Most of us want to feel the work we do is in some way meaningful, but many of us probably don’t. With employee engagement figures in the toilet and the majority of workers open to considering a new job, it appears there’s a high demand for better and more purposeful work. So where do we find it?
For all talk of finding your passion, the truth is that the most exceptional job opportunities are open only to a few, exceptional applicants.
What’s more, even those in coveted, super-competitive roles are often miserable at work, not least because the value of seemingly universal career incentives, like high pay or a high-status title, wears off pretty quickly.
In other words, the grass is always greener on the other side, and even high achievers are always asking for more. While some people find they’re happier switching high-power business careers for lower-paying, more altruistic ones, the fact is that finding a job that feels meaningful varies from person to person, depending on what each of us values most. Charity work isn’t for everyone, and more often than not, “purpose” is personal–and can’t be summed up by a nonprofit’s mission statement.
We know by now that performance and engagement are closely linked, with most of us working more effectively when we’re invested in what we do. And one of the keys to feeling engaged at work is aligning your own idiosyncratic values with those of your organization, your team, and your direct manager–when you’re all working together towards something you believe in. That makes for a virtuous circle: When people pick jobs that fulfill basic psychological needs, motives, and values, they immerse themselves more in their work, experience higher levels of job satisfaction, and their productivity rises.
But getting there isn’t as simple as just chasing your passion. It takes some strategic thinking and foresight. Here are a few tips to help get you started.
This may sound obvious, but it isn’t, because in the most fundamental (not to say philosophical) sense, we are generally unaware of what we want.
It’s easy to pin down your wants for the next three minutes, three days, or three weeks, but it’s much harder to establish what you want to accomplish and experience within the span of your lifetime, let alone within the next decade. One reason among many is that our desires change with time and circumstances, even if our basic values remain constant. Psychologists have created evidence-based models for mapping such complex things as motivation, and in my own work, I’ve found there are roughly three key clusters of values underlying most people’s motives:
1. Status values refer to our desire to get ahead of others and compete with them. For example, some people are motivated by recognition and thrive in jobs that let them advertise achievements and translate them into higher-power roles.
Other people may be motivated by power, so they will gravitate towards jobs that let them control and influence others. Still others might equate status with commercial success, so they chase jobs with high salaries.
2. Affiliation values are those that relate to our desire to get along and bond with others. Altruism is one behavior that emerges from this set of values, giving rise to the activists, social workers, conservationists, and others who populate the nonprofit world.
These people tend to want to help others and change the world for the better, and it’s this group we tend to associate with value-driven work at large. But affiliation values underscore different careers as well–including those concerned not with changing the world but with preserving its customs, traditions, and institutions. Military, ecclesiastical, and political professionals also rest heavily on this class of values.
3. Learning values relate to people’s preferred thinking styles and how they go about making sense of the world. Some do so scientifically, so they pursue careers with formal learning and knowledge acquisition opportunities–in research, technology, engineering, and academia.
Other people who are driven by learning values pursue them more holistically and do better in environments that promote intuitive thinking and provide rich aesthetic experiences, for instance, in the arts.
Figuring out which type of values motivates you the most is arguably the easy part. It gets trickier trying to pinpoint an employer that serves them. For starters, many organizations struggle to communicate their own identities to prospective candidates. (Many even have distorted views of themselves, which in some cases are even more distorted than individuals’ own self-perceptions, because companies are a collection of individuals.)
Sometimes marketing gets in the way; a company might want to appear a certain way in order to recruit candidates. Read most corporate websites, and you’ll discover they all ostensibly value innovation, tolerate failure, care about social corporate responsibility, and promote diversity.
But if you were to ask current employees, chances are you’d get a more nuanced picture. A company’s culture is best measured not by the terms it uses to describe itself, but by its actual impact on employees–what psychologists call “climate.” That’s why sites like Glassdoor and other forums where employees review their current employers are such powerful and effective tools for determining whether a company’s values really match up with your own. Social media can also be a useful guide, especially if you can track down current and especially former employees to see what they’re saying candidly about their work experiences.
Knowing your own values and getting a feel for prospective employers’ values aren’t as easy as this third strategy. You can learn a great deal about the type of career match to pursue next simply by taking a critical look at your past experiences. That’s also one of the best methods for sorting out what you want as that evolves over time. Think about the things you disliked in your previous job. What made you the most unhappy? What caused you to leave, and what were the shared characteristics of the organizations you sought out next? Are those more fulfilling in your new role? What, if anything, do you feel is still missing now?
People change, but when you passionately dislike something, it’s unlikely that a change of circumstances will help you better adapt to it if that feature is still there in your next position. Equally, if you know something simply doesn’t motivate you, like a fat paycheck or great travel opportunities–even if it motivates others–don’t regard it as an incentive for your next job. Careers are like relationships: It may take a few before you’re able to work out what you really need and what makes you happy.