Do you want a meaningful career – a job that makes you come alive and makes you excited to get out of bed and get to work in the morning?
You’re not alone.
A 2012 survey conducted by Right Management found that 65 percent of the workers surveyed were either somewhat or totally unsatisfied with their jobs.
Think about it. More than 60% of people are unsatisfied by the thing that they’ll spend some 33% of their life on – an average of 80,000 hours! That’s a staggering amount of time to spend doing something that you don’t find personally fulfilling.
So what is a meaningful career, and how do I build one?
Keep reading to find out.
What Is Meaningful Work? (And Why Does it Matter?)
Meaningful work matters. A 2018 survey by the Harvard Business Review found that 9 out of 10 people are willing to forego 23 percent of their lifetime income for a meaningful career.
Some 80 percent of surveyed workers said they would choose to have a boss who cared about their job being meaningful over a 20 percent pay raise. Additionally, employees who find their work meaningful are 69 percent less likely to resign within the next 6 months.
So what is meaningful work?
As it turns out, that’s not an easy question to answer, because everyone derives meaning from different aspects of work.
Keeping in mind that everyone is different and each person’s idea of “meaningful” is unique, here are 10 things that make work meaningful:
- Making a Difference or Helping Others
- Following Your Passions or Interests
- Using Your Talents or Achieving Mastery
- Feeling Challenged and Engaged
- Doing Work that Aligns With Your Values
- Feeling a Sense of Belonging
- Having Freedom and Agency or Ownership
- Creating a Legacy or Lasting Impact
- Achieving Status or Receiving Recognition and Respect
- Earning Enough Money
Let’s unpack these one at a time.
1) Making a Difference or Helping Others
Many people derive meaning from making a difference in the world by improving the lives of others, having a positive impact on the environment, or helping to address a critical issue. Aligning your work with your values and your desire to do good is one way to build a meaningful career.
The good news is you don’t have to work on flashy, large-scale humanitarian projects to make an enormous difference in your local context. If you’re already employed, think about the ways you could make your current job to have a positive impact on the world around you, or what other jobs you could apply for that would allow you to do this.
If you have yet to start your career, think about how your skills and passions intersect with opportunities to create a positive impact. Again, making a difference doesn’t have to mean starting a charity. Simply by starting a company that employs even one person and treats them well, you can make a significant difference in the world.
2) Following Your Passions or Interests
If you have a particular passion or interest, aligning your career with something that you’re truly enthusiastic about or that absolutely fascinates you can help you find meaning in your work.
Think about people like athletes, scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, artists, teachers, musicians, to name a few. Many – not all – people in these careers chose them because they have a genuine enthusiasm for their craft or line of work.
Whether there’s a mystery you want to solve, a species you want to study, people you want to help, a sport you excel at, or art music to be made, turning your passion into your career can help you work towards a cohesiveness between work and play. This can help to inject motivation and enjoyment into your work, creating positive feedback loops that lead to success and fulfillment.
There have been responses, critiques, and clarifications to the idea that everyone should “follow their passions” – some going as far as to suggest that modern workers’ belief that we need to be passionate about our jobs is actually making us more miserable – and these perspectives are certainly worth exploring.
Be wary of allowing your passion to become a comfort zone that prevents you from recognizing and seizing other opportunities, and don’t let yourself feel like you’ve failed if you’re not pursuing your passion professionally. There are plenty of other dimensions to meaningful work, and you can always pursue your interests as hobbies.
3) Using Your Talents or Achieving Mastery
Mastery is another aspect of meaningful work. Think about the feeling you get when you’re doing something really well. Not the feeling of external validation you get when someone praises you – simply the pure intrinsic satisfaction of excelling at something, particularly when you’ve worked hard to learn this skill.
This could be the pride a woodworker feels when they’ve lovingly handcrafted a dovetail joint; or the satisfaction an editor feels when they’ve suggested precisely the right word to improve the clarity of a sentence; or the bliss that a dancer feels when they’ve practiced their routine flawlessly.
When considering how you can build a career based on your talents, don’t feel limited by your current skills and think outside the box. What are the skills adjacent to your current talents that might allow you to perform well and gain satisfaction from a variety of different jobs?
For instance, a violinist may have great attention to detail or patience. A soccer player may have awesome discipline and the ability to work collaboratively. These same talents generalize to many domains and activities. Ask yourself “When I am at my all-time best, what am I doing?” and consider which skills you’re using and what kinds of opportunities these skills could be applied to.
4) Feeling Challenged and Engaged
If you’re bored at work, it’s very likely because you don’t feel sufficiently engaged and challenged. You’re not alone. According to a Korn Ferry survey, 33 percent of individuals leaving jobs say the top reason they were leaving was boredom, and the need for new challenges. According to a recent Gallup survey, some 87 percent of millennials say opportunities for development is an important consideration when looking for a job.
Maybe you’re doing the same tasks day in, day out, and you’re frustrated because you’re not getting the opportunity to use your potential. If this is you, don’t wait for someone in management to suddenly recognize your brilliance and give you more responsibility – be proactive and start creating value.
