My Search for Meaningful Work: How to Create a Fulfilling Career
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else's life.”
-- Steven Jobs
Years ago, I was feeling kind of lost in my life.
I had gone to college, finished my degree, and was working as an accountant.
I hated it.
Okay, okay. Maybe hate is too strong of a word. But I didn’t look forward to going to work most days – can I just say that?
It had always been “really important” that I go to college, and a lot of people were “proud” of me… I think in part for doing something really practical.
But every day in that job just felt kind of bland.
Now I’m in no way trying to bash on accountants or accounting as a profession! I once listened to a career coach do a group session where she talked about one of her clients who was an accountant. She spoke of how this woman was fascinated and enthralled by going through financial records and creating systems and order out of them.
Here’s the thing about that, I legitimately think that some people in this world (we need these people!) are genuinely fulfilled, content, and even HAPPY doing jobs and tasks like this.
Needless to say, I discovered – I’M NOT ONE OF THEM.
So, what did I do? Well, what every “genius” does, I decided to go and do more school.
But hold the phone a minute.
There is an important part of this story that I must tell you! It’s like a “story” within “my story.”
During this period of intense disorientation, I did something that maybe you’ve done before too…
I went to my local library and checked out every book on picking a career/career planning they had. I began reading accounts written on why in the heck people pick the jobs they do and does any of this even matter?
Does my “quiet desperation” even mean anything, or am I just supposed to just put my head down, accountant number 47, and get to work? Because this is what I can expect life to be… This is what I can expect “the daily grind” to feel like, and that’s just life?
I did this over the course of years, and at one point I came across an interesting book. I have no idea what it’s called or who wrote it (maybe I should have kept better track of that kind of information), but what I do remember is it was written by a guy who was hit by the harsh reality of his first job after graduating college.
He was hired on by this big firm, a super fancy place to get his first “real” job. Everybody wore full suits, ties, and polished shoes to work, every day.
He described what his first day at that company looked like…
The “onboarding process” began with all of the new hires being herded (yeah, like cattle) into an elevator and taken up to one of the highest floors and shown into a room that had no windows. They put them in there with stacks of paper, pencils, and calculators and instructed them that they would be double checking these documents for numerical errors.
Essentially, they had given these new employees the work no one in their right mind would have elected to do ALL DAY. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., add up columns of numbers.
If the number at the bottom of the column was the correct total, put a check mark next to it.
Move on to the subsequent column.
Do that 500 more times.
Break for lunch.
Break to go home.
Break for the weekend.
Now to save his sanity, he did something I wouldn’t recommend doing (but hey, who am I to judge!) ...
One day at work, he had a bright idea hit him.
It was a little idea, something that would be funny if it was written on the inside of a greeting card. So, he picked up a pad of the company’s legal paper and wrote it down. The idea was now on paper, but it sparked another idea. Then another idea.
I think you get where this is going… The ideas just kept flowing, so he wrote them all down.
About the last hour or so of the day, he realized how much time had flown by, quickly grabbed his stacks of papers that he was supposed to have checked (with the columns of numbers), and frantically put check marks at the bottom of each column (having really “checked” none of it).
The next day, he felt like he just couldn’t help himself – the greeting card ideas were too much fun (ESPECIALLY in comparison to the “work” he was supposed to be doing).
His side business of creating greeting cards actually took off, but that’s not what he wrote his book about… (He wrote about his own search for meaningful work. He wanted to find out what it is, what it looks and feels like, and how to know when you’ve really found it.)
So, I forget how long he lasted at that company, but within some frame/amount of time after quitting, he hit the road traveling to talk to different professionals about their careers – all in search of the answers to those questions: what is meaningful/fulfilling work, and when do you know you’ve found it?
I’m finally reaching a point with everything I’m trying to say today, and it boils down to an interview he did with a college guidance counselor/advisor.
This advisor had to have been in his mid to late 30’s, somewhere back east (if I’m remembering correctly). When he sat in the man’s office (we’ll call him, the guidance counselor, Charles) whenever Charles had anything to say about his job, it always came out about how he felt he was wasting his life away. There had to be something more for him to do in this world and he had no idea what it was.
The further they got into this conversation, the more frustrated the author became with what Charles was saying about his life and career. Until finally, he had heard enough.
He interrupted the guy to say something to the effect of, “Charles, you may be right, but you are missing the opportunities RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. You have all these young, bright minds coming into YOU for help, and YOU could do so much for them. You aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities right in front of you.”
Sadly, we can ALL be like Charles sometimes.
We want to talk about everything that went wrong in our existence, how the world and life are unfair, cruel even, and we are missing what is right in front of us. The opportunities to make a difference that ARE within our reach. We aren’t taking full advantage of what we DO have control over. And often, it’s a lot more than we think!
Well, yes, I can’t control the weather, but I can open my umbrella and make sure I’ve bought a good pair of galoshes.
I think what struck me the deepest when I read this was that this guy Charles openly admitted that he didn’t love (or really even like) his job, YET he wasn’t doing anything about it.
