On 15 March 2016, I left investment banking and my first full-time job out of uni. Having spent three years working my way up the rung, I could see my future clearly laid out before me and it was beginning to fill me with dread. I realised that I wasn’t going to be fulfilled being in investment banking for the rest of my life.
You can usually tell whether you’ve made the right decision when leaving. A deep sense of peace and serenity overcame me rather than fear of the unknown. The afternoon I quit, I went to the local library and signed up for a new library card. I treated myself to an ice cream before dropping by Amy’s work to tell her the news. After a quick selfie to remember March 15, I went home and spent the afternoon reading.
Having committed three years working in a job unwittingly chosen for me by my 16 year-old self, this time, I was determined to play it smarter. The day I quit, I had only planned on spending considerate time reading, thinking and reflecting, so as to figure out the biggest conundrum of my life – how to find a fulfilling career.
This post is for all of us who are yearning for a more fulfilling career but can’t quite find the direction or the courage to grab it. Enjoy and may you find what you’re looking for.
The Age of Fulfilment
‘How unusual to seek to be happy through work. We’re trying to do something new and pioneering, like space flight – and there might be accidents on our missions.’
The desire for fulfilling work is a relatively new phenomenon
To answer one of life’s toughest questions, we need to first understand the problem.
The desire for fulfilling work – a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality – is a relatively modern invention. Open Samuel Johnson’s celebrated Dictionary, published in 1755, and you will discover that the word ‘fulfilment’ does not even appear.
We have entered a new age – an age of fulfilment – in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning. Paying the mortgage still matters, but we need more to feed our existential hungers. Nowadays, in the prosperous world, we don’t only expect to obtain money through labour, we also, to a greater or lesser extent, expect to find meaning and satisfaction. It’s a big ask and explains why so many of us have career crises often on a Sunday evening as the sun begins to set.
Sadly, for most of us, the task of finding a fulfilling career is one of the biggest challenges of our lives. We are witnessing unprecedented levels of both job dissatisfaction and a related epidemic of uncertainty about how to choose the right career. Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it.
We are faced with a choice:
- Follow the ‘grin and bear it’ approach and put up with whatever job you can get, as long as it meets your financial needs and leaves you enough time to pursue your ‘real life’ outside office hours, or
- Find work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human. That is, search for a fulfilling career.
Career confusion is natural, and fear entirely rational
For most of history, people had little choice about the jobs they did. Work was a matter of fate and necessity rather than freedom and choice. The majority of us today are likely to have far more career opportunities than if we had been living only a century ago. Ask your parents and grandparents what career options were available to them and you’ll begin to understand the unprecedented opportunity that we’ve been given.
Most of us who live in the western world have career possibilities that our parents’ generation could never have hoped to imagine. So why is it so difficult to decide which career path to take? If we are so lucky, then why does choosing a career and finding fulfilling work still feel like such a challenge?
The answer, is that we now have too much choice, and are not good at dealing with it. Having too many options produces paralysis rather than liberation. The consequence is that we often become psychologically paralysed, like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
How, then, do we deal with such paralysis?
Well, we need to accept that being confused about careers is perfectly normal. In a pre-industrial world, there were, at most, some 2,000 different trades out there. Nowadays, there are estimated to be half a million options. The result: we can be so anxious about making the wrong choice, we end up making no choice at all; psychologists call this “the paradox of choice“, paralysis stemming from too many options. We should acknowledge that confusion is natural, and fear entirely normal; but let neither of these scupper our chances forever.
You and I are not alone when it comes to career anxiety. Our educational system has failed to keep pace with technological change. In the ideal society, we would be taught ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ from a young age through to high school. Instead, we are stuck with the school curriculum of the 20th century. If your school was anything like mine, chances are your career counsellor was just as hopeless at giving career advice and probably having career crises of his own.
