For the average person, living today can seem like a struggle against overwhelming odds and never-ending complexity.
It’s not enough to work hard; one must also network and seek continuous improvement. Otherwise, you risk slipping behind, becoming obsolete in the career arena, with all that follows: decreased income, social status, self-esteem, and quality of living.
Or, as Miley Cyrus puts it, “always gonna be an uphill battle…it’s a climb.”
But even as we put forth so much effort towards ascending the career summit, we often feel that something’s lacking.
People search for transcendence and meaning in different ways. You might not even feel the call for decades, and then on impulse, you rent a glamping tent for a weekend escape to nature.
The desire for a greater purpose in life is natural, but many of us are afraid to acknowledge or take it seriously.
Career solutions for the few
Wouldn’t it be ideal if you could find meaning through the work you do?
This sentiment is so common, in fact, that surveys show 9 in 10 people would forfeit some of their career earnings for the chance to do meaningful work.
However, this also hints at a basic supply-and-demand function in the career field. The demand is high, and the size of today’s labor pool is vast. You’ll face a lot of competition for jobs that offer satisfaction in the meaningfulness aspect.
What attributes of a job can offer a sense of purpose? The nonprofit 80,000 Hours has a guide that gives some indication, not only of how to apply your career to help solve society’s pressing concerns, but also what it takes.
Central to this attempt at crafting a career with purpose is the concept of career capital. You’ll most likely need to bring an advanced level of skills to the table to build your career this way and contribute.
Moreover, the accepted wisdom that you’ll have to leave some money on the table to pursue this path implies that it’s not for everyone. Those who’re already well-off can absorb the financial impact.
If you meet the criteria, it’s certainly possible to land a job that doesn’t just compensate you but gives you a sense of purpose.
But clearly, the career path to find meaning isn’t a solution for everyone.
A new climb
In his book The Second Mountain, David Brooks argues that our society is eroding, and personal transformation is necessary to save it.
Our common mistake is letting our lives be too consumed with the pursuit of personal improvement, valuable skills, and other qualities that bring outward success and professional achievement.
We seek to climb the career mountain as if it’s everything in life, when in fact, there’s a second mountain waiting for us: that of personal renewal.
Making this ascent requires an entirely different approach. Instead of skills, degrees, and an impressive resume, you need virtues, community, strong relationships, and commitment.
Not only do people fail to recognize this second mountain, those that sense the need to climb it are afraid to attempt it. They fear that doing so will render invalid all their previous efforts at leading a good, successful life.
Overcoming the fear
If we stumble blindly around the edges of this second mountain, we’ll never satisfy that deep thirst for meaning. Our jobs are unlikely to offer enough in this aspect, and we might only experience moments of transcendence on our travels or in personal relationships.
We fear change when it seems vast and beyond our control. The key to overcoming this barrier is realizing that it doesn’t require radical lifestyle transformation on your part to make positive changes happen.
Some careers can offer meaning through progress and community. If your job doesn’t provide such opportunities, you can create them outside of work.
Seek to master a craft, and you’ll gain that same sense of progress. At the same time, tap into your intrinsic motivation for this undertaking. That means making an effort not for external rewards or status recognition but for the joy of engagement itself.
Volunteer work is often a better avenue to make a difference in the world than your day job. Giving time and energy over the long term will foster stronger, committed relationships within your community than just donating money or goods, even though the latter is also helpful.
Finally, strive for ‘eulogy’ virtues. Whether in-person or online, every interaction is more considerate, compassionate, honest, loving, and brave. Aspire to embody these virtues in all the small moments for the rest of your life.
Each step you make along these lines will take you further up the mountain of meaning, regardless of what you do at work.