Your career is not just a way to earn a living. It’s your chance to discover what you’re here for and what you love. It’s your best shot at improving the world in a way that is important to you.
We live in a time of chronic dissatisfaction in the workplace. Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace study found that as many as 70% of working Americans were unfulfilled with their jobs, 18% to such an extent that they are actively undermining their co-workers. This is a marked increase in workplace dissatisfaction from 2010, when Conference Board found that 55% of Americans were dissatisfied with their jobs.
We live in a society where it is not clear how to design a satisfying career
How can we explain this? Certainly factors like the sluggish economic recovery and stuck wages play a role, but I believe the real answer is even more straightforward: We live in a professional society where it is not clear how to effectively design a satisfying career, especially if part of your goal is to have your work impact the lives of millions of people.
I run a company called ReWork, which benefited immensely from going through the 2011 Unreasonable Institute. At ReWork we connect talented professionals to meaningful work opportunities at companies that are making substantive social, environmental, and cultural progress. Based on our conversations with over 15,000 professionals and hundreds of hiring managers, we’ve gained insights into what’s lacking in the traditional approach to career planning, and how professionals can create careers with an ongoing sense of purpose.
Here’s my advice to professionals whose ambition has less to do with getting ahead, and more to do with feeling fulfilled in their career:
- See your career as a series of stepping stones, not a linear path or ladder.
There’s an unstated view that careers are still linear. Though most people do accept that the “career ladder” metaphor is broken, the majority of professionals still attempt to somehow increase the “slope” of their career trajectory, causing them significant stress. (How do you increase the slop of a line that doesn’t actually exist?”)
The “career ladder” metaphor is broken
People tend to wait until they are unhappy, look around for opportunities that seem better than their current job, apply for a few, cross their fingers, and take the best option that they can get. Then, they toil away until they are unhappy again, and the cycle repeats. Though this approach can increase your salary over time, the learning cycles are so long that it doesn’t lend itself well to finding fulfillment (which requires testing and experimentation!).
Because of this pattern, many people end up with a career path composed of somewhat arbitrary gigs that, at best, is a gradually improving wandering path, and, at worst, is just a series of unfulfilling jobs.
The solution to this dismal cycle? Let go of the idea that careers are linear. These days, they are much more like a field of stepping stones that extends in all directions. Each stone is a job or project that is available to you, and you can move in any direction that you like. The trick is simply to move to stones that take you closer and closer to what is meaningful to you. There is no single path — but rather, an infinite number of options that will lead to the sweet spot of fulfillment.
- Seek legacy, mastery, and freedom — in that order.
So then, in which direction should you move? We can look to experts to guide our thinking on this.
Research from authors such as Daniel Pink (Drive), Cal Newport (So Good They Can’t Ignore You), Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman (Startup of You), and Tony Hsieh (Delivering Happiness) shows that there are three primary attributes of fulfilling work:
- Legacy. A higher purpose, a mission, a cause. This means knowing that in some way — large or small — the world will be a better place after you’ve done your work.
- Mastery. This refers to the art of getting better and better at skills and talents that you enjoy using, to the extent that they become intertwined with your identity. Picture a Jedi, or a Samurai, or a master blacksmith.
- Freedom. The ability to choose who you work with, what projects you work on, where and when you work each day, and getting paid enough to responsibly support the lifestyle that you want.
The order is important. People are fulfilled most quickly when they first prioritize the impact that they want to have (legacy), then understand which skills and talents they need to have that impact (mastery), and finally “exchange” those skills for higher pay and flexibility (freedom) as they develop and advance. In other words, legacy should guide mastery, which unlocks freedom.
Let go of the idea that careers are linear
People don’t typically have just one purpose. The things you’re passionate about — women’s health, early childhood education, organic food, or renewable energy — are likely to evolve over time. And it’s important to develop a high degree of freedom so that you’re able to hunt down your purpose again when it floats onto the next thing. This means being able to do things like volunteer on the side, go months at a time without getting a paycheck, or invest in unusual professional development opportunities.
- Treat your career like a grand experiment.
In ReWork’s experience, people who are successful in finding — and maintaining — meaningful work (that also pays them well) approach their careers like a grand experiment.
All of the things you think you know about what you want to be doing, what you’re good at, what people want to hire you to do (and at what salary), how different organizations operate, etc. are hypotheses that can be validated or invalidated with evidence — either from the first-hand experience of trying something (including bite-sized projects), or second-hand from asking the right questions of the right people.
Your career is not just a way to earn a living, it’s your chance to discover what you’re here for
The faster and cheaper that you’re able to validate your career hypotheses, the sooner you’ll find fulfillment. You don’t have to take a job in a new industry to realize it’s not for you. You can learn a ton about potential lines of work from reading online, having conversations, taking on side projects (paid or unpaid), and volunteering.
By doing your homework on what’s actually a good fit for you, you won’t waste your time applying to jobs that you aren’t competitive for. And like any good scientist, you’ll achieve a healthy detachment from your incorrect hypotheses — they are just par for the course, after all.
I use the word “grand” to describe this experiment because the reality is that your career is not just a way to earn a living. It’s your chance to discover what you’re here for and what you love. It’s your best shot at improving the world in a way that is important to you. It’s a sizable component of your human experience, in a very real, day-to-day way. As such, it should be an adventure with a healthy dose of magic and mystery along the way. Enjoy it!
So if you’re one of the many who find themselves on the path to meaningful work — remember to enjoy the journey, don’t give up, and don’t settle.
Your work should be an adventure with a healthy dose of magic and mystery along the way.
A version of this post first appeared in Harvard Business Review on August 5 2013.