as well but it was physically exhausting. It was tough to find the work-life balance there as well. I left it, trying to writing for money but I miss the work in hospitality – it helped me to go out from my shell. Have you thought about changing your work? Or doing it part-time and trying to find something better in the meantime?

      • Donna Rowe

        I’m now working part-time, but I’m a caregiver to a bed bound husband. We have a personal assistant to care for him while I’m gone. I’m staying at my job to maintain my Social Security benefits, plus there is dignity in work, even in fast food (not to mention my awesome co-workers!) I was a half-time library assistant at a junior college when my husband could still get around, but was laid off due to budget cutbacks. It’d be nice to be involved in the Friends of the Library, but we’re very limited in the number of hours we can have a PA, and I’m worried whenever I leave him home alone to grocery shop.

  • Debbie Baker

    Thanks for the article – can someone tell what a CEO AMA is?

    • James Harris

      Ask Me Anything. It’s a forum to ask the big boss anything you want without going through channels and any work place politics that come from that (not that they are all like that, it depends on the people). That way the CEO doesn’t come off as being distant and you get the info you want.

  • Patricia Reynolds

    I retired last year at age 57 and am as busy as when I worked. The beauty is now I choose how to spend those hours, which includes non-profit Boards and other volunteer work. I have days when my calendar is blank, and I think I’ll have some down time, but there’s always something to do. Other days I begin with community meetings at 7 a.m. and end at 9:00 p.m. after a Board meeting. It’s all about how you choose to spend your “retirement” time.

    • amylynn1022

      I suspected that some of my college professors “retired” to get out of the politics and administrative side of university teaching, because they certainly didn’t seem to be doing less work!

  • Elvis Daniel Guerra

    Años 50: Winston Churchill, se retira como primer ministro de inglaterra después de los ochenta años, con lágrimas en los ojos. Principales políticos, consejeros, representante de estados, representantes de organizaciones mundiales (FIFA) tienen mas de ochenta años y no se quieren despedir de su carrera… Unos fueron apasionados. La mayoría como cosa natural amantes del dinero…

  • Clive Wood

    “Staying in a job for a maximum of two years” should not mean leaving one job for another. It can and should mean changing your job, (not the same as changing jobs) so that your existing job becomes ever more challenging. You can often grow within a job.

  • Kareen Samsing

    Hmm…i would like to work forever but the reallity is after 40…50…not much opportunities are given. One could try to create some by oneself but that means having certain character traits….which i really don’t have.
    I agree with you that social relationships are one of the best things to treasure. I liked my last job specially for this reason, but sometimes i felt i was a little bit stuck, i needed experiences to learn, apply my creativity and i didn’t have much of them.

    • Susan M. Kuhn

      Opportunities are not given, I agree. That is because the best opportunities are created by us. I started a new career in my early 60s, moving from non-tech to a tech field. INTP even. You can use your creativity to create new opportunities. Start very very small…and let your idea grow.

      • Kareen Samsing

        Thxs for the advice Susan …(i would like to do the same transition as you but in reverse order) 🙂 🙂 :-)…

        • Susan M. Kuhn

          You can! Just start the tiniest thing that moves in that direction. It will lift your spirits…and you will see another step, and so on. Super small steps…

  • AMB

    Your work should be your passion, not a separate bucket.

  • Carolyn Barry

    My job is always changing. So you always have the opportunity of learning something different. You are also given the opportunity to be apart of helping others. The social part. Well, me the introvert says at what cost. I enjoy socializing at work with a few people. But outside of work, not so much. We first must learn how to respect each other’s differences. Respect space and boundaries. The most uncomfortable thing is to be talking to someone and a part of their body touches you that should not. Not only uncomfortable but down right creepy. Structure is making sure everyone feels safe. I feel safe in my home. I see my job as my second home. Both should coincide. So their are those at my job who does a great job of doing so. All and all respect is one thing that should be apart of the 4’s if we are to have a meaningful workplace.

  • I’m 74 next April and can’t think of anything worse than retiring. Most retirees I come across are the most boring and self centred people I ever come across and most times all they talk about is property, cars and footy. The ones I do get along with are those who travel a lot and have some worthwhile opinions about world events. While my lack of retirement desires are partly driven by the need to work and earn a living having now put two lots of kids through private school I’m eternally grateful for the many challenges I have faced and the inspiration I get from the still working people in my life, be they the wealthy ones or the strugglers. The word retire to me means taking measurements for the “pine box” (laminated MDF) so I’ve not even thought of what hinges I want on it. Even at my age I reckon on another 20 – 30 years of worthwhile existence and visiting every country on the planet and DVDs beyond if the there’s room on a spaceship for me.

    • Susan M. Kuhn


  • Jenny Moreno

    Never retire? That doesn’t click in many cultures and societies! The article needs to be more intercultural.

    • amylynn1022

      Not just intercultural. Many people do not have the option of continuing their jobs either because the employee is ill or the job is too strenuous to keep up with the demands as they age. Or their job may disappear or be outsourced and the employee may not find a new one due to their age.

      Also remember that a lot of employees, especially low-wage employees, may not have control over their work conditions or the ability negotiate for better conditions.

      • Susan M. Kuhn

        Being proactive in all these cases is an option open to everyone. We can’t give over our power, especially when we are in low wage situations. They key is not to assume that what is given is all that is possible and to seek the path toward betterment…which may take some looking.

  • Jamie Newman

    Great reminders – it’s so tempting to try and separate our work life and our personal life… rather than integrate. I especially love the last ‘S’ – meaningful purpose

  • Quiet Revolution

    Does your current job provide the 4 S’s of meaningful work?