That sinking feeling.
We often wake up in the middle of the night, deep in the midst of an existential crisis and ask ourselves; “what am I doing with my life?”. A curious phenomenon has begun. We are in a perpetual state of career crisis. In the hours we spend trying to pinpoint the value, meaning and purpose of our work, we ask ourselves, could I have spent my time cultivating other skills? Could I “be” someone else? Is this… it?
Let’s take a moment to address it for what it really is. This is a new phenomenon. One that has occurred as we live in the age of fulfilment. We are under constant expectation that everything must be fulfilling to us in some way. We equate meaning with value. Making money is no longer enough. Getting by is killing time. We all need to feel valued beyond our capitalistic worth.
Money vs. meaning.
We have these anxiety inducing thoughts when our work and self are out of alignment. Does what you do really have to define who you are? Does it have to be money or meaning? Can there be a way of having both? In his book How to Find Fulfilling Work, philosopher Roman Krznaric writes about this common phenomenon:
“The desire for fulfilling work – a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality – is a modern invention… For centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents and nurtured their wellbeing. But today, the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.”
He asks, can we both thrive and feel fully alive? Must we simply subscribe to the notion that work is toil and drudgery and something to be endured for financial stability?
“Choosing a career is no longer just a decision we make – often frighteningly uninformed – as a spotty teenager or wide-eyed twenty-something. It has become a dilemma we will face repeatedly throughout our entire working lives.” – Roman Krznaric
The age of individualism.
Through the rise of individualism in Renaissance Europe, celebrating one’s uniqueness became fashionable. This was the era that produced extraordinary advances in the arts and sciences, which helped to shake off the shackles of the medieval Church dogma, and social conformity. But it also gave birth to highly cultural innovations, such as the self-portrait, the intimate diary, the genre of autobiography, and the personal seal on letters.
In doing so, it legitimized the idea of shaping your own identity and destiny. We are the inheritors of this tradition of self-expression. Just as we seek to express our individuality in the clothes we wear or the music we listen to, so too we should search for work that enables us to express who we are, and who we want to be.
Some people, especially those living on the social margins of poverty and discrimination, may have almost no opportunity to achieve this goal. If you are trying to support your family on the minimum wage or are queuing up at the local centre during an economic downturn, the idea of a life-enhancing career might come across as a luxury.
For the majority living in the affluent West, however, there is nothing utopian about the idea of a fulfilling career. The bar has been raised. We expect much more from our jobs than previous generations. But how to we align what we want with what we need?
Profit with purpose.
Krznaric remains hopeful and subscribes to a different approach: There is a way of finding work that is both contributive to society and deeply fulfilling to us. It is possible to find work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.
There are three essential ingredients for a fulfilling career: meaning, flow and freedom. Set yourself realistic expectations and try to limit your choice. Rather than focusing on traditional ideas of ambition and career progression, take a more thoughtful approach. Ask yourself, what are my hobbies, interests and passions? What am I good at? What is it that I really enjoy? Through identifying what these things are to us, we are better able to pinpoint the type of work we want to pursue.
Watch this short film by The School of Life on how to find meaningful work. It may just help you reconsider your priorities in life.