In my senior year of college, my roommates and I would prep together for our finance and accounting interviews. They would discuss valuations; I would run through different assets and liabilities. We wrote questions for our interviewers: What is the work-life balance like? What is a typical career track? We even tried to stump each other on the dreaded trick questions: How many cabs are on New York City streets at rush hour? How do you make a M&M? (Apparently, mommy and daddy M&M fall in love and make baby M&M.)
We thought we were prepared. We had all the “right” answers. But what we were missing was a real understanding of ourselves in our future roles. Sure, we cared about the company, the salary, the industry—all important. What we didn’t understand, though, was how we would find meaning in our careers and our lives. How did we ourselves approach work? How we would align our purpose to our future professions, where we would spend half our waking lives?
More and more professionals are viewing their careers as dynamic, moving around in different industries and roles, but centering their work around what gives them meaning and purpose. In fact, whole companies are built around this idea: Nathaniel Koloc, who graduated from college in 2008 and saw that jobs are more often viewed as stepping stones along a much longer career “journey,” co-founded the nonprofit recruiting company ReWork to help professionals find purpose-rich work.
The truth is, instead of auditioning for a role, job searching has become more like shopping. And like buying a new outfit, it’s helpful to have a thorough understanding of yourself before you go into the fitting room—your assets, your liabilities, and what makes you smile, instead of buying anything and getting stuck not being able to return it.
The key to getting a job now is understanding how you and your potential employer fit together. To do that, you have to understand how you find purpose at work and what drives that. Purpose isn’t the question of what you’re going to be when you grow up. That’s the same as imagining your wedding before you even meet someone! Sure, it’s fun, it’s fantasy, but a Pinterest board won’t tell you what marriage is.
Finding purpose in your career is about finding what excites you, and ultimately, what will allow you to create the most meaningful impact in the world. It’s about your desire for impact, personal growth, and relationships. Clearly understanding what drives purpose for you greatly increases your odds of success in a particular role or company.
So, as you’re “shopping” for jobs, start by asking yourself who, why, and how:
1. Who Do You Work For?
Some people prefer to work on an individual level—one-on-one with other people—while others prefer the organizational or societal level. Think about where you fall on that spectrum, then look to the clients, customers, and participants of your potential employer. If the company you are interviewing for works on the broader organization level, and you prefer to work with individuals to drive change, it will be harder to generate your purpose.
2. Why Do You Work?
The foundation of our purpose lies in our definition of progress. Some people believe that hard work will be rewarded with success, while others believe that there is a certain moral responsibility to serve, and if you don’t, chaos will ensue. And it’s important to understand how your motivations mesh with your future employer’s. If, for example, you’re in an organization that believes that social engineering and intervention is necessary to drive change, but you feel that if you invest, the market will rise accordingly, the difference of ideology will affect your work.
3. How Do You Work?
We gain perhaps the most purpose in how we approach our work—how we solve problems and engage in the creative process. There are four main types of people: Community-centered professionals advocate and forge connections in the community. Human-centered professionals create personal and unique experiences for individuals. Structure-driven folks look at the integration of entire systems and strategic shifts. And those who are knowledge-driven look to the data to understand the applications, people, or processes.
Look at your potential roles and employers and ask yourself how would you serve and whether that aligns with your purpose. If you are human-centered but find yourself in a role where you’re primarily engaging through databases, it likely will not drive you.
A Resource to Get Started
To help you answer these questions and understand how you can find purpose in your career, check out Imperative. The platform allows you to define your own purpose so that you can take steps to incorporate it into your current and future work. For example, I learned that whether I write humorous pieces or about finding meaning at work, my purpose is the same: I engage communities through self-expression.
Instead of just getting through the interview, cultivating a sense of self-awareness will allow you to understand the purpose of your work and thus result in a more meaningful approach to the job process. Best of all, you won’t have to spin or sell yourself as a fit for the job. You’ll gain the confidence to clinch a position that best serves who you are.