The idea of fulfilling work—a job that reflects our passions, talents, and values—is a modern invention. Open Dr. Johnson’s celebrated Dictionary, published in 1755, and the word “fulfilment” doesn’t even appear. But today our expectations are higher, which helps explain why job satisfaction has declined to a record low of 47 percent in the US, and is even lower in Europe.
If you count yourself amongst those who are unhappy in their job—or at least have that occasional niggling feeling that your work and self are out of alignment—how are you supposed to go about finding a meaningful career? What does it take to overcome the fear of change and negotiate the labyrinth of choices, especially in tough economic times?
Here are six pieces of essential wisdom drawn from some of the best brains in the field.
1. Accept confusion
First, a consoling thought: Feeling confused about career choice is perfectly normal and utterly understandable. In the pre-industrial period there were around thirty standard trades—you might decide to be a blacksmith or a barrel-maker. But now careers websites list over 12,000 different jobs.
The result? We can become so anxious about making the wrong choice that we end up making no choice at all, staying in jobs that we have long grown out of. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the “paradox of choice”: too many options can leave us standing in one place like deer caught in the headlights.
Then add to this our in-built aversion to risk. Human beings tend to exaggerate everything that could possibly go wrong. Or as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman says, “We hate losing twice as much as we love winning,” whether at the casino table or when making career choices. So our brains are not well calibrated for daring to change profession. We need to recognise that confusion is natural, and get ready to move beyond it.
2. Don’t pigeonhole yourself
Many people are enticed by personality tests, which claim to be able to assess your character then point you towards a job that is just right for you. It’s a reassuring idea, but the evidence for their usefulness is flimsy.
Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the world’s most popular psychometric test, which places you in one of sixteen personality types. Despite its ubiquity, it has been widely criticized by psychologists for over three decades, partly due to its lack of reliability. If you retake the test after five weeks, there is around a 50 percent chance that you will be placed into a different personality category.
Moreover, according to US psychologist David Pittenger, 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.”
So don’t let any anyone tell you what you can and can’t be on the basis of a personality pigeonhole they want to put you in.
3. Aim to be a wide achiever, not a high achiever
For over a century, Western culture has been telling us that the best way to use our talents and be successful is to specialize and become a high achiever, an expert in a narrow field—a corporate tax accountant, say, or an anesthetist.
But an increasing number of people feel that this approach fails to cultivate the many sides of who they are. For them, it makes more sense to embrace the idea of being a “wide achiever” rather than a high achiever. Take inspiration from Renaissance generalists like Leonardo da Vinci who would paint one day, then do some mechanical engineering, followed by a few anatomy experiments on the weekend.
Today this is called being a “portfolio worker,” doing several jobs simultaneously, often on a freelance basis. Management thinker Charles Handy says this is not just a good way of spreading risk in an insecure job market, but is an extraordinary opportunity made possible by the rise of flexible working: “For the first time in the 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.”
Ask yourself this: What would being a wide achiever encompass for me?
4. Find where you values and talents meet
“Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation,” said Aristotle 2,500 years ago.
He would surely endorse contemporary research findings showing that those pursuing money and status are unlikely to feel fulfilled: the Mercer Global Engagement Scale places “base pay” as only number seven out of 12 factors giving job satisfaction.
The best alternative, says Harvard’s Howard Gardner, is to find an ethical career, focused on values and issues that matter to you, and which also allows you to do what you’re really good at. That might sound like a luxury option when unemployment lines are long. But consider that in OECD countries, the social enterprise sector is growing 250 percent faster than the rest of the economy.
So imagine yourself in three parallel universes, in each of which you can spend next year trying a job in which your talents meet the needs of the world. What three jobs would you be excited to try?
5. Act first, reflect later
The biggest mistake people make in career change is to follow the traditional “plan then implement” model. You draw up lists of personal strengths, weaknesses and ambitions, then match your profile to particular professions; at that point you start sending out applications.
But there’s a problem: that typically doesn’t work. You might find a new job, but despite your expectations, it is unlikely to be fulfilling.
We need to turn this model on its head. Instead of thinking then acting, we should act first and reflect later by trying out jobs in the real world, for example by shadowing or volunteering, testing out careers through experiential learning. Laura van Bouchout gave herself the thirtieth birthday present of spending a whole year trying thirty different jobs—a kind of “radical sabbatical.” She was manager of a cat hotel, then shadowed a member of the European Parliament, and finally found that working in advertising was unexpectedly exhilarating.
But don’t think that you have to resign on Monday morning to try this. Rather, you can pursue “branching projects”—what organizational behaviour expert Herminia Ibarra calls “temporary assignments”—on the side of your existing job. Disenchanted with banking? Then try teaching yoga or doing freelance web design on the weekends. Such small experiments can give you the courage to make big—and well-informed—changes.
Challenge yourself: What is your first branching project going to be? And what is the very first step you can take towards making it happen?
6. Approach work as a life-long experiment
Changing career is a frightening prospect. But ultimately, there is no avoiding the fact that it is a risk.
Ask successful career changers how to overcome the fear and most say the same thing: in the end you have to stop thinking and just do it. That may be why nearly all cultures have recognised that to live a meaningful and vibrant existence, we need to take some chances—or else we might end up looking back on our lives with regret.
Carpe diem, advised the Roman poet Horace. Seize the day before it is too late. “If not now, when?” said the rabbinical sage Hillel the Elder. It is only be treating our working lives as an ongoing experiment that we will be able to find a job that is big enough for our spirits.