Over the past few decades, the definition of a “successful career” has changed significantly. In the gig economy, people are discovering unique ways to make a living from various skills, which is one reason why many argue the career ladder has fully transformed into the career lattice. Yet even with shifting beliefs about what the modern career path looks like, it remains incredibly daunting for some people to figure out what direction they should move to find a job that satisfies them. Even worse, several reports have revealed nearly half of all Americans aren’t happy with the career they currently have.
But what does it even mean to be truly satisfied? I feel like it’s pretty difficult to define on its own, especially since we’re often encouraged to put passion before anything else when it comes to our careers.
I mean, how many among us have heard these?
“Chase your passion, not a paycheck.”
“Do what you love, and the money will follow.”
“If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Often, it seems like satisfaction is conflated with pleasure when people talk about careers. And since the people who preach this passion-before-anything-else advice (motivational speakers, celebrities, influencers, etc.) exist in some state of career euphoria, how can anyone not believe them? As long as you like going to work every day, does anything else matter?
Last month, Mary wrote a fantastic article about passion here on TFD that questioned whether it’s necessary for cultivating a meaningful life and career. Reading her piece reminded me of all the times I wondered whether I was truly following the right path even though I felt “passionate” about what I was doing. Sure, I know I love writing more than I love most things. But I also really love research, teaching, and public speaking, too. How can I be sure pursuing this interest as a career was a better choice than the others? And was monetizing the activity I once used for personal expression going to make me eventually hate doing it?
Plus, for every motivational speech I hear about “passion” from successful people, there are just as many stories of people who gave up their dream job, and depressing statistics that reveal only 33% of people are actually engaged with their careers.
As it turns out, sometimes love is not enough to keep you happy.
Many of us already know this to be true when it comes to romantic relationships. You can have all the steamy, unrelenting passion in the world for someone, but if their beliefs are fundamentally contradictory to yours, any hopes for a long-term, sustainable partnership is futile. This is because at its core, passion is a feeling, and a feeling alone cannot build a stable foundation for any kind of serious commitment. Similarly, when it comes to choosing a career, the key to finding one that will keep you satisfied has much less to do with what you love, and far more to do with what you value.
Our values are the beliefs that guide us when we make most decisions in life. For example, this weekend, I’m going out for Easter for my family — not because I necessarily view myself as religious, but because I value tradition (and an excuse to brunch). Additionally, our values are what connect us to our goals and motivate us to actually stick with them. A person who thrives on spontaneity and new experiences will probably choose to travel more than someone who appreciates the simplicity of routine. Being fully aware of what your own values are, especially in a work environment, will allow you to understand what’s most important to you and enable you to build a career that keeps you genuinely satisfied. According to Monster.com, there are two kinds of work values that exist: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Extrinsic values are essentially the surface-level benefits that come with a job. They are things like salary, vacation time, and the tasks associated with doing the job. For a freelance writer like myself, one of my extrinsic values is the freedom to set my own schedule. Other extrinsic values pertain to the work environment itself — some may care about working in a personalized cubicle, and others may prefer an unpredictable setting like a hospital. Perhaps your number-one extrinsic value is the freedom to wear jorts in the summertime to the office (I’m just saying, I am not a uniform person, and what I wear means a lot to me). If you’re not sure how to figure yours out, ask yourself what physical rewards and benefits you want from a career.
By contrast, Intrinsic Values are those benefits you personally feel as a result of your job. This is, arguably, where capital-P Passion falls under. Intrinsic values aren’t as concrete or obvious as extrinsic ones, so they may be a bit more challenging to determine. Some examples include creative freedom, the joy of helping others, and the thrill of competition. Other intrinsic values can be tied to morality or a sense of bettering society. For example, you might care about working for an organization whose mission involves social justice or discovering the cures for world diseases. In my case, one of my biggest intrinsic values is having the opportunity to express myself and share my ideas with people, which is why writing online is a career path that suits me quite well. The best way to figure out what yours are is to ask yourself this question: What do I want out of a job that’s not immediately apparent to other people?
Now, there is no rulebook that says you have to have X amount of intrinsic values and Y amount of extrinsic values about work. After all, some people may care more about vacation time and salary than they do about feeling challenged, and that’s completely fine. However, it’s vital to be able to identify clearly what yours are on both sides so you can determine which ones are your non-negotiables. After all, if we have deal-breakers when it comes to dating, it’s fair to say we should also have deal-breakers when it comes to forming the other most significant relationship in our life.
By the time we retire, most of us will have spent 90,000 hours of our lives working. And while it’s easiest to say we should simply follow our hearts and build a career doing what we love, the reality is love doesn’t always keep the lights on, or provide us with what we need to be happy. And let’s be real: no job is going to be absolutely perfect in every way. (I mean, blink-182 did famously say on a song “work sucks, I know”, so it must be true to some extent.) The important thing to remember is that the career you choose doesn’t have to be consistently fun and exciting to be worthwhile. Ultimately, if it falls in line with your values, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider it as possibly being the one for you.
Savanna is a freelance writer in Northern California whose hobbies include all things theater and dog-related. She hopes for a world where avocados will be included in the price of her entrée and a 12-step program is widely available to people who obsessively collect air miles. Follow her on Twitter here.
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