Since the glory days of ’80s self-help books, we’ve been told that if you’re stuck in a career rut you should just “do what you love and the money will follow.” Millennials, the largest demographic in the workforce today, are especially known for seeking purpose in their work. Unfortunately, most are still struggling to find it.
The first problem is figuring out what you love in the first place. The second is that the economy isn’t built on hopes and dreams. The supply/demand equation is about the desires of others, not our own, so we can’t all simply follow the path that our heart has set out for us. We have rent due, student loans to pay, mouths to feed. Sometimes, work is simply about gritting our teeth and getting through it.
I know the feeling. While today I finally feel like I’m doing my life’s work, there were many times where I felt I was just toeing the line. But each of the companies I’ve helped build played a role in guiding my passion, and every role that put me outside of my comfort zone pushed me closer to being the kind of leader who can build a company with a highly purpose-led mission.
If you’re searching for meaning in your 9-to-5, consider using your current role as an opportunity to build the leadership skills you’ll need to do high-impact work throughout your career.
Learn from the highs and the lows
I got my first taste of meaningful work in the early 2000s when I joined one of the earliest and most successful internet startups in Silicon Valley: Infoseek Corporation, a popular internet search engine acquired by The Walt Disney Company. It was exhilarating. We knew we were part of something that was changing the world, and we reveled in our front-seat view of history being made.
But at other times, I felt my work was just serving others’ interests. After giving birth to my children and taking time to focus on family, I had started to receive some nudging from colleagues and friends that I should consider getting back to work. I wanted to be at home, but felt pressure about becoming “stale” as tech innovation moved quickly, and what this would mean for my prospects of getting hired. Like many working parents, I felt like I had to choose between being a “bad mom” who wasn’t home with my kids, or risk damaging my professional career, after years of work to become a successful woman in leadership.
As a result, I took a job at a data-first company in the television space that I likely would have never taken if I had listened to my gut instinct. I selected a job that ticked boxes of salary, financial stability, and title, instead of something that ignited a passion within me. While I’m proud to have been able to face that challenge and bring that company to acquisition, I never felt fully motivated by the work I was doing.
Though it wasn’t fulfilling at the time, now that I look back, I can see that even these sorts of jobs contributed to my ability to be successful in my current role as CEO of Declare, a leadership platform transforming how women work, learn, and lead.
For instance, my time at Disney taught me the importance of steering a brand, which has proved very useful in starting my own company. My time at this TV data company taught me that hard numbers will always be the guideposts for success. This is essential at my current company, as we’ve set highly aggressive KPIs.
Pay attention to moments of passion
If you’re feeling frustrated by the sort of work you’re doing, pay attention to those moments when you feel excited and time passes effortlessly. Make a mental note so that you can build more of whatever that is into your career in the future. At the same time, don’t discount the parts of your work life that seem boring and monotonous, so long as you’re still learning. They’re likely providing you with the knowledge and experience you’ll need in the future.
Learn how to build a team
When the subject matter of your work doesn’t drive you, building the right team can. If you make your team your North Star, you’ll be able to carry out high-impact ideas on a greater scale. Helping others learn and grow as a mentor can give you purpose and fulfillment, no matter the subject matter of your work.
As you grow as a leader, at some point you’ll be forced to make tough decisions about your team. Particularly in growing companies, managers are often quick to fire someone who is not performing in a role they were originally hired for because the pressure on optimizing return is paramount.
Instead, my corporate experience has taught me that a leader’s job is to shape a culture of flexibility which includes helping to put people in the right seats. If your hiring process is sound, you’ve likely discovered a talented individual who is invested in seeing the company succeed. Where possible, help match that person to the right seat instead of letting them walk away.
By demonstrating that you’re dedicated to your team’s success, you’ll be able to create an environment resilient to the inevitable changes your business will go through. To accomplish big things, you’ll need to stay focused, not allowing growth to distract from the bigger “lighthouse.” Learn how to build the right team for the journey, and help them focus on a clear mission.
Learn to take risks
If you aren’t doing what you love, embrace any role that will push you beyond your limits. Doing impactful work in any context depends on your ability to think creatively and be nimble.
In my earlier startups, there were times where we had just a few months of runway to get the revenue or funding we needed. There were moments when I didn’t know how I would make payroll. These experiences taught me how to move forward despite terrible odds. Unlike most other business experiences, startups build a high level of resilience.
Today, it feels like my company is trying to move mountains. We’re working to dismantle the global corporate gender and broader inequality gap. As someone who came up in the corporate world with few other women role models to look up to, this issue is particularly dear to me. Next to this challenge, some of the greatest obstacles I’ve faced to date start to feel more like molehills. My previous jobs have equipped me with the foresight to avoid those kinds of financial crises. And when a landmine we couldn’t have predicted comes up, I trust my team to steer us around it, because they’re equally invested in our mission.
Every time you emerge on the other side of a great challenge in your career, you build resilience and gain perspective. You come back better equipped to anticipate a problem and tackle the next one.
So don’t be discouraged if you’re not in a career you love. Passion is something you can uncover as you go. The lessons you take away from the toughest challenges in your career will give you superpowers once you land that role that embodies that passion.