It is an accepted fact of life that when we reach adulthood, we work to support our lifestyles. For most of us, this entails waking up every morning and heading to the office for a day of at least 8 hours where we are surrounded by coworkers, managers, bosses, and customers. So if we fill up over one third of our day with work, it might as well be meaningful.
Are you someone who struggles to get up each day? Do you dread going to work? When you get there, do you feel bored as if you’re being given busy work to justify your pay? Is there something you would rather be doing?
If this sounds like you, you’re more likely to feel unmotivated and unsatisfied about your job. And because our work takes us such a big portion of our waking hours, this nagging feeling can start to infiltrate into your personal life. You may want to crawl into a hole in the ground when you meet someone new and they ask, “so, what do you do?” When you catch up with old friends who want to hear about your life, you may find yourself deflecting and focusing on their career instead. Then you spend your time wishing you were them and feelings badly about your situation in comparison.
We can fall into meaningless work situations when we aren’t clear on what we really want or when we aren’t focused on taking the steps necessary to get there.
Let’s take a look on what you can do to overcome these obstacles so you too can find your purpose.
When you are on a journey to uncovering your purpose, you need to take into consideration your values, talents, resources, and passions. Each one of these dimensions will have some weight in whether your idea fits with your desires and can truly work for you in the long-run. While there is no guarantee that what you pursue will work out, if you take the time to assess these factors, you will be aligned with your purpose and therefore more likely to hit a winning target.
As you read this section, take some time to examine how the four purpose-focused dimensions fit your current career or job. Then brainstorm additional opportunities for exploration.
Over the past two decades of coaching people on their careers, I have found that nearly everyone wants the same basic elements from their work, regardless of whether they are employed by a company or are an entrepreneur. As it turns out, we all want flexibility. That is, we want the ability to flex our schedules to meet the needs of our life outside of work. If we have a doctor’s appointment, we want to be able to make up the hours before or after the session. When we need to focus without distraction before a deadline, we want the ability to work from home so we can get more done. And when we want to go on vacation, we don’t want our boss to say, “no, your co-worker has already requested those days off,” especially when we have a family event that is outside of our control.
As in any relationship, trust is a big value. We all want to feel trusted (and of course we have to earn that trust). If we say we’re working from home and we are being productive, we don’t want our manager being suspicious of foul play. We also want to trust our manager. When you work as a unit and are outlining your goals for a promotion, you want your manager to provide feedback and help set you up for success rather than be passive-aggressive and skip your weekly meetings or cancel on you last minute. Trusting our coworkers is important because we spend the most time around them. We don’t want to share something confidential with a teammate only to have that person tell their manager about it and have it come back to you. Lastly, we want to feel trust in the company we represent. If the company is either not following its stated values or if it is being unethical, it leads you to feeling frustrated and even unsafe.
We want to feel the work we do serves a greater purpose. I’ve spoken with plenty of individuals who were unhappy with their job for any number of reasons. But one of the factors that made them hesitate to leave was that they really believed in the mission of the company. When a company has a mission that’s aligned with your values, you feel like your work is meaningful and is serving the greater good. Ask yourself, on a ten-point scale (0 = not at all; 10 = extremely meaningful), how meaningful is the work you’re doing now?
While the top three values of flexibility, trust, and purpose are universal, there are many other values that you may want to hone in on in your search for a meaningful career.
Values can be looked at as intrinsic, if they are qualities that live inside of you, and extrinsic, if they are benefits from the job that affect your life. Here are some examples:
Intrinsic values include a sense of autonomy. Most people I’ve worked with state that this is a crucial value to them. They want to be able to self-manage. They trust themselves to do a good job, don’t want their manager looking over their shoulder and micromanaging their every step, and eel a sense of pride when they take on a project and see it through to its completion.
On the other hand, however, if you’re an individual who struggles with self-induced structure, you may prefer less autonomy and more direction. You might really like routine rather than flying by the seat of your pants. In such a case, autonomy may be a less significant factor in your decision-making.
There are different categories of careers. Service-oriented careers provide a direct service to customers. If you like to be a service provider and experience first hand the impact your work has on others, you may value a helping profession. Product-oriented careers create or manage products that help others. This is a more indirect experience of helping, but it may incorporate another important value.
