What is fulfilling about your work?

So if it’s not money and status – what does bring fulfillment?

There are different core elements that make up fulfilling work. One of these elements is the sense that your work has meaning. That is, your work imparts a feeling of contributing to the world in a positive way.

When young students are asked about what they expect from their future employment, they’ll often answer, “I want to make a difference.” But what do they mean by this and how do they intend to do it?

Well, we tend to think of our jobs as more fulfilling when we feel we’re making a meaningful contribution to something that benefits our planet and our fellow humans. When afforded such an opportunity, our personal happiness increases, too. One study on ethical work shows that people who regard their job as “work of expert quality that benefits the broader society” also report significantly higher job satisfaction.

But people hoping to wed ethics and enterprise often hit a snag; ethics and business seem irreconcilable. These two things, however, are not mutually exclusive.

Take, for example, Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop. She described The Body Shop as “a hair and skin company that works for positive social change.” From the start, she was able to combine enterprise and ethics: she displayed photos of missing persons on Body Shop trucks, launched a magazine sold by homeless people and pioneered fair trade, buying ingredients from indigenous communities in Brazil.

It may not be a walk in the park, but Anita Roddick is proof that integrating your ethical ideals into your business may not be as difficult as you think, either.

When sharing your career ideas with friends and family, you’ve probably been instructed to “just do what you love.” Although encouraging, this nugget of wisdom, easily said, is harder to adhere to. Because the question is – what exactly do you love doing?

In order to find out what you’re passionate about, set aside some time to mull over what gives you a flow experience.

Flow is a state of total focus and concentration where you’re so absorbed in your activity that you forget about everything else. Engaging in what you love is usually accompanied by this feeling.

There are different ways to experience flow, depending on your own unique blend of talents and passions. It might be playing piano, public speaking, building things, doing yoga, programing or doing a surgical operation. Interestingly, surgeons who require absolute concentration when performing difficult operations often report that they lose their sense of time or that it passes faster than usual.

There’s overwhelming evidence that the flow experience is crucial to happiness in life and work because it gives us a gratifying sense of being able to fully access our potential.

So if you’re stuck in a job where you experience no flow at all, consider finding another that does allow you this sensation. Here are two ways to go about finding this work:

First, try conversational research. This means simply asking different people about their work. Don’t be too broad; ask specifically if they ever experience flow in their job.

Second, you could observe yourself and your flow experiences by keeping a flow diary. Was that report absorbing and satisfying to write? Or did you feel more flow during that weekend when you were cooking for your guests?

Here’s why most people are frustrated with their current job: they come home late, with no energy left to do what they really love, and tomorrow is but another identical day. If you can sympathize, you’re certainly not alone. Most people feel trapped in some abysmal job.

A core element proven to be part of job satisfaction is to have a “span of autonomy,” that is, some time where you’re at liberty to make your own decisions. The more freedom you experience, the happier you’ll be.

So what can you do? Well, when it comes to work, there are two different ways to increase autonomy and freedom.

The first is through self-employment, which comes, naturally, with both pros and cons.

One advantage is that the self-employed stand a higher chance of feeling fulfilled than those wallowing in ordinary jobs. In a study of the UK’s Work Foundation, 47 percent of self-employed workers stated they were “very satisfied” with their work; in contrast, a mere 17 percent of workers employed by others reported high satisfaction.

But of course there are drawbacks, too. Self-employment does come with financial risks and additional working hours in the evening or on the weekend; there’s no regular holiday or sick pay, and no promotions.

The other option is to find freedom outside the office by working less.

Why not try working four days a week instead of five? You could use the free day to focus on what you really love or even to spend more time with your family.

Working less might seem unrealistic financially, but if you make it your goal to cut the fat on your expenses, spending less time and money on things you don’t really need, you won’t need to work as much and you’ll have more time to enjoy your life.

So now that you know what makes a job fulfilling, let’s get straight to the part that so many of us really seem to struggle with – actually finding fulfilling work.

The first hurdle is overcoming the fear that goes hand in hand with the thought of a major career change. However, if you’re fully aware of the psychology behind this fear, you’ll be able to defeat it.

What’s this fear all about? One answer is our psychological approach to risk. Psychologists have found that it’s in our nature to fear loss twice as much as we covet gain. Therefore, we naturally abhor risk-taking and are inclined to focus more on the negative than the positive effects.

So rather than being bound by risk and letting fear dictate your life, remember that you’re probably overdoing it on the negative thoughts. Try taking the risk regardless!

The next step is to reflect on what kind of job you’d love. There are three steps that can help you do this:

First, consider your career so far. What qualifications and skills have you earned and learned? What motivated you to acquire them?

The second step is a straightforward yet powerful thought experiment. Imagine you could lead five different lives in five different parallel universes; in each, you are totally free to pursue any career you want. What kind of jobs would you choose for yourself? Could you potentially do them in this earthly reality, too?

Third, ask people in your social circles what job they think you’d shine in. Sometimes people around us can be better judges than ourselves. Be sure to ask for concrete answers. For example, “helping street kids in Rio de Janeiro” is far more useful than “something with children.”

