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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

The Foolproof Guide to Finding True Career Fulfillment

I've had a few jobs in my time.

From selling jeans at The Gap to putting on a Rihanna concert, I've tried my hand at a few different things. I'll bet you have, too—getting far away from the gigs that didn't work out and always trying your best to move on to bigger and better things.

So, why does it sometimes feel like you still don't know what it is you really want to do? Why isn't it all just coming together? When will you be done with all the seeking and searching?

While I can’t answer all of those questions for you, I can share five things I’ve learned along the way about long-term job satisfaction. Consider this if you want to find the best darn job of your life.

Forget the Perks

Things like job security, company policies, work conditions, compensation, and location can all be great ways to help you make a career decision. But if you're focusing on these factors alone, it's unlikely that you'll find real satisfaction and fulfillment in your work.


When these things go wrong you certainly know about it, and they can lead to a lot of work-related stress or dissatisfaction. But, as described by Frederick Herzberg in his classic Harvard Business Review article, putting these factors in place, working to improve them, or even fixing them does not mean you'll love your work. They’re not the elements that offer you the chance to find joy in your work or for your work to even be satisfying. At most, taking care of these things will give you an absence of dissatisfaction.

In other words, fulfillment will never come from the extrinsic qualities of a job, only from the intrinsic qualities of the work. So, rather than looking at these factors as the providers for fulfillment, consider them as just one small part of your career decisions.

Know What Amounts to a Hill o' Beans

I know how elusive it can be to figure out what you really want. Sometimes you think you've nailed it, but a little time goes by and you see that it was just a bit of a fad. Working at a winery or writing witty website headlines passed some time and might have been fun, but it wasn't the thing you've been looking for.

Figuring out what you really want cannot be done without figuring out what it is that matters to you. So, take some time to consider: What’s always been there, exerting a pull over you? What breaks your heart when you see it? If you could make a simple, graceful difference to a person, a group, or a community, what would it be?

Now, don’t overthink this, and remember that there might not be one single answer. The point is to look for something that resonates; something you connect with; something that just might be compelling enough to get involved with.

There's really no substitute for doing something that amounts to a hill o' beans.

Stop Chasing Status

A 2002 study into primates showed that status equals survival: Monkeys who were higher in the pecking order had lower baseline levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), lived longer, and were generally healthier.

You're no primate, but you’re not so different. Your brain is wired not only to figure out where you sit in the professional pecking order against others, but to reinforce your position in that pecking order.

In other words, if your status goes up (you get promoted, you make more money than your friends for the first time) your brain gives you a wonderful, feel-good hit of dopamine as a reward. If it goes down (your co-worker gets promoted, someone else gets the assignment you’ve been after), the same regions of the brain as physical pain get lit up like Christmas. So you start doing things to support, reinforce, or elevate your position.

The problem?

When you get wrapped up in establishing or maintaining status, you're missing all of the points. You won't be doing great work, you won't be in a place where you can enjoy your work, your co-workers won't respect you, and there's a fair chance you'll be miserable.

Your work is not about status. Leave it to the monkeys.

Watch for Transference

If you’re single and searching for “The One,” it might be tempting to become a dating coach so you’re right in the center of that world. If you feel as though you lack the power to direct your life, it might be tempting to land a job in law where you can confidently follow the rules and steer what happens. Or maybe if your personal finances are a mess, you’d be tempted to get into banking so you can make enough money for it not to matter.

Sorry, doesn’t work that way. Nobody's perfect, of course, but if you go into a job with a secret desire to fix something in yourself or to compensate for a sense of lack somewhere else, you're in it for the wrong reasons.

A job won't fix you or complete you any more than a new car or a deep-tissue massage will. The best reason to do any job is because of the difference you get to make through it, not the difference it can make to you.

Work Easy

Work can sometimes feel like you're pushing water uphill. And should you ever get it there, the guy at the top has just decided he’s not thirsty. Problems and issues abound, and nobody else seems to get it but you. No doubt about it, work is hard.

It's a lot harder if you struggle with it though, and I know from bitter experience that the more I resist, fight, and struggle with my work, the less I enjoy it, the less I get out of it, and the less I put into it. The net result, not surprisingly, is bad work and a bad experience.

So, always ask yourself what would be an easier way. If you find yourself in the mire with corporate politics, take a look at how you relate to your friends to help cut right through and relate to people in a more natural way. If you’re faced with a challenge that feels too big, trust yourself to simply start and know that you have what it takes to figure it out.

Using your natural strengths and talents is what allows you to do your best work, and making the simple choice to stop struggling or resisting and to engage with everything you've got makes all the difference.

Make work easy.


One More Thing

None of these ideas and strategies will help you unless you do one more thing.

Make a choice.

Whether you decide to do your current job better or to explore a field of work that’s more you, make a choice that feels like you're taking a stand in your life.

Don't sweat it. Don't beat yourself up about it. It'll probably be scary or uncomfortable, but you always get to make a new choice if this one doesn't work out.

Tell me in the comments section: What might your next choice look like?

Photo of woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.