Ready for a depressing statistic? Good! Me too. Here it is: The average worker spends somewhere between 10 and 14 years over the course of their lifetime at work.1 Basically, around 20 to 25% of your waking adult life is spent working.
Spending so much time at our jobs, you would think that we’d try to pick careers that are at least somewhat fulfilling, or hell, even just bearable most of the time. But the sad reality is that over 80% of people hate their jobs, meaning that 80% of people hate a significant chunk of their lives pretty much all the time.
Think about that: four out of every five people get up every morning to go do something they loathe and they just keep doing it, day in and day out.
I know not everyone can just drop everything and go find their dream job right this second. And I’m definitely not saying that a fulfilling career is all fun and games 100% of the time. I’m doing what I love and I hate parts of it at times. That’s just a fact of life.
But given that we spend so much of our waking lives working, we should strive to make the most of it and find a career that, at the very least, doesn’t make us miserable most of the time.
Instead, I’d argue that the perfect career comes at the intersection of three things:
- What you value
- What you’re good at
- What the world values
Let’s take these one by one, and then tie them all together.
Step 1. Figuring out what you value
Most people start by asking themselves “what am I passionate about?” and then think about all the cool shit they like to do while they drink beer with their friends (video games, foosball, underwater basket weaving) and then lament that they’ll never make any money.
But this approach misses the point entirely. Because asking yourself what you enjoy is superficial—most of us only enjoy these things for short periods, or when there’s no stress or pressure put on us.
The better question is “What do you value?” Because if you value what you’re doing, not only will you enjoy it, but you will also find it meaningful even when it becomes difficult. And having meaning is key to pushing through the hard times.2
So, how do you figure out what you value that could lead you to a fulfilling career? Here are a few questions to get you started.
What’s a big problem in the world that most people don’t care enough about?
Do you think more people should be worried about growing economic inequality?3 Does it baffle you that more people don’t pay attention to investing and basic personal finance?4 Did you know that college students are experiencing a growing rate of homelessness?5 And isn’t it really absurd how unaware most people are about human trafficking in this day and age?6
What problems do you see—either right in front of your face or hidden away somewhere—that you can’t believe more people aren’t aware of and/or don’t care enough about?
If you can identify something like this in your life, you likely value it more than most others. This is a good place to start.
And it doesn’t have to be some grand, world-changing idea either. Maybe you’re aghast that people in your neighborhood aren’t aware of the lack of good Thai food in your part of the city and feel the need to change that. Maybe you’re wondering why there aren’t more widget stores or access to services in your community. Maybe you can’t believe people don’t take advantage of the natural beauty in and around your city.
All of these are problems that need solving, and solving problems gives us purpose and can (often) get us paid.
What problems do I enjoy solving that most people don’t enjoy?
Is there some activity or task you just love to do that makes other people’s eyes glaze over? Like, they think you’re a masochistic psycho, but you just see it as normal or, even better, amazingly fun?
I once had a dental hygienist who told me she absolutely loved cleaning teeth. Every dirty tooth she came across, she saw as a diamond in the rough, a beautiful little chomper in waiting. Like the dental version goddamn Cinderella or something, she loved seeing a tartare-caked molar transform into a shiny white pearl in a patient’s mouth.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather clean up rat shit from the subway floors than look into people’s mouths and scrape crap off their teeth all day.
But not her, she valued her work and her patients. Scraping teeth day in and day out wasn’t some horrible, drawn-out slog of an existence for her.
Maybe you enjoy setting up spreadsheets and budgeting for your own personal finances or doing repairs/updates around your house or refinishing random pieces of furniture you find on Craigslist or talking to that one friend who always complains about his life when no one else wants to hear his shit anymore.
Most people hate doing these things. Which is why they pay others (really well) to do it for them.
Where do I naturally spend my thoughts and energy when left to my own devices?
I’ve written before that if you have to look for a “passion” you’re probably not passionate about it in the first place.
What I mean by this is that there’s something that fills your time, something that takes up your mental energy and focus between 2-for-1 deals at Denny’s and Netflix binges. And if you can’t figure out what it is, you’re either 1) ignoring that you’re actually into it or 2) you do it or think about it so much you don’t realize it’s not “normal.”
