Everyone aims to have purpose or meaning in their career, but how do you actually do that? What practical steps can you take today or this month to make sure you’re not just slogging away at your desk, but you’re doing something you genuinely care about?
What the Experts Say
Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to make the job decisions that lead to satisfaction. Nathaniel Koloc, the CEO of ReWork, which provides recruiting services to companies that offer purposeful work, says that’s because no one really ever teaches us how: “Very few parents, teachers, and mentors urge us to think about this or give us mental models to use,” he says. “We tend to only get nibbles of what meaningful work is in our twenties.” As a result, we often pick jobs for the wrong reasons, says Karen Dillon, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life. “We look for things that we’re proud to talk about at a cocktail party or look good on a resume.” But rarely are those the things that translate to satisfaction. Here are principles you can follow to find a career — and a specific job — you don’t just enjoy, but love.
Know what “meaningful” means to you Do my colleagues respect me? Am I being challenged? Am I growing? Do I believe in the mission? “These are the things that are going to make the difference between being ok with your job and being truly happy,” says Dillon. But “meaningful” means something different for each individual. “Don’t just look for obvious things, like salary, title, or prestige of the company,” says Dillon. Koloc identifies four categories to consider:
Legacy This is about the concrete outcomes of your work. What do you want to achieve? Sure, you may spend a lot of your day responding to emails or attending meetings — most jobs entail at least some of that — but what evidence do you want of your work? You might find it rewarding to advance the math skills of 80 students in one year or build six desalination plants throughout your career. This is often a question of how close to the frontlines you want to be. Some people want to help sick people directly, while others want to help pass the healthcare reform.
Mastery These are the strengths that you want to improve. For example, if you enjoy connecting with people, you could use that skill to be a psychologist or a marketer. Similarly, if you’re a strong writer, you could use that skill to write fiction or copy for advertisements. The key is that you are using these strengths in a way that you find rewarding. “Being good at something you don’t enjoy doesn’t count,” says Koloc. “It has to be something you love to do.”
Freedom This is about the salary, benefits, and flexibility you need to live the life you want. For some people, this may mean a high paycheck that allows you to take exotic vacations. For others, it could be the freedom to work when and where you choose. Here you need to know the lifestyle you want and ask whether your job is helping you fulfill that.
This last category covers the culture and values of the place you work. This is not the same as mission, warns Koloc, but is about whether you feel like you belong. What are the beliefs and priorities of the company and the people you work with? How do people treat each other? Do they hug? Have lunch together? “It’s important to enjoy spending time with your colleagues and your manager,” says Dillon. The content of these categories will vary by person. Dillon suggests making a list of all the things you value and then prioritizing them. This list will help guide your decisions and can be used to evaluate specific opportunities like a new assignment in your current role, a job at a different company, or a new career path.
Think long term This work shouldn’t just be in service of getting your next job. “Career design is different than a job-search strategy,” says Koloc, and the question you should be asking yourself, he advises, is not “What job do I want?” but “What life do I want?” Think about where you want to be in five, ten, 20 years. Of course, you have to answer more immediate questions about what you want in your current job or your next but do so only in the context of your longer, larger career goals.
When you’re already deep into a career Even mid-career professionals can and do make significant changes. “Your ability to turn the ship is no different, but the speed at which you turn it is going to be slower,” says Koloc.“If you’re 35 and have two kids, it’s going to take longer to explore.” There’s good news, though, he says: “You have more clues as to what you want and enjoy.” The important thing is not to feel stuck. “You may feel locked into a job, a higher salary, a higher title because you have more responsibilities, like a mortgage and kids, and sure, you may need to take fewer risks, but you don’t want to settle for a job or career you’re not happy with,” says Dillon.
Buckle down on your finances One of the main reasons people give for staying in a job or career they don’t love is money. “Take steps to give yourself a financial cushion and a little psychological freedom,” says Dillon. Make a budget if you don’t have one. Look for ways to lower the amount of money you need each month: downsize your house, move to one car, and be more disciplined about saving. Having a financial buffer will make it more likely that you’ll be able to act on it when you find something meaningful.
Make the time “I have yet to meet anybody who wouldn’t benefit from setting aside dedicated time to sit down and think about what they want from work,” says Koloc. Schedule a time in your calendar to reflect on your career. Even if it’s just an hour every other week, you’re going to make some progress. “Sometimes just thinking about it will get the ball rolling, and then, often, the change becomes inevitable,” says Koloc.
Principles to Remember
Make a prioritized list of what a meaningful career would look like to you.
Invite four or five people to serve as a board of advisors as you explore what you want.
Experiment with different elements of a job that you’d want either in your current position, outside work, or by talking with people.
Focus on your next role — think about what you want from work over the long term.
Let the stage of your career hold you back — even those deep into their careers can make changes.
Neglect your finances so that when you want to make a change, you don’t feel able to.
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