How to Build a Meaningful Career
Everyone aspires 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 toiling 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
Am I respected by my colleagues? 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 to obvious things, like salary, title, or prestige of the company,” says Dillon. Koloc identifies four categories to consider:
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 over the course of 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 aspire to help pass the Affordable Care Act.
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.”
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.
If you’re unsure what matters most to you, think through a given day or week at work. Ask yourself: what made me most happy? What did I find most frustrating? Then, Koloc suggests, come up with a few hypotheses about what is most meaningful to you. I want a job where I create something that people can use everyday. I want a job that allows me enough flexibility to pick up my kids from school. I want a job where I’m directly interacting with people in need. “Be careful not to overcorrect for a particularly bad job experience,” says Dillon. “When you have a micromanaging boss, for example, it’s easy to think that your biggest priority is to work for a manager who doesn’t smother you, but if you seek out that one thing, you may end up being unhappy for slightly different reasons.”
Once you’ve nailed down your hypotheses, it’s time to test them. There are a variety of ways to do this. First, you can try things out within an existing job. “You might try to convince your manager to let you work remotely for a month,” he says. Take on a new assignment that allows you to try out new skills. “Look for opportunities to enhance your job. Sign up for a new cross-company initiative or propose taking something off your boss’s plate,” suggests Dillon. “I’ve never known many managers to say no to people offering to help out.” If you can’t run experiments within the constraints of your job, look outside the company. “Join industry groups, go to conferences, volunteer for a nonprofit,” advises Dillon. The third way to test your hypotheses is to have conversations. Find people who are doing what you think you want to do and ask them lots of questions. Listen carefully and critically, so that you don’t just hear what you want to hear.
Form a personal board of directors
Don’t go it alone. Work with others to kick the tires on your hypotheses and share the results of your experiments. Invite four or five people to serve as your informal board of directors. You might tell them, “I’m doing some exploring about what I want from work and I’d love to talk with you on occasion to get your feedback on my direction.” Include any mentors and trusted professional peers. And if your manager is receptive include her as well. “Not all bosses may be supportive,” says Dillon, “but if you have a manager who you can bounce career ideas off of, take advantage of that.”
There are a few people you shouldn’t include, says Koloc. “Family members can be tough,” says Koloc. “Spouses, for example, need to know what you’re doing but they may not be best positioned to help you figure it out.” And don’t be afraid to dig deep into your past, Dillon says: “I have people who I haven’t talked with in years who call me when they’re considering a job change or a career transition.” Check in with this board of directors on a regular basis to update them on your thinking and ask for input.
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 big 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 to not 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 when you find something meaningful, you’ll be able to act on it.
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 job, 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
Case study #1: Turn to those who know you
Deirdre Coyle had reached a point in her career where she knew she needed a change. She has been the SVP of communications at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City for eight years and while she believed in the mission of the nonprofit, she just couldn’t picture herself in the role forever. “There was something else out there for me. I have high expectations of myself and wanted to push forward into new territory,” she says.
Still, the question was: What did she want to do instead? “I started by thinking options through and vetting ideas in my mind.” Did she want to go back to school? Did she want to pursue her passion for landscape architecture? Did she want to take her one-of-a-kind fashion accessory business to the next level?
She also got advice from a small group of people she knew well. “There are about six people in my life that I consider my advisors. They come from all different aspects of my life. They don’t know me equally well but they know important parts of me and I cherish their opinions,” she explains. With their help she eliminated a lot of options, such as starting her own business. While being an entrepreneur greatly appealed to her she was afraid of ruining the pleasure she took in her hobby by turning it into a job.
Deirdre told her boss that she was getting ready to move on. “We had worked very well together for close to ten years and I felt like I owed him that respect,” she explains. Soon after that conversation, a former executive director of the ICIC came to her and her boss with an opportunity: she wanted to start a company that would encourage entrepreneurism and job growth in Middle Eastern countries, starting with Saudi Arabia. “Even though the idea wasn’t yet fully formed, I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do,” Deirdre says. It fit many of the criteria she was looking for — it allowed her to travel internationally, work in emerging markets and build an organization from the ground up. She became the co-founder of the AllWorld Network and while “there are certainly moments of angst,” she is thrilled to be doing a job she loves.
Case study #2: Get your finances in order
Tim Groves liked his job at a civil litigation law firm. But he didn’t love it. “I didn’t get up in the morning excited to go to work,” he says. “And I knew if I continued on that career path, it wasn’t going to get better either.” He was interested in mission-driven work so he started by talking to people in the nonprofit world and signed up for automated job listings. “I volunteered and served on boards, and I had friends and relatives who worked in nonprofits so I had an inkling of what I could do with a law degree in a nonprofit setting,” he says.
He also did a few informational interviews with people he respected who had made similar transitions. He was careful in how he set up these conversations. “I told people that I wasn’t miserable at my current job, but that I was looking around and would love their perspective,” he explains. “I also mentioned that I had a mortgage and a family so didn’t want to broadcast this.”
To broaden his network, he became more active in his volunteer and board work and upped the pro bono law work he was doing. “I put myself in contact with people who could connect me to an opportunity or who could vouch for me when an opportunity came up.”
Tim and his wife had supported each other through several career transitions but this time, as he says, “the stakes were higher because we had kids, school tuitions, and college looming on the horizon.” Given that Tim was going to almost certainly take a pay cut, he and his wife came up with a budget and the lowest salary figure he could take. To give themselves more financial flexibility, they downsized and moved from a one-family to a two-family house where rent from tenants could help pay the mortgage.
About a year and a half after starting the process, Tim took a job as a development officer at the Rhode Island Foundation. “The process wasn’t always easy but I feel good about where I ended up,” he says.