person sitting at a desk in front of a window in daytime

I recently met a young man named Andrew at Tyler Place. It was a perfect Vermont morning for sailing. I had scheduled sailing lessons, and Andrew was my instructor. Asking questions is a favorite activity of mine, so I began inquiring about what he was up to and, more importantly, why?

We often decide where we are going or what we want to do without asking why. “Why” is the most critical question because if our why for anything that requires effort is missing, we will quit. When our why is strong, we are willing to do whatever necessary to see it through. The only way to achieve the thing is with sustained effort. The why is our fuel for achievement.

I asked Andrew how he ended up at Tyler Place. He said his girlfriend was working there, so he came to spend the summer with her. I wondered if he was in school, and it turns out he is a recent graduate with a business degree. I asked him why he had not gotten a job after graduation. He said he didn’t know what he wanted to do. This seems to be a common issue with non-intern grads. They have had limited exposure to careers and don’t know what to do. They feel stuck because they don’t want to start down a career path that is not rewarding. What is the recipe for determining a career path? The traditional route to a career choice is following in the footsteps of a parent. My father is an attorney, so I will be an attorney. My mother was a teacher, so I will be a teacher. It is the most common strategy and the path of least resistance because the child knows what they are getting into so they won’t be surprised but can lead to unfulfilling work in many cases. The challenge is that our parents are so proud that we chose a path similar to theirs. They beam with pride at our decision to “follow in their footsteps.” The reality is likely that we had limited exposure to career options and had to make a decision. The easy decision when forced is to sign up for what we know.

What is work? 

In our system of capitalism, the way we normally think of work is trading our time for money. This is the worst possible way to look at work. Trading time for dollars is unrewarding at first but quickly becomes drudgery. So work must be rewarding, as in with pay or with personal gratification, or ideally both.

When we work, something needs to be accomplished. For example, if you are paid (reward) for cleaning horse stalls, the horse stalls will need to get cleaned. Cleaned horse stalls will need to be accomplished in order to justify the compensation. If you don’t do a decent job at cleaning the horse stalls, you will be let go to find other work. The best work has incremental accomplishments on the way to a bigger goal. We have a desire to accomplish something in our work. We must deliver value. This is where the overwhelming majority of workers miss the boat — the higher the value, the greater the reward. Capitalism rewards value delivery. In the beginning, value is often delivered with hustle and grit. We don’t have the experience, so we go hard to make up for it while studying our craft at the same time. People that hustle get noticed. These people show up on time, ready to get to work. How can you differentiate yourself in the market place? In the beginning, it will be your willingness to hustle that will set you apart.

What if you were rewarded for work that was fulfilling? Fulfilling as in when you leave your office, you feel energized versus drained. Too often, we think of fulfilling work as feeding the poor or providing clean water in developing continues. These jobs are certainly rewarding and fulfilling in the most real sense, but all work can be fulfilling if it meets these criteria:    

Challenging – Fulfillment loves a good challenge.

Sense of Purpose – There is a purpose in your work. To be fulfilled requires purposeful work. (Why)

Mission Driver – There is a big goal that you are working toward individually or as a team. (What)

Skill Alignment – You are good at what you do and might do it whether or not you got paid. Fulfilling work often aligns with our skills. Using your skills brings you joy and doesn’t seem like work at all. (How) 

Growth – Humans have a need for progress through growth. Growth is fundamental to fulfilling work.

So, the ideal career choice is one that rewards you for doing meaningful work and requires continued growth of skills and talent. There is a mission that continually inspires you to stay the course even when it sucks. The more value delivered, the greater the reward. Serve others and deliver more value than the pay justifies. Show up every day and use your skills in service of a mission bigger than you. This is a recipe for fulfilling work. Don’t settle. The world is full of unhappy people toiling for pay and pay alone, with no mission or purpose. This is a recipe for misery and drudgery. Try lots of work, and don’t be afraid to fail.

Above all, leave miserable work. If it isn’t meaningful work, you are 100% responsible for finding or discovering your meaningful work. Don’t ever get trapped in the expectations of others. “I told my parents this is what I was going to do. I promised this or that.” Let these thoughts go. Find meaningful work, and it won’t seem like work. Don’t settle. Keep searching. We all have a unique ability, and there is work that aligns with that unique ability. It is up to us to seek it out and do it every day. 

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