He was just sitting, complaining, waiting for something to happen to him, instead of taking the initiative to make things happen for him. And even if the right thing for him to do was change careers, he still could have been using the experience of being a guidance counselor to help others, while he helped himself.
Sometimes, we would rather complain about being stuck than do anything to get ourselves on a new pathway!
Okay, so back to the story of me and my career… I decided to go back to school, right?
The main reason, I really didn’t like accounting that much (if you couldn’t tell by my intro to this blog post…) and doing it EVERYDAY was eating a piece of my soul. (When I say that, I get that I sound “dramatic,” but please remember this is me talking about me, not me talking about you. For you, accounting may be an excellent fit!)
So, I thought, what are my options here?
Long story short, I picked an MBA program at an affordable school, and guess what, that decision has actually made all the difference in my life and entrepreneurship. But here’s the thing… there could have been another path to get me to where I am today – and had I known about it sooner, there’s a good chance I would have taken it!
One of the best things about doing a Master’s in Business Administration, I had to read case studies. I had to read all about what kinds of problems businesses faced and how they were going about solving them.
It was through reading these case studies that I was REALLY exposed to entrepreneurship. I know this probably strikes a lot of you as shocking, but up to that point in my life (while I was working on my MBA) I knew relatively little about what an entrepreneur is and even does.
I was hooked! One of the first major business ideas I had was building an online directory for other businesses. It ended up being successful (long-term). Short-term, I made PLENTY of mistakes.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that MOST paths have some inherent mess. They aren’t as clean cut as you would think, and being innovative and open to the twists, turns, ideas, and ESPECIALLY OPPORTUNITIES that life throws at you is how you can find success and get yourself on a path towards more fulfillment.
Sometimes YOU have to be the one who sees and creates the opportunities. Waiting for your boss or someone else to hand them to you on a silver platter can feel like praying you win the lottery without buying a ticket.
WE NEED TO PUT IN THE WORK!
If you genuinely aren’t liking where you are at, or there is something about your job that is pulling or getting you down, and it isn’t a small percentage of what you are doing (we are talking takes less than 10% of your time or 10% of your interactions at work) then what CAN and DO you need to do to get out of there?
If the parts you dislike are significantly less than the parts you enjoy, and that give you fulfillment, are you taking full advantage of making your job what it COULD be?
Or are you reading a blog post by me in hopes that I will help you decide when to quit?
Here’s the thing about quitting, sometimes it is EXACTLY what needs to take place, but timing is everything.
If you haven’t made yourself sufficiently marketable (acquired the skills and experience to be positive you can quickly secure another and better job) you need to spend more time on your strategy.
We all wish there was a career plan that made logical sense and was guaranteed to work. But for most of us... that's not how it works!
If you genuinely feel like you are meant to be walking a different career path, what's actually holding you back the most may likely be yourself.
Your willingness to embrace a contrarian path, to find those who are also traveling it and engage them to ask for advice, and your confidence to boldly go where you've never gone before, and where those around you aren't bold enough to go, requires action in the direction where your heart is leading you, even if you can’t see proof that it will work out.
Steve Jobs is probably one of my favorite examples of this. Do you realize that he was a college drop out? It didn’t stop him from seeking education – he just didn’t follow the traditional pathway of it.
When he (ironically enough) gave the commencement address at Stanford in 2005, he shared an example of how after he dropped out of Reed College (instead of pursuing a set degree path) he just dropped in on classes that sounded interesting to him.
He decided that instead of spending all his parents' hard-earned money on tuition for a degree that he didn’t know what he was going to do with, he was going to instead follow his “curiosity and intuition” by taking classes purely because they sounded interesting to him.
One of those classes that he was curious about was Calligraphy. EVERYTHING he learned in that class, he felt had no form of practical application in his life.
Fast forward 10 years into his future, when he and his partner Steve Woznaik were designing the first Macintosh computer – all that former knowledge and experience came back to him – and they applied all of it to the Mac.
It was the first computer of its kind to have beautiful typography. All that knowledge and experience from calligraphy was finally in “use.” He described how following his intuition and interest years before was so pivotally important for him and his future career:
“...you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.” [*]
Can we repeat that for just a moment?! You can confidently follow what your heart is telling you to do, if you have enough faith to believe that the dots in your life will connect at some future point.
He continued in that address to say, “...most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Jobs says that we can get “trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” He warns that if we aren’t careful, we can “let the noise of others’ opinions drown out [our] own inner voice.”
He gives this advice about careers:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So, keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
The easiest path in this life seems to be the one that we take by default, the one that at times feels pre-chosen for us, either by society or someone else in our lives. It seems to be a path of mediocrity that somebody else somehow led us to believe should work for us too.
I had to realize this for myself, and if you haven’t realized it yet for yourself, there is no better day than today.
Take control over what you do have control over. Make the most of every opportunity.
And most importantly, follow your gut, your heart, and your intuition in your decision making. Just like mine brought me to entrepreneurship, yours will lead you to where you need to be too.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else's life.”
– The legendary Steve Jobs
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