Innovation and creativity are big factors to consider when thinking about a career. If you’re someone who feels stifled when told what to do and how to do it, you need to keep searching for a position that gives you the opportunities to experiment and create. This decision is not limited to your role, but also to the company for which you work. If you work for a company that is very hierarchical, such as a non-profit, you may not have the ability to infiltrate the established bureaucracy. You also need to consider who is on your team and how open they are to bouncing ideas off one another, to putting their ego aside, and to collaborating even when you’re the one with the idea. This value is one of the dominant reasons why people decide to become self-employed. They have an idea they want to bring into the world. They want to be the drivers of their vision because they believe in it and in the impact it can have.
What do you value in the work that you do? What frustrates you about your work? When you turn your frustration into a value that isn’t being met, you can identify the sources that can direct your search in a more meaningful direction.
Extrinsic values include compensation, job security, balance, recognition, leadership, and travel. You’ve probably heard the expression, “work to live, don’t live to work.” The idea is that work is a means to an end. It provides us with the money to live the lives we want. Clearly, there can be much more to work than just money, and that is the point of this article, but money is often a vitally important value that motivates us. This can be reflected in the salary we make, as we want to be compensated fairly according to our education, prior work experience, and our accomplishments on the job. We also want to know that our job is not in limbo. When we work for a company that has big layoffs, even when our position is salvaged, it creates anxiety in us about the future security of our job. When we have conflict with our direct manager or a coworker who is entrenched with the union, we feel scared that our job may not always be there for interpersonal reasons. A sense of security, both financial and in keeping our job, allows us to focus on the work and not on whether it will be there tomorrow.
Referring back to the quote about working to live, we want to avoid having our job take over every waking moment. Today more than ever there is an expectation for workers to get the job done no matter what. Even if it is unspoken, you know that if you don’t clear your plate today, more work will continue to pile on tomorrow. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, you stay at the office later and later, or attempt to get home to spend time with your family but then return to the computer and phone to work late into the night. Whatever hopes you had for personal care have taken a back seat due to the never-ending amount of work in front of you. If you don’t want to burn out, consider how you work and where you work. Are there ways you can get through tasks more effectively (i.e., delegating, setting boundaries, avoiding distractions)? If you are doing everything you can and still can’t seem to dig yourself out from the demands of your job, perhaps you are in the wrong industry. Plenty of people are willing to forego balance because they value financial security or work status more. But if you’re someone who is pining for more personal time to spend on yourself and your relationships, look for a career that gives you the lifestyle you desire.
When we work hard on a project, we want to be recognized. When someone else takes the credit, when the work we do goes unnoticed, or when our project gets shifted to someone else mid-way, we feel like the rug is being swept out from under us. This can be disorienting, feel like an injustice, and can lead us to feeling angry and ignored. Whether it’s at work or in our personal lives, when we invest in something or someone, we want to feel seen. It’s a universal desire because we are wired for connection. We want to know that our efforts count.
It’s important to consider the way in which you like to operate. Do you enjoy helping people carry out their mission, such as an executive assistant, or do you like to lead teams and be in charge? Leadership is an important value to consider because if you value being in a position of influence and mentorship, you need to seek out such opportunities. And, if it’s not in the cards for you, be sure to focus your efforts on a job that does not require you to lead.
Traveling the world may sound like a dream, but if you’ve ever travelled for work, you know that it can be less rewarding than it sounds. That being said, travel can be one of your values because it allows you to bridge your personal and professional life passions. Flight attendants get to stop over in domestic and international destinations and spend their days off taking in the sights and sounds of a foreign city. Business executives use their flight time to get work done in preparation for an important meeting in a town hours away from home. Do you like traveling for work or do you prefer sticking to your local routine?
What are your top intrinsic and extrinsic values? Make your list and keep these in mind as you consider the other three dimension to finding your purpose.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s true, we can always work to improve on our skills. But what are you really good at? When you think about the work you’ve done in the past, what was easy for you? Perhaps you found yourself able to do something that others around you struggled with. If so, what was that? Think back to your past jobs, volunteer positions, and life skills. What do people compliment you on? Is it your ability to make decisions, your time-management skills, your ability to lead a team, or your creative solutions to problems?
We often have a hard time locating our talents. But consider this: let’s say that from the age of eight, you spent 30 minutes a day practicing piano. Maybe you never made it to Carnegie Hall and maybe once you got to high school or college, you gave up your instrument. What do you think it took for you to sit down and play every day when you could have been watching television or playing outside? Perhaps it was determination. Are you the kind of person that once you make up your mind about something, you don’t let anything get in the way? If so, how can you use that in the work setting? Maybe playing piano was an activity that allowed you to get into a meditative state. When you’re working, what types of activities allow you to get into a state of flow? What are the circumstances that allow you to do that?