We are all bound by our pasts, especially the educational choices made in our youth. At the age of 16, we have already embarked on educational paths that will influence our working lives for years to come. But when you were 16, or even in your early twenties, how much did you know about what kind of career would stimulate your mind and offer a meaningful vocation? Did you even know the range of jobs that were out there? Most of us lacked the experience of life – and of ourselves – to make a wise decision at that age.
Family pressures and expectations also heavily influence our early educational and career choices, especially for children of immigrants or those with high-achieving parents. I can only imagine the horror if I had told my mum that instead of going to uni, I wanted to become a mechanic or a plumber.
Finally, the ‘scientific’ approach to career advise such as Myers-Briggs personality testing seldom provides the answers we had hoped for. While personality tests have their uses and can offer great emotional comfort, they don’t reveal any scientific ‘truth’ about us and we should be wary about relying on them as a magic pill that enables us suddenly to hit upon a dream career. Treat such tests with caution and use them as one of many ways of exploring who you are. Truth of the matter is, we are far more complex creatures than psychometric tests can ever reveal.
In choosing your future career, be wary about decisions based on ‘sunk costs‘. This sense that we might be squandering everything we have struggled to achieve is one of the greatest psychological barriers facing those contemplating career change. Clinging onto a job that no longer suits your personality or aspirations can be like trying to hold onto a bad relationship. Splitting up is probably the healthiest option, painful though it may be. The result of not breaking up with your job is that we often find ourselves stuck in careers that do not suit our personalities, ideals or expectations.
One helpful way to think about this is that we are caught between two forms of regret. On the one hand, the regret of abandoning a career in which we’ve put years of time, energy and emotion. And on the other, the possibility of looking back on our lives in old age and regretting that we didn’t leave a job that was not offering us fulfilment.
How to find fulfilling work
In Roman Krznaric’s book, How to Find Fulfilling Work, the author proposes that there are three essential ingredients to any fulfilling career: meaning, flow and freedom. People who are fulfilled all have some combination of them, while also being wary of an excessive allegiance to the desire for money and status. Money and status are known as ‘extrinsic’ motivating factors, since they are about approaching work as a means to an end. The remaining three are ‘intrinsic’, with the work valued as an end in itself.
‘When work feels meaningful, you’d be ready to lay your life down for it in return for a salary roughly equivalent to the minimum wage. When you know it ultimately makes no sense, you quibble over millions.’
-The Book of Life
Consider five elements of what can make a job ‘meaningful’: earning money, achieving status, making a difference, following our passions and using our talents.
Which of these motivations should be the principal guide in our career decisions? Clarifying our thoughts on where our priorities lie can help us develop a personal vision of what meaningful work looks like, so we can narrow down the career possibilities and make the right choices.
Money and status
While there is no single blueprint for a meaningful career, it will become clear that pursuing a career mainly because it offers the tempting rewards of money and status is an unlikely route to the good life. Instead, consider following our values, passions and talents as the most likely way to satisfy our hunger for fulfilment.
Let’s discuss money first. Just why are we so obsessed with money?
‘Men are often criticized that money is the chief object of their wishes and is preferred above all else, but it is natural and even unavoidable. For money is an inexhaustible Proteus, ever ready to change itself into the present object of our changeable wishes and manifold needs.’
-Arthur Schopenhauer (German philosopher)
Ok, so money is the manifestation of all your wants and desires. But does this mean we should place our hopes for career fulfilment in substantial salaries and big bonuses? The answer is no.
Overwhelming evidence has emerged over the past two decades that the pursuit of wealth is an unlikely path to achieving personal wellbeing. The lack of any clear positive relationship between rising income and rising happiness has become one of the most powerful findings in modern social sciences. Once our income reaches an amount that covers our basic needs, further increases add little, if anything, to our levels of life satisfaction. 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, ‘base pay’ only comes in at number seven out of twelve key factors. If you just Google ‘75,000‘, you’ll find that an annual salary of US$75,000 is the ‘perfect salary for happiness’ for most Americans, beyond which people’s day-to-day happiness no longer improves.
