So you’re about to graduate (or you did recently), and you know that you want to find work that inspires you. But you’re not exactly sure how to do that, and that’s nerve-wracking. And to make matters worse, people are telling you that you’re being “perhaps a little idealistic” and that you “would be lucky to find any job in this economy!” Not the most encouraging situation.
At ReWork, we’ve talked with thousands of young professionals who feel similarly and who are now charting their course. And I am here to tell you that, while it’s not always easy, it is possible. Here are the things to keep in mind if you don’t want to settle.
1. Prioritize Exploration
Before you can realistically find work that you love, you need to know what you love. For most people, this isn’t easy.
If you don’t yet have a fully developed sense of what you love, prioritize exploration. Prioritize learning. Prioritize putting yourself in new contexts, in new work environments, with new sorts of goals, challenges, and resources to work with. Not only will you get to try all sorts of things out, you’ll prove to your future employers that you are versatile, adaptable, and have a range of experiences to draw on when solving problems.
And you don’t have to job-hop to do this. Contrary to what most believe, you can do this in the context of a corporate job, if you think ahead and be proactive with taking on side projects and new initiatives at the company. Or, if you’re okay with high levels of uncertainty, you can certainly move around from job to job or project to project at different companies.
Once you've had a chance to explore for a while, you will likely notice a pattern beginning to form—both in terms of the skills that you love using and the passions that have emerged from your experiences. You can then use this pattern to choose next steps, build your confidence, and demonstrate to employers that you know why you’re a good fit for their company.
2. Focus on Values
Here’s the truth about meaningful work: It’s entirely subjective. For the most part, fulfillment boils down to three things: feeling aligned with the company's mission, enjoying your day-to-day work, and feeling like a valuable member of the team you’re working with. It has less to do with what products the company sells, or the exact nature of its environmental footprint, or the robustness of its corporate responsibility programs. You will find talented, smart, caring people working at companies that run the entire spectrum of these things. It’s a matter of who fits where.
What’s consistent among people who feel inspired by their work is an alignment of values. “Values” is a vague term, but we view this as a feeling that what someone does is consistent with who he or she is.
If you’re trying to choose between two very different opportunities (for example, a well-respected job at a marketing agency vs. a role at an interesting but unknown social enterprise), try not to base the decision on salary or resume or the expectations of friends and family. Make the decision based on this question: Where can I most effectively live my values while learning the most?
3. Get Comfortable With (Calculated) Risks
Almost everyone who finds his or her way into a career he or she truly loves will face, at one point or another, a leap of faith or a calculated risk. Whether it's quitting a comfortable job, starting a project that has a high likelihood of failure, or breaking the news to your parents that you're not going to law school after all, these sorts of scary decisions tend to be par for the course in charting your unique career path.
If you have trouble taking risks (and who doesn’t at first?), practice by doing small things to test your tolerance for uncertainty and failure. Get in touch with people you don’t know who seem like they are doing cool things, and ask them about their story. Plan events that have a purpose and see if you can pull them off. Fundraise for a cause that you care about and see how successful you are. Set professional goals that seem scary at first, and measure your progress towards them.
4. Don't Be a Martyr
Many people think that they need to make a statement by rejecting traditional career paths as a show of how much they care about finding the perfect job, even turning down (or quitting) good options because they aren’t perfect. But really, you don’t have to put yourself into borderline poverty in order to make a statement about your long-term career goals. In fact, making extreme financial sacrifices early in your career may force you into a situation where you have to compromise more on your values later, when factors like a spouse, kids, and a mortgage enter the picture.
Though we never advise compromising your values for higher pay, we do advise being realistic and understanding that life is a marathon, not a sprint. You have decades to move toward the life that you want (of which meaningful work is just one part). If you need to take a less satisfying job while you make plans, save money for a big idea, or build critical skills, then do it—and own up to the fact that you’re doing it for a good reason.
5. But Don't Get Stuck, Either
That said, the pitfall of taking a job "just for now" is that for many people, that turns into "how the hell did I get here?" five or 10 or 20 years down the road. If meaningful work is a priority to you, don't talk yourself into complacency in a setting that isn't making you happy. If a stepping-stone job is a means to an end, don't let it slowly turn into your status quo. That's how you get stuck.
But remember that stepping stones can be interesting themselves in many ways. They can sometimes help you earn money for relatively easy work, introduce you to smart people (even if they don’t share your career goals), and in some cases even shed light on new paths that you hadn't thought about before. For example, you might find your calling in intrapreneurship—and realize that you can make positive change in a setting you originally saw as a stepping-stone to something different.
At the end of the day, with good, old-fashioned hard work and determination, finding that right job is possible. Think ahead, be strategic, and most importantly, don’t give up until you’ve found what you’re looking for.