Find problems you can solve and create pitch decks for your ideas to improve customer satisfaction, increase conversions, or whatever it may be. You’d be surprised how easy it can be to build yourself an engaging role you find meaningful. If your employers don’t encourage and reward this type of initiative-taking, it’s probably time to start looking for a job that does.
A career that requires you to learn and grow is more likely to make you feel engaged and challenged and deliver the satisfaction that comes with personal growth.
If you’re self-employed, challenge yourself to learn a new skill or do things that scare you.
If you’re job hunting, research the company’s track record on encouraging professional development and ask interviewers about growth opportunities.
5) Doing Work that Aligns With Your Values
Doing work you can be proud of can be incredibly satisfying, and one way to achieve this is by building a career that reflects your personal values.
If you’re an environmentalist, working for an oil company might not be your best bet at a meaningful career. If you’re a human rights activist, maybe don’t work for a retailer that relies on modern-day slavery.
The good news? You don’t need to work for Doctors Without Borders to do meaningful work. You could work for a company whose ethos aligns with your values, or whose product or service you truly believe makes people’s lives better.
Or, if you’re interested in becoming an entrepreneur, take some time to reflect on your values and what’s important to you, identify a related problem that you can solve, and test a product or service that embodies your principles.
When applying for jobs, research the company’s mission and values to see whether they align with yours. Check out their Glassdoor page to see whether it’s the kind of company culture you can get behind. Read customer testimonials. Check out any blogs or podcasts by current management and see whether these are people whose vision you believe in and who you would like to work with. And don’t be afraid to ask your interviewers questions about their position on the things that matter to you.
6) Feeling a Sense of Belonging
For many people, a career that offers a supportive work environment or uplifting company culture is a source of a sense of meaning. It makes sense – at our roots, humans are social creatures.
Feeling like you’re part of something that matters can be a powerfully inspiring experience, driving you to perform to your full potential because you want to make things happen.
As motivational speaker Jim Rohn once famously said, you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. If you’re surrounded by colleagues who are bored and resigned to mediocrity, you’re not likely to thrive the same way as if you surround yourself with people who challenge you to be the best version of yourself.
As in the entry above, invest time to vet people before you agree to work with them. Figure out whether this is a tribe you feel comfortable being a part of and can see yourself flourishing in.
7) Having Freedom and Agency or Ownership
There’s a lot to be said for careers that give you the freedom and flexibility to live the kind of life you want. Today’s workers seem to be waging a constant war against burnout, with some 77 percent of American workers saying they’ve experienced burnout in their current jobs, and 66 percent saying that they lack work-life balance.
Having the choice to work from home, work flexible hours, or work entirely remotely can lead to a better work-life balance that improves your quality of life and makes your career feel more meaningful. There’s a reason Tim Ferris’s 4-Hour Work Week, which teaches people to reduce the amount of time they spend performing busywork, is a bestseller.
But we don’t all have to be digital nomads to find meaning in our work. Having a sense of agency or control over your work means that you get to decide what’s important, prioritize your tasks, and allocate your time and attention accordingly.
To achieve this, you either need to be your own boss or prove your value and effectiveness to the point where higher-ups trust you to take ownership of your work and make the right decisions.
8) Creating a Legacy or Lasting Impact:
For some people, meaningful work is about creating a lasting impact or a legacy through their work.
Whether it’s through building a startup worth a billion dollars, building a brand or reputation that many people recognize, or launching a product or service that touches the lives of many people, this sense of meaning derives from the feeling that your work is having a concrete impact on the world.
9) Achieving Status or Receiving Recognition and Respect
Frankly, humans like social validation, recognition, and respect. We have innate motivational drives that cause us to seek status. So, if we can align what we find meaning and purpose in, with how we communicate socially, this is a great way to use the status drive as a way to find meaning.
For many people, gaining status or recognition through their career is meaningful in and of itself, whereas for others, this respect is only meaningful when combined with other entries on this list, such as following their passion, achieving mastery in their field, and/or making a positive difference in the world.
For instance, one lawyer might be perfectly happy working for a big corporation where she gains a lot of status and respect for negotiating bulletproof contracts, while another lawyer might take on pro-bono cases to make a difference – and in part, because it earns them social approval and recognition for being a good person (although they might not consciously weigh this as a consideration).
Regardless of how high-powered your career is, recognition and respect can play a huge role in how satisfying or meaningful you find your job. When asked how management can support employees and help them to be successful, 37 percent (the majority) said that recognition was the most important means of support. Moreover, a recent study found that 84 percent of highly engaged employees said that their efforts were recognized the last time they went over and above what was expected of them.
10) Earning Enough Money
Money might not buy happiness, but it can be very difficult to focus on finding meaning in your career when you’re barely making ends meet. Money is only important up to a point though. A recent Hays survey found that 74 percent of younger employees would take a pay cut if they had a chance to work at their ideal job.