This is because we typically get caught on what psychologist Martin Seligman calls a ‘hedonic treadmill‘: as we get richer and accumulate more material possessions, our expectations rise, so we work even harder to boost our wellbeing, but then our expectations rise once more, and on it goes. We shift from one car to two, from renting a holiday home to owning a second home, and none of it does much to boost our sense of having a fulfilling and meaningful life, and may well contribute to higher levels of anxiety and depression since we are forever yearning for more. Few people have the conviction to avoid the hedonic treadmill, even those who promise themselves they will only stay in a soulless big-money job for a limited period: they almost always get caught on the treadmill and fail to keep their promise.
Until recently, I had been on the hedonic treadmill. Despite seeing my pay double over the past three years, my desire for fulfilment only grew louder. Having been on a six-figure income when I started, I had more than enough money to live a comfortable life and be happy. Yet as my pay increased, it didn’t lead to any meaningful increase in my savings. Rather, it translated to more indiscriminate spending choices. More importantly, I was no happier than I was three years ago, which should always be the ultimate criterion. Prior to quitting, I would catch myself saying things like “…but the money is good so I’ll stick it out for another year.” Not until recently did I realise that this was a clear sign that it’s time to get off the treadmill.
In reality, few people are likely to completely ignore money when making a career decision. I’m not asking you to forget money altogether. Just be wary of how much weight you assign to it.
‘I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’
-Bronnie Ware (The Top Five Regrets of the Dying)
The other extrinsic reward people commonly seek is social status, which comes in two varieties. One is the status we get from having a prestigious job which is admired and revered by others, such as barrister, surgeon or professional athlete. Like the ancient Romans, we have a strong yearning for reputation and glory. The second variety is status based on our position relative to others. For example, if given a choice between earning $50,000 a year with everyone else earning $25,000, or earning $100,000 a year while others earned $200,000, the majority would choose the former.
While status can be handy in boosting our self-esteem, recognise that our universal desire for reputation, in which we judge ourselves through other people’s eyes, is fraught with danger. You can easily find yourself stuck in a career that the society considers prestigious, but which makes you deeply unhappy. There is a further problem as once we achieve one status level, another often instantly appears above it. Ultimately, the lesson may be the simple one that we should not be so concerned about what other people think about us.
Soon after I quit banking, a friend of mine referred me to a job at the World Bank, specialising in infrastructure finance. The World fucking Bank, I thought, with global offices and tax haven benefits, wouldn’t that be something? Everyone will no doubt think highly of me. But who am I really doing this for? Soon, I came to my senses and realised that while this may be the dream job for somebody else, it isn’t for me. The role was essentially identical to the one I just got out of (albeit with a cooler sounding title) and I would’ve applied for all the wrong reasons.
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. Ignore what society expects of you and find work that speaks true to yourself.
Making a difference
‘Our time here is short and we must be willing to take risks and make fools of ourselves, but never give up hope for a better world. The stakes are so much higher than any of the status or money rewards of the rat race.’
If not the pursuit for money and status, could it be about giving it a damn?
‘I want to make a difference’ is a phrase that can be heard amongst recent graduates and equally amongst thirty-something professionals who feel frustrated that they spend most of their days dealing with crap they don’t really care about. Studies have shown 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. This may just be the key to finding a meaningful career.
So how do we go about doing ‘good work’?
Conventional wisdom assumes that ethical careers are mainly found in charities or the public sector, say working at a refugee camp or as a special-needs teacher in a public school. But the information age has created many more opportunities for making a difference. Think Uber, revolutionising the way we travel or The Book of Life, offering us important lessons our schools never did. Nowadays, we can use our marketing prowess working for a fast-food chain or for a medical research foundation; we can offer our finance skills to an investment bank or an NGO. Ultimately, the choice is yours.
Whichever path you may choose to follow, there are two challenges that anybody hoping to make a difference will have to face. The first concerns the impact of your actions. One of the greatest frustrations is that it is often difficult to see what difference your work is actually making. I know this from personal experience, having spent four months working on a 400-page document that led to limited outcomes (and you think this post is long). I felt much better when I was working with an Aboriginal organisation on a scholarship program, where the effects of my work were far more visible and rewarding.
