If you and everything you've done were erased from existence, what else would disappear from the world?
Most of us like to think that the work we do is important, that the place would fall apart without us there doing our job. But how important is the work we're doing really? If you were hit by a bus tomorrow would your entire organization fall apart? The unfortunate truth for most us is, that no, our company would quickly find a replacement and keep chugging along with barely a memory of you ever being there a few months down the line. Sure the quality of work might be a little worse than what you were doing but broadly speaking, everyone in a company is replaceable.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Nothing I've worked on in my career as a software engineer would have failed to exist without my contributions. I can imagine many ways the final software could've been worse or taken longer to release but there's lots of bad and delayed software out there running the world. If I didn't exist someone else would be sitting in my seat doing the work. So if the work I am doing would get done anyway, how much value am I actually providing the world from my work? Probably less than I would like to think.
Now this isn't to say there's anything wrong with doing work that would be done by someone else, ideally society is paying you to do this job because it's a job that needs to be done. There is plenty of pride to be had in doing jobs that need to be done. At the end of the day some one needs to drive the bus after all. But if a goal in your life is to provide something that uniquely wouldn't exist unless you made it happen, it's unlikely you'll find that in a typical 9-5 job. Necessarily, you are just a replaceable cog in the machine that is a business.
I think that too many of us slip into a life of being comfortable only being a cog, when our life satisfaction and our contributions to the world in general would be significantly better if we were bringing something into the world that wouldn't exist if we weren't the one to do it.
Of course having unique contributions to the world doesn't have to be mutually exclusive from being employed at a 9-5 job. Pretty much all of us have other responsibilities and need to pay the bills. But if you can harness even a little bit of your free time towards creating something that is uniquely yours, I promise you'll find significant fulfillment there. There's a lot of satisfaction from having your own little piece of the universe that exists only because of you.
The unique work of your life doesn't necessarily have to be anything big or significant but ideally it should be something that helps someone else, even if it's just one person. Being there for someone in a way that wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been there is one of the most meaningful ways to live your life. Whether that is writing that connects with an small audience, building benches for bus stops in your city that don't have any, or creating an entire business that improves the lives of millions of people, it's all the unique work of leaving the world better than we found it.
Even just volunteering for a worthwhile organization can be a great way to accomplish unique work in a more structured way. If you don't feel any pull towards building something from scratch, you can still have a real impact in a way that just isn't true for a salaried position that is going to be filled whether you show up or not. Tons of fantastic volunteer organizations have less impact than they could just because they don't have the resources to do anything more.
You don't need to think of everything you do in this context of stuff that only uniquely exists because of you, but I strongly believe it should be a part of what you spend your life doing. So I encourage you to take a small step towards bringing some unique good into the world. You'll make the world better in a way that you are directly responsible for, and get some more fulfillment out of life for your trouble.