How To Find Purpose At Work When Your Career Is Constantly Changing

Career Challenge Day 15

You’ve defined purpose, taken stock of your days and crafted every aspect of your job. But more often than not, meaning isn’t found in a matter of moments, and even if it is, it’s likely that what you consider to be fulfilling today will change over the course of your life. “Individuals change, life circumstances change . . . and so too will your interests and goals,” says David Ballard, director of the American Psychological Association’s Office of Applied Psychology and Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program. “It is important not to set yourself up for failure and expect you’re magically going to have perfectly meaningful work in your job.”

Whether or not you’ve been reminded of the “why” behind your work, if you’ve been following our “Career Challenge: Rediscover Your Purpose In 15 Days” series and still feel far from finding fulfillment, here’s one last task: Embrace the journey. Your sense of purpose will ebb and flow over the course of your career, but there are steps you can take to ensure you’ll reconnect with it time and time again.

Remember: There’s more to life than work.

Purpose is often spoken of in terms of professional pursuits, but there’s more to life than work, of course. So if, when Sunday arrives each week, and the mere thought of what Monday morning will bring is enough to exhaust you, you might want to take a moment to reflect on what you could be doing differently.  “Work plays a central role in most people’s lives—it is a core part of our identity,” says Ballard. “Job satisfaction and engagement at work are some of the biggest drivers of overall satisfaction.” But nowhere is it written that work must be meaningful. Depending on how you perceive your work—as a calling, a career or a job—it may be your life, or it may be simply a means of financing your life. And there’s nothing wrong with one or the other. “It is really important to focus on other areas of your life, continuing with exercise habits, your regular social and family life, making sure to build that in so you don’t become consumed,” says Amy Jaffe, senior associate director of the Bates Center for Purposeful Work and president of the board of directors of the Maine Career Development Association.

Take time to reflect on a regular basis.

The experiences you have each day affect how you’ll perceive the world the next, and so it’s almost outlandish to think that the tasks you found meaningful when you graduated from college will continue to give you a sense of purpose throughout  your career. “Many people go down a path after college, because they feel they have to fulfill expectations. I see so many people who, at age 29, get career counseling for their 30th birthday after enduring a career path that wasn’t fulfilling,” Jaffe says.

“Rather than getting far down that line and getting out of whack, monitor along the way,” adds Ballard. “Make small adjustments so it doesn’t require a massive overhaul at some point.” Once or twice a year, take time to reflect on how you’re spending your days and how, or if, the responsibilities that make up your job are connected to your interests and strengths. Write it all down so that you can more easily identify any gaps between where you are and where you want to be. “First and foremost, it is a process of self-understanding, really knowing what matters to you and what isn’t working,” Jaffe says. “Look critically at the parts of your work that aren’t working and what that says about you.”

Make a habit of job-crafting.

After your assessment, if you find that a disconnect does exist between your responsibilities, interests and strengths, consider how crafting your job could enable you to experience more meaning in your work. In an ideal world, how would you be spending your time? Which of your current tasks would you like to continue to perform, and which would you be inclined to delegate to others? Would you be interested in filling any newfound time with role-defining projects, or would you be more inclined to take on a diverse array of assignments? And this applies to your schedule too—something as simple as changing the time at which you tackle the more administrative parts of your role can have a significant effect on your sense of purpose. “It’s not about asking for less work—it’s about shifting to make your job more meaningful and interesting,” Ballard says. “Sometimes, adding variety means you might be performing better overall.”

Then, once you’ve outlined the ways in which you’d like to redesign your job, set up a meeting with your manager to present your proposed adjustments, and take care to do so when you’re feeling positive. Conversations between a manager and employees need to be about what is going well, about what employees “enjoy working on, how they see themselves contributing to the organization and the positives of the employment arrangement.” Then after that, Jaffe adds, the employee can turn to aspects of the job that are challenging.  “A manager can’t guess at what’s making someone unhappy, but usually, if it’s a high-performing employee, the manager will want to know what will make them feel happier.”

Carefully consider a change of course.

If you have a positive relationship with your manager, and your company has a healthy culture, it’s likely that you’ll be able to negotiate at least one piece of your proposal. But if the way in which you’re hoping to craft your job just isn’t possible—maybe the skills and tasks you’d like to work on aren’t needed or perhaps in the course of conversation you discover that your values aren’t aligned with those of your employer—you may have to consider looking elsewhere. “There are some cases when it’s not going to be a good fit, and you need to find something that works better for you,” Ballard says. “You might not be the right person, and that might not be the right job.”

If you do decide to embark on a search, take your time, testing the waters through job shadowing and informational interviewing. “Take a college student’s vantage point and try other careers, but in small doses and without a great deal of commitment at first,” Jaffe suggests. “And reflect: Would that path work for me? Would I find fulfillment? Giving yourself time to experience that process is really important.” Equally important during times of transition, says Ballard, is self-care. “People who really see work as a calling and core to their identity can be at risk for burnout, because they care so much and are willing to go above and beyond,” he says. “Taking some time to engage with something that’s not work . . . will allow you to do the exercises you need to do to find meaning in work.”

Above all, remember that the path to purpose is a lifelong process, and by completing our “Career Challenge: Rediscover Your Purpose In 15 Days” series, you’ll be better equipped to persist. “We’re always growing, our lives are always changing,” Jaffe says. “Once you understand your strengths, find flow in your work and connect to what you’re doing, suddenly . . .  there’s this natural path to success.”


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