A second challenge is the tension that can arise between making a difference and earning money. Doing work that embodies your values can often lead to financial sacrifices. But the emergence of the information revolution raises the question of whether it might now be possible to enjoy both the intrinsic rewards of being true to our beliefs and the extrinsic rewards of earning money. Think Richard Branson, who is both a billionaire and an advocate for running ethical businesses. In most instances, however, growing obligations to shareholders, investors and corporate management can often eat away at the moral fibre of large companies. So we need to remember that enterprise and ethics do not easily mix. Rather than trying to create a harmonious relationship between the pursuit of money and values, we might have better luck trying to combine values with talents.
‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.’
We might all contemplate turning our particular gifts and abilities towards the major social, political and ecological dilemmas of our age. Let’s all contemplate doing work that aims to serve. Reflect on what makes you unhappy as every successful business is at heart an attempt to solve a problem; the bigger and more urgent the problem, the greater the opportunity. This very post is my attempt at solving a problem that left me (and perhaps you) feeling deeply unfulfilled.
Passions and talents
Alternatively, you can always opt to focus on your passions and talents. Forget money, status or even making a difference: do what you love and what you’re really good at. Think Kobe Bryant or Marie Curie, people who dedicated their lives to doing what they love.
Don’t be afraid to blur the line between having a life and having a career, because on balance mixing work and play is worth the risk of potential contamination. We should all strive to develop a ‘play ethic’ in our lives, which places ‘yourself, your passion and enthusiasms at the centre of your world’.
‘A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play…He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.’
-François-René de Chateaubriand
I flow, therefore I am
A second element to having a fulfilling career is flow. Flow experience is one in which we are completely and unselfconsicously absorbed in whatever we’re doing. These activities are ‘autotelic’, or intrinsically motivating: the action is valuable in itself, not a means to an end.
What kind of activities give us flow? It most commonly occurs when we are using our skills to do a task that is challenging, but not so hard that we fear failing. Flow is also enhanced when we are being creative and learning new skills, when we can see the immediate impact of our actions and when we have clearly defined goals.
The best way to discover whether a career has high flow potential is to have a go at doing it. When I first started working, it was not uncommon for me to lose track of time. It’ll be noon one minute and midnight the next. Writing also puts me in a state of flow, with the universe falling by the wayside.
Keep in mind that flow isn’t everything. Necessary, yes. But sufficient on its own, no. We could be doing those challenging and creative flow tasks, yet still not find our work ultimately rewarding, because it does not embody our values or offer any of the other profound forms of meaning explored earlier.
The longing for freedom
‘For the first time in human experience, we have a chance to shape our work to suit the way we live instead of our lives to fit our work. We would be mad to miss the chance.’
While security may be at the foundation of our hierarchy of needs, we are equally driven by the quest for individual freedom. Job satisfaction is directly related to the amount of each day during which we feel free to make our own decisions.
But how can we satisfy a desire for greater freedom? Should we opt for the security and stability of a salaried job or embrace self-employment? Should we embrace the hard work ethic or seek work for a fulfilling life? How do we balance our career ambitions with our desires to have a family or live a balanced life?
These are hard questions to answer, but some guidance can be found here:
‘Being self-employed is wonderful and awful. There’s no holiday or sick pay, no security. No development opportunities are offered to me unless I pay for them myself, and there’s nobody to tell me I’m doing a good job or even notice how hard I’m working. Work easily bleeds into before breakfast, after dinner and weekends if I’m not careful. If things go wrong, there’s no one else to blame or to discuss things with.
Having said that, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love being able to manage my own diary, build relationships with the people I want to build relationships with, and know that I’m forging my own way through the world of work. I love knowing that what I’m doing is making a difference to people – they tell me so.