I used to spend hours and hours on internet forums writing long, detailed screes about anything and everything I was interested in: politics, music, sports, relationships, etc. It never occurred to me that most people don’t do that sort of thing “for fun.”
I never thought of myself as a writer, but there I was, writing for hours upon hours, sharpening my ideas, experimenting with my voice, developing my own style. Now I make a full-time living writing potty-mouth books and articles. Go figure.
A caveat: The difference between values and compulsion
Now, before we move on, I want to point out one major caveat here: there’s a difference between doing something because you truly value it and doing something out of compulsion.
An alcoholic values beer, but it’s because it’s an addiction. That’s an obvious example, but the same could be said about a lot of leisure activities as well. I love to play video games, but I’ve recognized over the years that they’re an escape for me, not something I hold as a core value.
Maybe you’re really into fitness and you’re constantly working out, live off green smoothies and have 3% body fat. Hey, that’s great… you fucking psycho. But do you think you would be a good physical trainer because you value a healthy lifestyle and you want to pass that along to other people’s lives? Or do you work out so much out as a way to punish yourself, to escape painful realities you don’t want to face?
And that’s the key here: you have to recognize when you’re doing something because you truly value doing it, or if you’re just running away from something important in your life. It’s not an easy question to answer. And it often takes trying and failing a few times to figure it out.
Step 2. Figuring out what you’re good at
Having an idea of what you value in your life gets you in the right ballpark, but if you’re going to find the perfect career, you also need to be good at what you do.7
You might have some technical skills you already know you’re “good” at. That’s an obvious place to start, and if any of those skills are aligned with what you value, hey, you’re one step closer to finding the perfect career for yourself.
For example, let’s say you’re good at setting up complicated spreadsheets, analyzing budgets, and overall you do a good job managing your money. If you’re someone who also values personal finance and money management, you might make a great financial planner.
But I would argue (and research would support) that intangible skills are becoming even more important in today’s world.8 So which intangible, soft skills do you bring to the table?
To stick with the above example, are you also good at identifying emotional barriers to sound money management? Can you be empathetic with people who have trouble with their finances? Can you find new and creative ways to explain basic personal finance topics that most people find mind-numbingly boring?
Or maybe you love art and design and you’re really good at it, but do you think you can also manage clients’ expectations well and nudge them in the right direction when they need it?
Think of the soft skills you’re good at and how might apply them to a given career. Are you good with people? Are you very organized and detailed-oriented? Can you manage projects and expectations well?
If you’re having trouble with this, there are a million resources out there to help you find your strengths, but I tend to like the methods that use the Big Five Personality scale, like StrengthFinder.
3. Figuring out what the world values
The final step in figuring out how you’ll get paid.
If you find something to do that you value and you’re good at it but you don’t get paid, that’s a hobby, not a career. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with having hobbies. In fact, we all need something in our lives that we do for the pure and simple pleasure of doing it.
But that doesn’t put food on your table or pay for your kid’s college.
You get paid based on the value you add to the world. So what does the world value enough to pay you for?
There are two ways to go about this:
1. Take what you value (step 1 above) and your strengths (step 2 above) and look for market opportunities already present in the world.
A lot of people, once they figure out their values and strengths, will find that there are tons of job opportunities for their skill set.
Whether you’re super into planning things like parties or birthdays or your grandparents’ 200th anniversary or you’re an amazing cook and love to feed people, there’s probably an existing job out there that will fit you well.
The key, then—beyond making yourself the best candidate for the job—is to find the right place to work in your chosen field.Studies have shown there are, unsurprisingly, multiple factors that determine how satisfied you are with your job, and money isn’t as big of a factor as you probably think9 (though, it doesn’t hurt to get paid more, obviously).
Things like how much influence and autonomy you feel you have, opportunities for training and advancement, how respected you feel, your level of achievement—all of these impact how fulfilling you find your work.10
What all of these are getting at, I think, is how meaningful you find your work—and research backs this up, too.11 And here’s the real kicker: finding meaning in anything you do, including your job, is up to you.
