Maybe you’re already familiar with this scenario. You’ve (finally) finished college; you’ve been waiting forever to get this far. All you want is to start working, earn money, and enjoy some of that free time stolen by late hours of study – time you plan to put toward pursuing your beloved hobbies.
But then what happens? Day after day you get stuck at work; you feel unimportant and bored. Each spare moment finds you dreaming yourself away to a tropical island. There’s no time for leisure or fun. You expect the gray hairs to start sprouting apace.
Finding fulfilling work is not easy – at all. Today, it’s not only about providing for yourself and your family. Work is much more than that. It’s about finding work that fulfills you. In “How to Find Fulfilling Work”, author Roman Krznaric defines the concept of fulfilling work, and, maybe more importantly, introduces several steps you can take to find and achieve it.
Did you know that at least 50 percent of workers in the Western world are unhappy with their jobs? A survey across Europe even suggests that if people had the option to start over, 60 percent would choose a different career path. But what makes them so unhappy?
The dissatisfaction we feel at work often stems from the fact that our expectations are higher than ever before. Modern workers don’t just pursue decent pay – they expect their job to give their life meaning.
However, this wasn’t always the case. People used to be happy with having a roof over their heads and food on the table. But now that most of us, in the Western world, are relatively affluent and can meet our basic needs, we’re looking for more than just good pay.
So while you would probably reach the end of your tether toiling away on an assembly line, your grandparents were probably fine with it and even grateful to be able to pay their bills.
Nowadays, we’re after a feeling of purpose and want to pursue our personal passions, values and talents. Basically, we want our job to be fulfilling.
What, then, should we do? Well, you can either lower your expectations (supporters of this approach say that work has always been tedious and never a joy, and that therefore we should lower our expectations and look for fulfillment outside of work) or you can join those who think finding fulfilling work is possible, if perhaps challenging.
The latter approach encourages you to pursue your dreams, instead of regretting that you never tried to free yourself from the shackles of your unfulfilling job.
It’s fairly obvious that we’ll now proceed with the latter strategy! But before we see exactly what makes a career fulfilling, let’s try to better understand why meaningful work can be so difficult to find.
In the world of today, many of us face a crisis of uncertainty and confusion when trying to choose a career path. At the root of our bewilderment lies the fact that there are simply too many paths to choose from.
Such an overwhelming wealth of options is unprecedented in our history, so we’re pretty ill-equipped to handle it. A few decades ago, there simply weren’t many career choices to face.
Consider the young Benjamin Franklin. At the spritely age of twelve, he was tired of working as a tallow chandler, so his father decided to help him find a new job. Together, they took a stroll through the streets and observed different workers in action, such as joiners and bricklayers. They ended up at a printer, where young Benjamin’s father decided that his son, an incorrigible bookworm, should take up the profession. And so Benjamin was a printer for the next nine years.
If only things were still so simple. Today, when you visit a career website, such as careerplanner.com, you’ll come across around 12,000 different careers. Hardly a quantity that is easy to sift, let alone choose from!
Paradoxically, we don’t feel thankful for this plethora of possibility, all because we’re not psychologically able to deal with an overload of choice.
In his book, The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz says the consequence of facing too many options is, not feelings of happiness and liberation, but a sort of paralysis, an inability to do anything at all.
And even if we do make a decision, we often still feel unsatisfied. Why? Because, though the decision has been made, the rejected options lurk in the back of the mind. Is ours really the right career? What if we’ve made a terrible mistake? And so we’re haunted by the possibility that our choice was the wrong one.
Sometimes it’s not being inundated with choice that’s the problem, but feeling trapped in a particular job. In such cases, change is what’s difficult. We often feel stuck because we’ve spent so much time and energy on the education that landed us a certain job – a job with which we’re now dissatisfied. So what to do?
There’s a considerable force that keeps us trapped in unfulfilling work: those early decisions that led us down a particular career path. As a result, we feel bound by our educational past.
The problem is that we’re asked to make career decisions too early. How is an eighteen-year-old high school graduate supposed to know the exact job that best suits her interests and talents?
Most of us have been through it: When you were in your late teens, your parents told you to study law or medicine. But as you grew older, you discovered more about yourself, you grew and changed, and by your late twenties it dawned on you that you’d rather pursue something completely different, like music or psychology.
But once you start down a career path, it’s very hard to stray from it. All those years, all that money, wasted on education!
If you want to make a career change, you have to change your mindset and overcome this psychological hurdle. Think of it as a decision between two types of regret: you’ll either regret that you abandoned the career you invested so much time and energy in, or you’ll regret that you never had the guts to quit and set out in pursuit of a more fulfilling future.
Perhaps this will help you choose: psychological research has shown that the regret of not taking action on things that are really important to you is one of the most corrosive emotions you can experience. Opting for career change is the way to go.
So what are the core components that make a career fulfilling? The old-fashioned, knee-jerk response is “money and status.” But is that really true?
Sure, the bills must be paid with something, but money, as a pure happiness-enhancer, isn’t very effective. In fact, countless social science studies have shown that there is no clear relationship between happiness and monetary wealth.
While evidence shows that money contributes to your well-being up to a certain point – the meeting of your basic needs – it gives but little satisfaction once you earn beyond this point. This is due to a psychological mechanism called the “hedonic treadmill”: we purchase some new product, like a wide-screen TV, and quickly grow accustomed to and tired of it. This leads to higher expectations, and we hope the next thing, like a bigger, better screen, will bring satisfaction. Thus we get caught up in a vicious cycle of wanting – to which there’s no happy end.
So money isn’t the answer. But what about social status or recognition from others? It’s true that we all love to be acknowledged; the road to higher status, however, is also strewn with pitfalls.
For one, we limit ourselves to doing the things that make other people appreciate us. We judge ourselves through the eyes of others, instead of pursuing what we want for ourselves.
Another pitfall is that once we’ve attained some status – being promoted, say – there is still another, more prestigious position above us, and there forever will be. And so we lust after the next position, and then the next, until we are again stuck on an endless, unfulfilling treadmill of wanting something we don’t have.
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