It’s helpful to remember that the security I think I’m missing out on by not working for a corporation is nonexistent anyway. People are made redundant, people get ill. There’s never any guarantee that life will continue in the way we want it to for any length of time.’
-Fiona Robyn (Writing Our Way Home)
Fiona offers a profound insight into the value of freedom for the art of living. Despite all the uncertainties, responsibilities and frustrations, those self-employed would still not give it up to return to being employed in a nine-to-five job. Once they have tasted freedom, it is almost impossible to turn back. That is a remarkable fact that should be a lesson to us all.
It may be possible to feel freedom working in a big organisation, especially if you are able to choose your daily tasks and targets. But if you seek genuine autonomy, you are much more likely to find it by joining the minority of those who are self-employed. Given the choice between security and freedom, I choose freedom.
‘So many people live with unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.’
-Chris McCandless (Into the Wild)
The best way to prepare for the next 20 years may be this. Find something you love to do so you’ll have a shot at being one of the best people in the world at it. Build an independent brand with your name around it. Try to stick to creative work so that you stay ahead of the game and remain interesting. Get comfortable with working in a boom bust fashion. This means that couple of weeks at a time you may be working super hard and the next couple of weeks you may be on vacation.
‘The future is about creating individual brands. Because at the end of the day, we’re all founders, we’re all meant to work for ourselves. We’re not meant to follow, we’re not meant to be in hierarchies or go to nine-to-five jobs and get told what to do over and over. The sooner we get off the grid and self-actualise and become free, the better off humanity is.’
-Naval Ravikant (Founder of AngelList)
Lessons from Thoreau
When I worked on Wall Street, I saw that most people were not making a living, they were making a dying. They would come home from work a little deader than when they started out in the morning. I was determined not to make the same mistake.
-Joe Dominguez (ex-Wall Street analyst turned simple life advocate)
For those of us who have succumbed to the current epidemic of work addiction, it’s worth considering what the alternative might look like. You can experiment being an adherent of simple living, one of the fastest-growing religions of our post-industrial era.
By doing so, you would be joining a venerable tradition of individuals who have voluntarily turned against materialism and consumerism in pursuit of a more meaningful – and cheaper – existence. Think of the 19th century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years conducting an experiment in self-sufficiency in the 1840s. Thoreau lived in a log cabin he built with his own hands for less than $30, and kept his costs down by growing most of his own food. Devoting himself to reading, writing and observing nature, he famously declared in Walden, ‘A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.’
Thoreau approached simple living as an extreme sport, and few people are ready to make such a radical change in lifestyle. But if you doubt that you could get by on even 20% less than you currently earn, or think that it wouldn’t be worth the material sacrifices involved, Krznaric shares with us one of the great secrets of the art of living. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon whereby an increase in your salary fails to lead to any increase in your savings, because your spending mysteriously expands to fill the space of your available income. Well, the reverse also applies. When your income goes down from working less (or maybe from taking a salary cut to do a more fulfilling job), as a general rule your daily living expenses – on things like food, clothing and entertainment – will naturally contract to fit your new financial circumstances, and yet you will not feel any worse off. In fact, it is quite likely that you will feel life is better than ever, since you will be luxuriating in an abundance of that most precious commodity, time.
Disceplo di esperienza
‘Experience will be my mistress.’
-Leonardo da Vinci
Half of the workforce in the Western world is dissatisfied with their careers, but around a quarter of them are too afraid to make any change, trapped by their fears and lack of confidence. When you find yourself at the crossroads, Krznaric proposes that we reject the traditional model of career change, which advises us to plan meticulously then take action, and replace it with the opposite strategy, which is to act now and reflect later. We must adopt what da Vinci called a disceplo di esperienza, a disciple of experience.
It’s tempting to imagine we’ll be able to work out the shape of the workplace, and of our own characters simply through a pure process of reflection, but we need data, and we can only understand ourselves and others by colliding with the real world, in the process getting to know both it and our own natures. We need to take small, non-irrevocable steps to gather information (for example, by interning or volunteering). We mustn’t think we always have to resign on Monday; we can investigate our futures through branching projects on the side of our existing jobs.