There’s that old fable about three bricklayers who were working when someone came and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I’m laying one brick on top of the other.” The second said, “I’m getting six pence an hour.” And the third replied, “I’m building a cathedral—a house of God.”
My point is that you have to decide what’s meaningful to you. You might find meaning in your work because it provides for your family or because you get to help people or because of some other impact you make. And what’s meaningful to you might not be meaningful for someone else, so don’t lean on others too much to tell you what you should value in a job.
2. Take your values and talents and look for where the market is under-serving the world and create something new to fill that gap.
This is entrepreneurship, where you combine what you care about with your abilities and create something the world values but doesn’t even know it yet. Or, at least, hopefully, that’s the case.
These days, there’s a bazillion-and-one resources out there to help you start your own business and be a billionaire entrepreneur on a yacht and only work, like, three hours a month and blah blah blah. There’s a lot of scams and bullshit out there, so be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true (because it is).
However you choose to go about it, there are really only two (big) questions you need to be able to answer “yes” to: 1) Can you create something that people actually want and are willing to pay for? 2) Can you relentlessly execute on your plan to get it out into the world?
You will fuck up, you will fail a lot, and you will probably want to quit at least a few times. You will see your friends buying nice cars and houses in the suburbs and wonder if you’re making a terrible mistake by not doing what they’re doing.
Whichever path you choose—a job or the entrepreneurial route—make sure you’re choosing it for the right reasons. There’s been an explosion of the “be your own boss” culture and entrepreneur worship in recent years that, in my opinion, is kind of ridiculous. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting paid to work for someone else doing a job you like. And some people don’t like taking on big risks or they’re in situations where they can’t take big risks, like supporting a family.
Don’t run off and quit your job to start a business with a half-baked idea because you think it will make you look cool or smart or sexy or whatever. If you’re going to do it, do it because you see a need you can fill and you’re in it for the long haul.
By the same token, if you feel bogged down working for other people but you worry about what your friends and family will think if you quit your job to start your own company, well you’re probably going to be pretty miserable and you should consider what it is you really want out of your work life.
If you don’t have major obligations, like a family who depends on you for their survival at the moment, and you can stomach the uncertainty that goes along with being an entrepreneur, then fuck it. You only live once, right? And life is too short to be stuck doing what you don’t find fulfilling or meaningful.
- That’s assuming a 40-50 hour workweek with five weeks of vacation each year for 50 years. If you’re the workaholic type and work 60, 70, or 80+ hours a week, then start tacking on a few more years, my friend.↵
- Frankl, V. E., Winslade, W. J., & Kushner, H. S. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.↵
- Horowitz, J. M., Igielnik, R., & Kochhar, R. (2020). Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority. Pew Research Center.↵
- For instance, did you know that a majority of baby boomers haven’t saved enough for retirement?↵
- Jones, C. (2019, December 30). Homeless in College: Students sleep in cars, on couches when they have nowhere else to go. USA TODAY.↵
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2016). Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. United Nations.↵
- Newport, C. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Grand Central Publishing.↵
- Balcar, J. (2014). Soft Skills and Their Wage Returns: Overview of Empirical Literature. Review of Economic Perspectives, 14(1), 3–15.
International Labour Office. (2008). Conclusions on skills for improved productivity, employment growth and development: International Labour Conference, 2008. ILO.
Kautz, T., Heckman, J., J., Diris, R., ter Weel, B., & Borghans, L. (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success. OECD.
Nickson, D., Warhurst, C., Commander, J., Hurrell, S. A., & Cullen, A. M. (2012). Soft skills and employability: Evidence from UK retail. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 33(1), 65–84.↵
- Judge, T. A., Piccolo, R. F., Podsakoff, N. P., Shaw, J. C., & Rich, B. L. (2010). The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis of the literature. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77(2), 157–167.↵
- Gazioglu, S., & Tansel, A. (2006). Job satisfaction in Britain: individual and job-related factors. Applied Economics, 38(10), 1163–1171.↵
- Weir, K. (2013, December). More than job satisfaction. American Psychological Association, 44(11), 39.↵