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Meaningful Work: If Not Now, When?

5-26-15_Meaningful_Work_if_not_now_when (1)By: Dan King

Sitting in Starbucks tapping away at my computer, feeling very trendy with a frothy beverage at my side, I overhear two young women in candid conversation about companionship, clothing and careers.  I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but what can I do? They’re loud enough to shake the Starbucks on the next block!

“In my next life, I want to be a designer, maybe do corporate interiors,” says one, sipping a decaf vanilla latte with soy milk.

The other, clutching a grande chai with light foam and just a dash of nutmeg, replies, “Oh, I was an interior designer in a past life.”

Then Latte with Soy responds, “Really? Where did you work?”

I freeze, like a frappucino in the headlights. Am I hearing what I think I’m hearing? Could it be possible that career changes are cyclical — that you can change careers many times over many lifetimes?

If so, a dead-end job merely signals us to plan our careers more carefully the next time around. If we do, we can have a second (third, tenth, hundredth) chance to experience truly meaningful work in the hereafter — or the hereafter after that!  The idea that we could get a second chance to do whatever we want to do is exhilarating, but also pretty terrifying.

Making a career choice doesn’t have to be about selecting a final resting place. If you ask a 21-year-old what he’s going to do now that he’s all grown up and graduating from college, his thinking will often tend toward getting a job, making money and establishing independence.  His notion of a meaningful career is one that satisfies his most important values, like moving out of his parents house, acquiring stuff, and still having an active social life.

By mid-career, our values shift toward work that satisfies our need for such things as flexibility, challenge, purpose and meaning.  We think about doing things that, for whatever reasons, we didn’t get to do, or didn’t think about doing, before.

Today, the choices we make in our 20s and 30s have less permanence and place fewer restrictions on our available choices in our 40s and 50s.  We don’t have to wait for your “next life” to get another chance.  We can take a chance at a meaningful career now, a thought that is likewise exhilarating and terrifying.

So you made some poor career decisions in the past. That’s not a crime, so don’t assume your work has to be your punishment. You can free yourself. Challenge your assumptions. Start by identifying what’s working and what’s not — and what you want to change.

  • What do you most want to wake up to each day? Try drawing a picture of the ideal job: the role, the responsibilities, the tasks, the people, the environment. If you know what you want to find, you’ll increase your likelihood of finding it.
  • What skills do you possess that you actually enjoy using? If you’re like most, you’ve probably gotten very good at doing things you never chose to do in the first place. Ability has very little to do with enjoyment. Discard the skills you don’t enjoy and fill your bag with new, more satisfying ones.
  • Who are the sorts of people with whom you want to spend your working time? It’s not enough to say you enjoy working with people (you have to), but rather the ways you enjoy working with people: managing them, helping them, teaching them, writing about them or merely going to lunch with them.
  • What do you want from your job above and beyond a paycheck? Interesting projects? Stimulating colleagues? Flextime? Independence and autonomy? Clarifying your work values will help you evaluate how satisfying a particular job will be.
  • What regrets will you have if you don’t explore possibilities for achieving a more meaningful worklife? A happy work life begets a happy personal and family life. Write an essay entitled “If I Were To Die Tomorrow.” Then develop an action plan to create the ending you want to achieve.

The question to ask (whether you believe in reincarnation or not) is not, “what do you want to be in your next life?” but rather “how do you want to spend the remaining time you have in this life?” Longevity is a gift, one we often don’t acknowledge until it’s almost over. To appreciate it and use it, we need to live our lives like there’s no tomorrow.

MeaningfulCareers.com was created by Mark Guterman and Dan King, two guys with a shared commitment to the power of meaningful work.  They help professionals find greater meaning in their careers, lead happier, more satisfying lives, and instill lasting value through their work.  For more information and resources visit:  http://meaningfulcareers.com


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  1. […] Career planning and development is essential for meaningful work and a life that matters.  To work to have meaning, you are usually passionate about it.  You […]

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