We spend about 80,000 hours of our life engrossed in our chosen careers; and a majority of those hours, for a majority of people, are spent being disengaged at work. One reason may be that we end up being round pegs in square holes.
Our initial career choices are mostly determined by parental expectations, peer pressures, financial security concerns or status and prestige of those professions. For some of us, it may be driven by an overarching interest or passion; but for most of us, a highly paid job with least amount of stress seems like a good deal.
But that doesn’t explain high levels of disengagement and lowered fulfillment in many people holding high paying jobs or a sense of boredom and ennui in those holding routine jobs requiring little stress. We may figure out that probably such lives are lacking in meaning and hence not fulfilling – and to make our work lives fulfilling we need to add meaning to it.
And we are right to an extent. But how do we add meaning to our lives? and is that the only answer?
The right answer, imho, lies in choosing a career such that it satisfies the four major goals of life: Happiness, Success, Meaning and Morality/Integrity. Let me elaborate.
- Happiness: Happiness, in the moment, can be thought of as a plethora of positive emotions over a scarcity of negative emotions. One aim of determining the right job for yourself could be answering whether that job will feel pleasant while executing and will have least amount of stress/ anxiety/ negative experiences. However, a better predictor of job satisfaction would be answering which are the jobs in which you lose sense of time, perform at your peak and are in the zone. In short in which types of work do you have more opportunities to have ‘flow‘ experiences. We have more flow experiences at work than at home and its important you chose a career that affords possibility of such experiences. For e.g. 2 years ago I had a mid life career crisis and had to decide between remaining a software professional or move to life/ strengths coaching. I enjoy coding, I enjoy managing people and especially coding and debugging allowed me to enter focused flow experiences often; similarly whenever I am with a client or conducting a workshop, I am in flow, so both options provided and will continue to provide flow experiences. So couldn’t decide on this alone.
- Success: Success is often a result of excelling at what you do. And a lot of factors affect your performance and excellence. While some believe that excellence is a function of aligning your work with innate talents, other believe talent is overrated and things like deliberate practice and plain old hard work are really important and that the skills you have developed over the years are to be the guiding principle. A similar strand suggests that one has a unique passion/ overarching interest (just like talents), and discovering that is a panacea; others believe that passion has to be cultivated and developed slowly by investing your time and energy and committing to something. A middle ground is to discover and honor your strengths (which is a combination of talent +investment + skills + knowledge) and your potential (aptitude rather than mere interest or skill). In deciding between a software job and a psychology based career my strengths like maximizer, individualization, relator made me lean towards coaching while arranger was a good fit for management career in software. Also, pragmatically speaking, you need to consider your odds of success while choosing the career. For e.g. as per study with college undergraduates, about 90 % had strong interests in arts, sports or music but there were less than 1 % jobs for the same. That doesn’t mean you should not try if you have good aptitude/ strength in that area, juts be cognizant of your odds of success.
- Meaning: Meaning often results from doing something that either feels very subjectively fulfilling or can be objectively seen to be making a real impact in the world out there. That is why teaching can be so meaning filled activity, as its highly subjectively fulfilling, though perhaps the real world impact can be seen much later only. Similarly, doing social work directly can feel so enchanting and meaning suffused as it provides opportunities to see real world impact in the here and now. However, without getting entangled and caught up in whether the work you are doing is either subjectively fulfilling or objectively impactful, you can use a simple metric: does it help people and if so how many (quantitative) and to what extent(qualitative difference). For e.g. in my role as a manager, I was perhaps touching the lives of a few peers and direct reports, but as a coach/ workshop facilitator I could perhaps touch a larger number of people and make greater contributions.
- Morality/Integrity: Finally, your work should be such that you can look at the man in the mirror and be proud of what you do on a daily basis. You can do this either by choosing a job that requires authenticity (being true to yourself- your values, potential etc) or by choosing a job out of a moral imperative of what is required of you (- your duty to others). Again without getting too much caught between whether your dharama is what is authentic to you or what is your socially sanctioned duty, a good thumb of rule may be to find the fit between you and the world. Where do your values align with the needs of the world. In my case it was clear that coaching/ workshops will provide me more avenues for aligning my values with what I needed to do.
When it comes to choosing a career, there are no easy answers and each individual’s journey will be different and unique; but hopefully thinking about your career in these terms will make you best suited to make your mark on the world and have fulfillment too!