How to find fulfilling work, according to science
Is your job not really doing it for you? Doesn't have everything you need to feel satisfied, challenged, and proud?
Or are you job-hunting but the options don't seem that appealing?
You're not alone. In fact, it's an epidemic.
Job satisfaction is at its lowest rate since anyone started measuring it and nearly two-thirds of people would choose another career if they could.
One cross-European study showed that 60 per cent of workers would choose a different career if they could start again. In the United States, job satisfaction is at its lowest level – 45 percent – since record-keeping began over two decades ago. [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
You know the Spanish "siesta"? It's nearly extinct. Only 7 percent of Spaniards take one. We're all just too busy.
Around a quarter of Americans 'always feel rushed' according to a national survey, a figure which rises to over 40 percent for working mothers. In Britain 20 percent of workers say they don't have time for a lunch break, while the siesta has almost disappeared from Spanish life: only 7 percent now indulge in the traditional afternoon nap. [How Should We Live?]
But the funny thing is when you ask older folks for the most important lesson they've learned, what do they say? "Don't stay in a job you dislike."
In the Harvard Business Review Daniel Gulati broke down the top career regrets people have. Number two was "I wish I had quit earlier."
But we're not getting much help. Personality tests like Myers-Briggs are supposed to predict your perfect career. Problem is, that test doesn't work.
…there is "no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation… nor is there any data to suggest that specific types are more satisfied within specific occupations than are other types." [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
Wouldn't it be great to have someone ask "What do you do?" and be able to reply with a smile because you feel so good about it?
There are fulfilling careers out there and you can get one. But first you need to know what makes jobs fulfilling and how to find the right one for you.
As Mark Twain said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
So let's dispel a few myths you might have about meaningful careers.
1) Money isn't meaningful
Plenty of research says money doesn't make us all that happy once you can pay the bills. I know, you're skeptical.
But you don't need to believe the pointy-headed researchers; ask people about their jobs and you hear the same thing.
…when people are asked about what gives them job satisfaction, they rarely place money at the top of the list. In the Mercer global-engagement scale – drawing on interviews with thousands of workers in Europe, the US, China, Japan, and India – 'base pay' only comes in at number seven out of 12 key factors. [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
Having meaning in your life increases life satisfaction twice as much as wealth.
Those with a modest income who felt there was meaning in their lives were twice as likely to experience life satisfaction as were those who were wealthier but who felt that their lives lacked a sense of meaning. – Debats 1999 [100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life]
Can you guess what Harvard Business Review says is the number one career regret? "I wish I hadn't taken the job for the money."
Despite low pay and high unemployment artists have higher job satisfaction than most people.
In fact, artists are more likely to suffer from depression and other mood problems – and yet they're still happier with their careers.
(For more on the biggest career regrets, click here.)
So money isn't meaningful. What about prestige? Well, one kind is, the other kind isn't.
2) Status isn't meaningful — but respect is
Being in a top dog profession is nice but you don't get meaning from it.
What you need is respect — where people appreciate what you do and admire you for it.
Don't be the head of the hospital; be the nurse who doctors ask for and patients trust.
While most of us wish to enjoy a dose of social status, the feeling that we are respected by others for what we do and how we do it is one of the keys to having a meaningful career. As the sociologist of work Richard Sennett explains, respect enables us to feel like "a full human being whose presence matters." [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
People are so busy looking at compensation they don't think about the relationships they have at work. Research shows this is crazy.
(For more on work-life balance, click here.)
Okay, okay — so chasing money and status doesn't lead to a meaningful career. What does?
3) Making a difference makes a big difference
People who do work that benefits society show high levels of job satisfaction across the board.
A major study of ethical work by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon showed that those doing what they call 'good work' – defined as "work of expert quality that benefits the broader society" – consistently exhibit high levels of job satisfaction. [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
When you look at some of the happiest jobs do you see a pattern? Clergy, firefighters, special ed teachers, physical therapists… They help people.
Research shows those who are other-focused are happier.
Researchers have: they've found that happy people are 10 times more likely to be other-oriented than self-centered. This suggests that happiness is a by-product of helping others rather than the result of its pursuit. [Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy]
(For more on a career that makes a difference, click here.)
Making a difference might involve a huge career change. Is there any way to find more fulfillment in the job you already have? Yes.
4) Use your talents
Aristotle once said, "Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation." He was way ahead of his time.
One of the most proven elements in work research is that using your strengths makes you feel great:
Americans also gain a boost in positive emotions the more they use their strengths. The more hours per day adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect. [Gallup]
(To find out what you're naturally talented at, click here.)
But maybe you don't like doing what you're good at. What then?
5) Pursue your passion
Doing what you're passionate about has wide-ranging positive benefits.
