Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

A 30-Something's Guide to Finding Purpose (Without Quitting Your Job)

A logo with "the muse" in white text.

If you’re anything like me, you hit 30 and started to examine your life more closely than you have before. You reflect on your relationships, health, finances, and of course, your career. You question if your decisions so far have been right and you consider the purpose of your work—what it is and whether or not you’ve found yours.

You realize that you’ve spent more time than you care to admit working at jobs, sitting on teams, and commuting to offices to report to organizations that don’t match with the mission and values that motivate you to do your best work—a.k.a., your purpose. You realize you’re not doing work you truly love and you wonder if the path you’re on is the wrong one.

So, what do you do now?

1. Acknowledge Your Accomplishments

Many people claim that work gets better as you get older. The experience and self-awareness you have now is so much greater than what you possessed when you joined the workforce roughly 10 or 15 years ago. You’re more confident. You can crush projects that used to feel daunting, and you’ve learned how to really communicate with your managers.

Although you may not feel particularly fulfilled right now as you contemplate where the heck it is you’re going, remember that all of your professional achievements shape who you are and what you’re capable of. Don’t lose sight of that.

Avoid the temptation to throw all of your accomplishments out the window just because you’re in a rut. Make a note of the specific instances in which you’ve felt the most engaged, motivated, and inspired to do your best work, and aim to do more of that where you are.

Leverage the insight you’ve gained over the past decade to find and celebrate work wins, large and small. There may be things you can do today that bring you a sense of purpose.

2. Identify What Really Matters

When you first started out, your thought process most likely was: College major + previous experience + available job openings = life's work. You followed this path because it seemed like the next logical step (and because everyone else was doing it)—even though you might not have felt committed to it.

Now that you’re in your thirties and any hesitation you felt then when you were landing your first or second job is probably heightened. You not only have a greater sense of what you want from your career (particularly if you’re starting to question the industry you’re in), you're also well versed in what you don't want—from the kind of leader you want to be, to how much climbing the ladder means to you, or doesn’t.

Knowing what matters can provide a powerful sense of direction. Whether that’s compensation, work-life balance, or projects that allow you to be creative, simply identifying what you care about is a big step in forging ahead.

3. Refuse to Settle

The most important thing to remember when it comes to figuring out what you’re meant to do for work, is that it’s never too late to pursue purpose. Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, spent most of his early years trying to figure out what his purpose was and he’s got a resume to prove it, having worked as a musician, part-time composer, and nanny. If he’d chosen to settle for work that didn’t inspire and motivate him, then he wouldn’t have gone on to found Pandora at the age of 35.

While your specific purpose may not be to create the next big thing (mine certainly isn’t) or to even switch industries or companies, what we can all learn from Westergren’s example is that if something about your career isn’t working, you’ve got to have the courage to keep searching for something that does—whatever it may be.

Finding your purpose isn't about suddenly waking up one day, realizing you hate your job, and then promptly changing careers—at least that’s not the way it happened for me. Instead, it’s about taking the time to reflect and embrace these concepts (acknowledging how much you've accomplished, identifying what you truly care about professionally, and refusing to settle) in a way that allows you to tap into what’s working and what’s not.

As someone who’s living and working in her purpose every day, I’d encourage you to remember this one thing as you set out to figure out yours: You’ve got this.

It’s your life and your career path. Everything you’ve experienced over the past three decades has left behind a valuable lesson that, if leveraged, will provide you with all the insight you need to figure out what comes next.

Photo of woman on laptop courtesy of JohnnyGreig/Getty Images.