Try entering a more playful and experimental way of being, where we do then think, not think then do. For example, Krznaric gives the example of a lady called Laura who undertook a ‘radical sabbatical‘, trying out 30 different jobs in one year. Here’s what Laura found:
‘The more jobs I try, the more I realize it’s not a rational process of listing criteria and finding a job that matches them. It’s a bit like dating. The guys who met all the criteria on your list did nothing for me. And at one point you find someone who doesn’t meet half your checklist but blows you away. I think that’s what you have to look for in a job.’
-Laura van Bouchout
A less radical alternative can be a branching project, designed as a short-term assignment that doesn’t require a drastic shift to a completely new life. For example, I signed up as an Uber driver and completed over 100 trips before I left my full-time work. I did it because I enjoy driving and was curious about Uber’s business model. What I hadn’t counted on was the tremendous opportunities for developing human connections. Not only did I meet amazing people like Sushil, I also made a few business contacts and got to tour a technology startup company when I hit it off with a venture capitalist.
Yet another alternative is just talking to people. I met a marketing executive who has spent three out of four weeks on the road in the last 10 years (think George Clooney from Up in the Air) and another man who left his 20-year career as an IT consultant to focus on his side project. How’s exporting hay for Japanese race horse for a niche? Learning about how others live their lives can help us escape the confines of our worldview and encourage us to question our existing priorities and values.
How to grow a vocation
‘What man actually needs is not some tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.’
Even those with all three elements – meaning, flow and freedom – in their working life can feel there is a greater prize. What we might consider a ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’.
There is a widespread – and mistaken – assumption that a vocation usually comes to people in a flash of enlightenment or moment of epiphany. It’s an enticing thought, which, in effect, takes the responsibility away from us: someone or something will tell us what to do with our lives. Although people occasionally have those explosive epiphanies, more commonly a vocation crystallises slowly, almost without us realising it. Vocation is not something we find, it’s something we grow – and grow into.
So instead of waiting, take action and endeavour to grow our vocation. How? Simply by devoting ourselves to work that gives us deep fulfilment through meaning, flow and freedom. Over time, a tangible and inspiring goal may quietly germinate, grow larger and eventually flower into life. Having this kind of clear goal or purpose to pursue is one of the surest routes to a deeply satisfying life.
The last step
‘Life is there to be lived with passion, risks are there to be taken, the day is there to be seized. To do otherwise is a disservice to life itself.’
-Roman Krznaric (How to Find Fulfilling Work)
So here we are, time to take the final step but we find ourselves frozen in indecision. What if I make a terrible mistake and the job ends up being a disaster rather than a source of fulfilment? Wouldn’t it be safer to wait until I’m absolutely certain that I’ve found the right career to move into?
There is no escape from the fact that, in the end, changing career is a risk. It is full of uncertainties and unknowns, no matter how much we prepare ourselves for it.
Ultimately when you want to quit your job you just have to do it.
Find your adventurous spirit, one fired by the knowledge that life is preciously short, and that to make the most of it. Most of us live bound by our fears and inhibitions. Yet if we are to move beyond them, if we are to cut the rope and be free, if we are to treat life as an experiment, we’ll discover the little bit of madness that lies within us all.
Thank you for reading.
Special thanks to:
- Amy, my better half, for the amazing work on the graphic designs, and
- Roman Krznaric, the author of ‘How to Find Fulfilling Work‘ and my inspiration for this post. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore the above principles in more detail.
For those interested, I recently started my new job after taking two months off. My new role is focused on developing a business model that aims to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles and the electrification of cities. The role aligns with my passions for cars and renewables, offers me great freedom and I’m lucky enough to get paid for it. I had not planned on getting this role, heck, the position didn’t even exist when I quit. Of course, much is uncertain about the future, but I’m happy to be getting on with living a life true to myself.
I’ll leave you with my favourite quote on career:
‘When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.’