Increasingly we are encouraged to seek purpose driven work and to feel a deep conviction that our work is making a positive contribution to humanity. But are the headline grabbing stories about deeply fulfilling work helpful or counterproductive? This issue is explored by authors Dr David Oxley and Dr Helmut Schuster (above) in a new book.
Fifty years ago, there was a clear segregation in our expectations between work and fulfilment,” observe career expects Dr Schuster and Dr Oxley. “We generally accepted that work was a means to an end…not an end in itself. However, the distinction has become blurry.”
During the pandemic there was a great deal written about the so-called great resignation. Given the opportunity to reflect on their careers, a great number of people decided it was time for a change. While a buoyant job market and remote working arrangements were not insignificant factors, many suggested a desire to find purposeful work was a big factor.
Three powerful winds of change
“Context is everything. In the 1970s, finding well paid jobs to enable a good life was the prime driver. However, in the 2020s there are three emerging forces that are influencing our expectations” say Drs Schuster & Oxley. In research they conducted for their book, A Career Carol, they point to the following:
Shifting generational expectations: Particularly Gen Z want to work on solving some of societies consequential problems. Along with a growing expectation that companies must aspire to be good societal actors.
Erosion in the glamour of corporate life: The dawning reality that high profile corporate careers can be superficial, boring, and come with unpalatable sacrifices.
An explosion of choice: An enormous number of alternatives to old-style corporate careers.
So, should we expect to have passion for our work?
Being passionate about a cause, fighting for something you believe in provides us with an essential element of life. Greek philosophers extolled the virtues of purpose 3,000 years ago. Recently, neuroscientists have found holding a conviction doing something important prolongs our vitality well into old age. The question isn’t so much whether this is a good thing, but where to find it.
“Fighting for justice, human rights, or climate change can help us thrive. Equally, finding purpose in art, literature, music, or dance, are all great outlets to unleash our passion,” say Drs Schuster and Oxley. “The problem with work generally is that it’s an imperfect vehicle for personal fulfilment.” They go on to say that seeking fulfilment purely from a job may be an unrealistic and even unhealthy expectation.
Three questions you should ask yourself
So, if being driven by some greater purpose is so important, how do you figure out yours? According to our career experts, most of us have already intuitively adopted a north star without realising it. “This is where the headlines mislead us into thinking it always must be about something grandiose. Most compelling causes are rooted in more specific personal terms. We use these three questions as a telescope to help reveal them:”
Does your job meet your physical and emotional needs?
In other words, have you found rewarding work that you care about. Signs this may be true are: (a) you find your work interesting, (b) you draw identity from your job, (c) you are proud of your company/profession, (d) you think of yourself as making a positive difference.
Do you have a strong conviction in the necessity of your work?
In other words, it’s a job you choose to do it for a greater good. Examples of this would be altruistic pursuits that require sacrifice but bring benefits to society, community, patients, families, or loved ones.
Do you love something that is enabled by your job?
This is the classic work to live ethos that was the default 50 years ago. However, it remains true that many people can live a happy, fulfilled, existence by balancing a more transactional approach to work against the joy it enables. The signs would be (a) the presence of a cause outside work that brings meaning, (b) the need to support that purpose, (c) being restricted by the purpose on the job options available.
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, even partially, it’s an indication you have built your career around serving a greater purpose. If you didn’t, well you might want to take some time to re-evaluate whether there is a more fulfilling path for you. If you are unhappy or disillusioned at work, beyond the generic reward calculations, the likely answer is that it’s because you aren’t clear what cause you are fighting for.
Returning to the opening question…the punchline here seems that passion is an essential ingredient for a happy life. It’s also true that many of us are preferring jobs with company’s who are committed to solving consequential problems. However, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to linking our pursuit of fulfilment exclusively to work. For many of us work might simply be the thing that allows us to do whatever we really want… spectacularly.
Dr David Oxley and Dr Helmut Schuster are co-authors of A Career Carol: A Tale of Professional Nightmares and How to Navigate Them, published by Austin Macauley Publishers and available on Amazon.