Elderly individuals who were harmoniously passionate scored higher on various indicators of psychological adjustment, such as life satisfaction, meaning in life, and vitality, while they reported lower levels of negative indicators of psychological adjustment such as anxiety and depression. [Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined]
Cal Newport points out a weakness in the "follow your passion" argument: most people's passions are quite difficult to make a living at.
What's interesting is that most often it is passion that leads us to "10,000 hours" of deliberate practice and subsequent expertise.
The researchers also looked at the role of passion among 130 undergraduate students enrolled in a selective psychology course. They found a direct path from harmonious passion to deliberate practice: the students who were more harmoniously passionate about their work were more likely to engage in deliberate practice. [Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined]
So following your passion and working hard may eventually make you great at what you love — leading you back to step 3.
(For more on finding your passion in life, click here.)
So when you use your talents or pursue your passion what is it you're hoping to achieve? How do you know a job is the right one?
6) Find flow
Flow is when you're so wrapped up in what you're doing that the world fades away — like when athletes are in "the zone."
If you find a job where you're spending most of your time in "flow," you've got a winner.
In a typical flow experience, we feel totally engaged in the present, and future and past tend to fade away – almost as if we were doing Buddhist meditation. In his renowned study of surgeons, Csikszentmihalyi found that when performing operations, 80 per cent of them lose track of time or feel that it passes much faster than usual. They're in the zone. [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
(For more on flow, and how to achieve it, click here.)
Being "in the zone" is great. What else screams "this is a fulfilling job"?
7) We all want freedom
Autonomy is one of the keys to a great job. You want to feel you have control over your time and effort and aren't always told what to do.
For decades, industrial psychologists have observed that job satisfaction is directly related to 'span of autonomy', meaning the amount of each day during which workers feel free to make their own decisions. [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
Dan Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, emphasizes the need for autonomy in his TED talk:
So what have we learned about fulfilling careers?
They aren't about money or status but offer respect and the chance to use your talents and follow your passion with autonomy.
I know what you're thinking: Great. Now how do I find that job?
8) Stop looking for your soulmate
There is no one perfect job you were meant to do.
There are many "yous" with many passions and many talents and therefore many jobs you could be fulfilled by.
Thinking about what you were "born to do" gets in the way because you're waiting for some magic "click" and not busy developing skills.
How often does natural talent control what you can achieve in everyday life? In ~95 percent of cases, it doesn't.
"After 40 years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning." He's not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he's not counting the top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme… He is counting everybody else. [Mindset: The New Psychology of Success]
(For more on what the most successful people all have in common, click here.)
So you're not fixated on some "perfect" job. How do you find the one that's right for you?
9) Use a "personal job advertisement"
In How to Find Fulfilling Work, Roman Krznaric recommends writing a job advertisement — but what you're selling is you.
Talk about your talents, passions, values, and personal qualities.
Don't mention specific jobs but do include important things like salary requirements or geographic restrictions.
Then send it to 10 friends in different careers, from different walks of life. Askthem to tell you what jobs you are best suited for.
When people independently mention the same job, or there's a trend, you know that's an area worth further exploration.
(For more on how to find out what career is right for you, click here.)
Okay, but now how can you be sure they know what they're talking about? There's really only one way.
10) Ready, fire, aim
Here's something you rarely hear: "Do not plan ahead. Do not start thinking." Because you don't know anything yet.
The problem with careers is when we make the decisions, we rarely know much about the thing we're choosing.
Thirty-five percent of college graduates end up in a job that was not their major. Planning sounds good but as the old saying goes: "The map is not the territory."
Ever talk to a cop or a lawyer and learn their job is not like it looks on TV? Exactly.
It'd be great if you could go try a bunch of different jobs for a month each. But that's just not realistic for most of us.
So you need to talk to people, the people who are doing the job you think you want.
A final form of experimental project is conversational research. Perhaps less daunting than a radical sabbatical or a branching project, it can be just as effective. It simply requires talking to people from different walks of life who are engaged in the types of work you might imagine doing. [How to Find Fulfilling Work]
Is the job what you expected? Did they sound energized about it? Did it offer respect, use of your talents, passions, and provide autonomy?
If the answer is no, keep looking. If it's yes, and it fits everything else above, you're probably onto a career that could be perfect for you.
So what's all this mean in the end?
Here are the steps to finding a fulfilling career:
1. Money isn't meaningful
2. Status isn't meaningful — but respect is
3. Making a difference makes a big difference
4. Use your talents
5. Pursue your passion
6. Find flow
7. We all want freedom
8. Stop looking for your soulmate
9. Use a "personal job advertisement"
10. Ready, fire, aim
Dostoyevsky once said:
The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, one at which the most fearsome murderer would tremble, shrinking from it in advance, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.
In the end, I see it like this: You're going to spend 80,000 hours working over the course of your life.
Might be nice if you enjoyed it.
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