While we believe that optimizing your career choices for income early in your career is not the best move because it can limit your development, it’s a good idea to keep potential future income in mind when making career choices.
Early in your career, you can experiment and “try on” different careers with greater ease if you’re able to boil your living expenses – and minimum viable income – down to the essentials. This way, you improve your chances of identifying a career that you find truly meaningful while the stakes are low and it’s (relatively) easy to make changes.
How to Find Build a Meaningful Career
There’s no surefire way to find a meaningful career that will apply to everyone because for each person, the sources of meaning we’ve discussed above apply in different proportions.
For instance, if you grew up in poverty, financial freedom might hold far more meaning for you than for someone who had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. Similarly, if you don’t have any specific passions or interests or you don’t really feel like you have a particular talent that you could build your career on, it may be difficult to imagine this being the foundation of a meaningful career.
That said, there are a number of ways to make it easier to build a career path you find personally fulfilling. Below, we’ve rounded up our top tips.
Gain Experience to Figure Out What Matters to You
One thing we know is that the more you experiment and gain varied experiences and exposure to different lines of work, work environments, and professional networks, the more likely you are to discover what type of work you find meaningful.
With greater experience, you’ll likely also discover more about your own interests, skills, values, priorities, and preferred work style, which will, in turn, allow you to create or align your efforts with projects that get you fired up.
Once you know what meaningful work means to you, you’ll have a framework that allows you to take the reins and create a meaningful career for yourself, whether that’s by cultivating more meaning within the opportunities already available to you, or by seeking or cultivating new opportunities.
Find Your “Ikigai”
If you’re struggling to identify a line of work that feels meaningful to you, you might find the Japanese framework called “ikigai” helpful.
Ikigai roughly translates into “reason for being” and consists of four basic elements that include what you’re passionate about, what your strengths are, what the world needs, and what you can earn money doing. These overlap as in the Venn diagram seen below:
Mapping out your ikigai is meant to help you to identify your purpose in life. The sweet spot is right in the center: your ikigai is doing something that lies at the junction where your talent, passion, desire to make a difference or impact overlap with what you can be paid for.
Use the Process of Elimination
If you still don’t know what kind of work engages/excites you, using a process of elimination can be an effective way of narrowing it down.
Start by asking yourself the following three questions:
- What do you absolutely hate doing?
- What don’t you suck at?
- What do other people value?
As with Ikigai, the intersection of these three answers is a good place to start. Once you have an answer, you have a hypothesis you can test.
Armed with your hypnosis, design experiments that allow you to get the maximum amount of exposure to – and insight into – a prospective line of work as quickly and cheaply as possible. Could you job shadow? Intern? Do a bootcamp? Attend an accelerator? Land an entry-level job? Could you make a change to your current role that would make it more meaningful to you?
Plan how long you’ll spend testing your hypothesis and how you’ll measure whether the experiment was a success or not. What does “meaningful” look and feel like in this role? You can also plan milestones to remind yourself to check in on yourself and how engaged you’re feeling.
Run your experiment and self-evaluate the outcomes. It’s also useful to get others to weigh in, especially if you’re dipping your toe into a new industry. Embrace the practice of learning out loud and you’ll find that you’re soon surrounded by a community of people with similar interests and drives, some of whom can inspire and advise you while others, in turn, look to you for knowledge and support.
Once you have a good sense of the success (or lack thereof) of your experiment, take action. If the change you made was a good one, double down and start taking steps to reinforce that change to make your career more fulfilling. If the change didn’t feel like it sent you in the right direction, it’s time to test another hypothesis and repeat the process.
Keep Your Finger On the Pulse
According to a 2016 study, individuals who write down their goals and dreams on a regular basis are 42 percent more likely to achieve them. It makes sense: in order to write your goals down, you need to know what they are.
Regularly checking in on what your goals and priorities are and evaluating whether your current career and lifestyle are bringing you closer to them is probably the surest way to ensure you don’t become complacent and wake up with a jolt after wasted years of hating your job when you could have been building your dream career.
Forget About Long-Term Planning Early In Your Career
We often compare real things with idealized, false alternatives. This phenomenon is known as the nirvana fallacy, a cognitive bias it’s best to ignore early in your career because it can cause you to miss out on a lot of opportunities.
For instance, say you design a five-year plan to become a UX designer and this causes you to ignore sales and marketing opportunities. The problem with this is that you’re trading all the potential upside that’s latent within the jobs you’re ignoring.
Additionally, by crushing it at a gig that’s not directly related to your long-term goals, you expand your network and increase the possibility of finding a design job through your new connections. Instead of a 5-year plan, you could find yourself doing UX design in far less time.
The upshot is to maximize your time creating value and have a bias towards action that drives you to say yes! when opportunities come your way.
To learn more about cultivating a bias for action, mastering self-directed education, and adopting a value-creation mindset, check out Praxis, the college alternative that has helped hundreds of individuals to identify fulfilling career paths.
For more free resources to help you build a meaningful career, check out our podcast, Forward Tilt.