When you play board or card games, do you think three steps ahead of your opponent? If so, how can you apply this ability to anticipate what other people want, think, and do in your work? This is your superpower. Use it wisely.
By now, you might have an idea of what type of work would feel meaningful to you. If so, congratulations. If you’re not certain, keep coming back to the questions and trying different ideas until you land on something that feels right. The bigger question is, once you’ve located what you want to try, what can help set you up for success?
Consider what resources you have at your disposal of which you aren’t taking full advantage. Do you know people in the field you are interested in that you can ask about what it’s like on the inside? If you don’t have personal connections, consider expanding your reach on LinkedIn, a social media platform focused on professional networking. Ask for informational interviews to learn about a typical day in your chosen career as well as to learn more about the culture and lifestyle associated with that profession.
What books, online courses, podcasts, workshops, or products can you leverage to provide you with detailed information and help you increase your skill set to acquire the job you want? Do some research. Make your list of possibilities, and start taking daily action toward achieving your goals.
You might be really good at certain types of work. You might even be able to do the work in your sleep. But that does not mean you find it fulfilling. What are you most passionate about? Do you love creating new products to serve a wider audience? Do you love teaching and being in front of your customers? Or, do you love being behind the scenes and directing others without being the center of attention?
Make a list of all of your passions. Then consider how excited you are doing each of these activities. How do your passions and talents come together? If your passions aren’t being directly addressed at your job, consider whether your job can provide you with the lifestyle you want to pursue your passions on the side.
By now, you probably have a clearer sense of direction, maybe even a few directions that would lead you toward a more purpose-filled career. The question is how to go from the idea stage to the implementation stage. This is often where dreams fall apart. Don’t let this happen to you.
There are three ingredients you need to help you be successful in turning your idea into reality. You need a plan of what to do, a strategy of how to do it, and the mindset to help you keep going even in times of adversity.
Create a Plan
Whenever we set out to accomplish a goal, it’s important to create a plan about how to take our idea from paper into the world. Saying that your goal is to be a chef is not going to get you very far. Let’s dig deeper.
We want to start by creating a SMART goal. By being specific, we paint a picture of what the end result will look like. It gives us clarity about the details we need to pay attention to so that when we reach our destination, we know we’ve gotten there. It also ensures that we don’t overlook important aspects that require our attention. Coming back to the chef example, do you want to work in a restaurant, a catering company, or in someone’s home? What hours do you want to work? What kind of food do you want to cook? Do you want opportunities to innovate and create new recipes or do you want to create a winning formula and stick with it? Who do you want to serve? Lastly, being specific might be about how much money you want to make or how many weeks off you want to have in a year. Put numbers to your goal.
You might have a great vision of what you want, but how will you know when you get there? Some of your goals may be concrete and others may be more abstract. Find a way to make your goal measurable so you can check on your progress along the way. One way to do this is to focus on your level of satisfaction at your current job. On a ten-point scale (0 = not at all; 10 = extremely satisfied), how satisfied do you feel doing the work you are doing? If you were able to turn your vision into reality, how satisfied do you expect to feel? You can also use measurement as a way of keeping you accountable. When creating a plan, write down explicit milestones and daily tasks and check in each day to ensure you are sticking with it. If you know all the steps associated with your end result, you can determine each week what percentage you’ve completed toward your goal.
Is your goal attainable? If it is important enough to you, you will use your plan to keep you focused, to stick with it as long as it takes, and to grab opportunities that present themselves to you. Much of this has to do with your mindset, which we will discuss later on. If you believe in your dream and in your ability to make it happen, you will make it happen.
Even if you really want to achieve this goal, desire alone will not make this goal realistic. You must be willing to do the work to create the change you want. It may not happen as quickly as you would like, but you need to stick with it and see it through. Remember why you are reaching for this goal and use that motivation to help you expand to greater heights.
Goals should not be left open-ended. When they have no time frame, we wonder if we’ll ever achieve them, we feel overwhelmed by the slowness of our progress, and we are less likely to hold onto our determination. Consider these three steps to create a realistic time frame for your goal:
How much time and energy do you have to invest each day in your goal? Put down specific times, such as every morning from 6am to 7am and every evening from 8pm to 9pm.
Given how much time you are spending on your goals each day, how much time do you anticipate it would take to attain each of the milestones toward you goal? If a milestone is estimated to take 20 hours to complete and you are investing two hours a day five days a week, you should be able to compete that milestone in two weeks.