Most career advisors instruct you to plan out your career in as much detail as possible before you execute it. There’s a problem with this approach, however: it hardly ever works.

A far more effective approach is adopting the mantra “act first, and reflect later” – meaning it’s better to try out several jobs than to fritter away the hours in search of the perfect position in print or online.

Recent research has shown that substantial change is best seen by “experiential learning.” Consider Laura van Bouchet. She was frustrated about not landing a fulfilling job in her late twenties. As her career counselor was also at a loss, Laura took it upon herself to try an experiment: she tried out 30 different jobs in a year to see which would suit her best. She contacted people who she thought had fulfilling jobs and asked if she could follow them, ultimately involving herself in everything from fashion photography to shadowing a member of the European Parliament.

The “radical sabbatical” taken by Laura offers total freedom to flirt with a wide range of jobs, either by shadowing people or by volunteering. But if this isn’t quite feasible for you, there are other approaches to try out.

A less radical approach is the “temporary assignment.” For example, if you’re languishing in your current job and toying with the idea of becoming a yoga teacher, you could try doing this on your weekends. If you find the work is as rewarding as you’d hoped, you can gradually increase your work and eventually quit the stuffy job you never really enjoyed.

Finally, there’s “conversational research.” It’s simple, but very effective: talk to people about whose jobs you’re curious. Ask them to describe their daily work in detail and see if you could picture yourself doing it.

When it comes to career and family, most of us want to have it all: we want the rewards of meaningful work and of dedicated partnership and parenthood. But is this possible and, if so, how do we get it?

Start by rethinking the roles traditionally laid out for men and women; if you don’t already, you should start regarding both father and mother as equal partners.

The last few decades have been rife with emancipation, and yet it’s still often assumed that women will do most of the childcare and domestic work. It’s therefore often women, not men, who end up leaving or adapting their careers.

Parents should strive to equally share work and support one another, instead of making mom the sole juggler of family and career.

It also pays to alternate between family and career, instead of trying to excel at both simultaneously. Try being a full-time parent first; afterwards, concentrate solely on your career.

When a couple has a child, one parent – usually the mother – prunes work down to part-time hours, which is considered the way the family can “have it all.” Instead, however, such families are often able to reap neither the benefits of work nor family, as they can’t fully focus on one thing or the other. They’re unable to thrive in their part-time job and they can’t completely dedicate themselves to their children.

Finally, take another look at parenthood. It can lead your career down paths that you wouldn’t have dreamed of before. Brian Campbell, a Canadian single-father of four boys, left his academic career to become a full-time parent. Passionate about getting his boys involved with nature, he started keeping bees. As a result, he ended up owning a small bee farm, in addition to some hives around the city, and began teaching courses on urban beekeeping.

We’ve learned nearly everything about finding fulfilling work, but there is a final, vital element – your vocation.

Why is a vocation so critical? Well, vocation is something that gives purpose to your work in its entirety. It’s a broader goal that you are pursuing, the thing that gets you out of bed every day.

For example, if you’re a medical researcher, your goal might be to find a cure for lung cancer. If you’re an environmental activist, your dream might be to have cities flourish with reduced carbon emissions. If you’re a writer, you might set your sights on penning the greatest novel since Joyce’s Ulysses.

But while a vocation provides your life with meaning, it’s hard to develop. This is because we hold certain fundamentally flawed assumptions about the nature of vocations.

Most people believe there is one perfect job out there waiting for them, and that it will reveal itself in a sudden flash of inspiration. Or that they just have to search long and hard enough to find it. But that’s not how it goes.

You won’t suddenly stumble upon the perfect vocation; instead, it germinates within you, slowly growing as your sustained work nurtures it.

Consider Marie Curie. Moving to Paris at the age of 24, penniless, with only her talent to support her, she started her medical studies; she then shifted to chemistry and physics. She was absolutely devoted to her work and spent up to 12 hours in the laboratory every day, surviving on only bread and butter for months on end. She then turned her research to uranium rays. As she became more and more interested in them, her vocation developed until she realized she wanted to dedicate her life to discovering the secrets of radiation. She finally did this and, in 1903, she became the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize.

It really does pay, then, not to demand that your vocation be revealed to you immediately. Instead, allow it to form through your experience.

In these times of complexity and choice, good pay and social status are no longer good enough. We want our work to be purposeful, meaningful and rich with freedom and flow. In order to find exactly that, we must abort meticulous planning, try things out, take some risks and learn from our experiences.

So here’s some homework for you: Write a job advertisement for yourself.

Step one: Imagine you have to advertise yourself in a newspaper. Describe your qualities, passions and talents and your minimum expectations of a future job. Don’t be overly specific and don’t mention a particular job you want.

Step two: Send your job advertisement to 10 people you know. Make sure these people have varied experiences – send it to a police officer as well as a cartoonist. Then ask these 10 people to suggest three jobs that they think would suit you best.

Hope you find the homework fulfilling!

Check out my related post: Have you read Work Rules?

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