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Building a Meaningful Career


If I'm honest I get rather impatient with over-simplistic platitudes suggesting that the secret to having a meaningful career is simply to follow your dream. On the surface, and for some of us, this no doubt makes complete sense. If you have a dream then of-course you should do everything you can to find a way to make a living from that passion. Doing a job that doesn't feel like work is a wonderful ambition to have and thing to have achieved. Yet inherent in much of this discourse is a pretty big assumption – that we actually know exactly what that dream is.

I really admire people who have always had a singular calling that gives them a clear direction to fixate on, and who have gone on to pursue that path to great success. But it was never like that for me. Whilst there is no shortage of things that I have been interested in, am interested in, like and even love, somehow that has never materialised into a clear vocation. I suspect that I'm not alone. Being a generalist has many significant benefits. But it can also mean that you are sufficiently good at enough things to progress well in a career that is ultimately not fulfilling in a fundamental way. Or that you spend too long working in an area where you have no long-term ambitions. Or in Chris Dixon's words that you end up climbing the wrong hill. It's so easy, particularly for those that are ambitious, to make the next step an upward one, to want to show progress in our current domain, and to value short-term over long-term rewards. The risk with this method, says Chris, is that:

'…if you happen to start near the lower hill, you’ll end up at the top of that lower hill, not the top of the tallest hill.'

One of the best pieces of careers advice I ever had came from a coach who was ruthless about getting me to identify just a few critical components of my ideal job. I floundered around for a while listing out characteristics and attributes that I thought I'd want but he forced me to focus on the few elemental things that really mattered. It was uncomfortable but it turned out to be something of a turning point.

I count myself fortunate that somehow I've ended up with a career that enables me to do these things pretty much every day. But there's one piece of advice that I wish someone had given me when I was starting out. I wish someone had told me that it is not a bad thing to lack a vocation. That if you do lack a vocation you still need to discover what it is that you find fulfilling. That in order to find what fulfils you, to find the highest hill, you need to create hypotheses and then test them. That you need to experiment. That it's OK to experiment with your career. Better than OK, that it's a good idea to experiment. Better than good, that it's a great idea.

I wish someone had told me that.

Image courtesy The Horan Group, via @eskimon

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