Once you know how many milestones you have and how long each milestone will take, you will be able to have an approximate completion date for the entire goal. To avoid stressing yourself out, always cushion your deadlines because you will encounter situations outside of your control that can delay your progress.
Continue to come back and reassess your plan weekly to ensure it is moving ahead in the way you envisioned. You may need to reconfigure some of the details, especially the time-frame.
Be Strategic About Your Plan
Having a plan by itself gets you nowhere. It’s all about what you do with it. By taking the steps outlined above, you should have a SMART goal with specific milestones. You should also have specific times carved out to work on your goal along with the frequency.
As we all know, until we have established habits, it is hard for us to take on something new and stick with it successfully. That’s where your strategy comes in.
Coming back to your resources, who can help you achieve your goal? What parts of your goal can you delegate to someone else? Perhaps you can hire a virtual assistant to do some research for you. Maybe you have friends in your field of interest who can share some tips on how to make it through the door. This is the who.
It is easier for us to create a habit when we implement the new behavior from the same location each time. When we focus on creating a meditation habit, for instance, it is recommended that we sit in the same spot at the same time each day, if possible. Similarly here, where are you going to be working on your goal? Will you sit in bed with your laptop and phone or at your desk in your office during your lunch break. Do you need stimulation around you as you would get in a cafe or do you prefer working out of a quiet library?
What are you already doing to which you can tie this new goal? One example would be to establish a morning routine. Right after waking up, you put on a timer and get started for a set period of time by going down your to-do list. That’s the when.
What obstacles do you anticipate on your journey? If you can identify them ahead of time, you can strategically plan how to overcome them. This also helps you get over the fear of uncertainty which often shows up whenever we face change. Do you get distracted easily? If so, plan on creating a distraction-free zone. If you lack energy, make sure you get adequate rest, drink plenty of water, and eat a balanced diet. If the obstacles you face are more internal than external, focus on your mindset.
Adopt a Success-Based Mindset
Even when we have the best plan in the world and the greatest strategy to help us implement, we can get stuck. Ironically enough, we are the reason for this. We get in our own way. We do this by second-guessing our decisions, by going for instant gratification rather than thinking long-term, and by letting our past determine our future.
Remember why you are pursuing this goal in the first place. It’s because what you’re doing right now is not satisfying enough. You want more.
To set yourself up for success, you need to program your mind in the direction of your goal. There are a number of ways you can do this.
Every day, visualize the end result. See yourself doing the work you dream to do. Notice how you feel satisfied and fulfilled on the job. Notice how easily you get out of bed in the morning because you are filled with excitement about the day ahead.
Affirm your goal out loud. State what you are doing as if it’s already accomplished, such as in “I am a successful chef working four nights a week at a beautiful Italian restaurant. I love innovating new recipes and getting the staff and the diners’ enthusiastic feedback. My job gives me the flexibility to live a life of luxury and spend time with the people who are most important to me.” Say this each day.
Communicate your goals to people who care about your and can support you emotionally. It’s important to make your goal public to keep yourself accountable on your progress. If possible, work with someone else who is also striving for something new. A great place to encounter like-minded individuals such as these is in a mastermind, a group coaching forum to help people with their career. When you communicate your accomplishments, your brain can recognize everything you have already done. This can help you keep moving forward with optimism.
Learn to prioritize what you spend your time on. Working on a career change is hard enough, but when you have to contend with that on top of an existing job and other responsibilities, it can feel overwhelming. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Focus on what is most important to help you make progress. Sometimes this means working directly on your goal and sometimes it means going to sleep to recharge.
Be compassionate with yourself. Expecting everything to work out as you planned is unrealistic. We tend to overestimate how much we can do and underestimate how long it will take us. Your plan won’t be perfect. Your implementation will suffer on certain days. Regardless of what happens, it’s a journey. You are making progress. Be kind and turn off any critical or judgmental voice that is comparing your performance to others or to an ideal.
Living with purpose is a deliberate act. It requires clarity. We have to understand ourselves and know our values, talents, resources, and passions. It requires taking action to turn our dreams into reality. To this end, we need to have a plan, strategy, and the right mindset.
The journey toward a meaningful life is about using intention to guide our behaviors. It’s about declaring what we want and going after it. And, it’s about seeing the big picture. We have to live in the present with out eye on the future. We can always climb higher, but it’s the road in front of us that determines our experience.