How to Build a Meaningful Career

by Amy Gallo

Quick Takes

  • Set your own definition of meaningful
  • Identify things you’re good at and enjoy doing
  • Consider your ideal salary, benefits, and schedule
  • Imagine possible roles and create experiments to test them
  • Think about where you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years
  • Make a budget to give yourself a financial buffer

Everyone aspires to have purpose or meaning in their career, but it isn’t always easy to find, especially when you have obligations to consider. Building a career that helps you meet your family responsibilities and feeds your soul is challenging but not impossible. What practical steps can you take to make sure you’re not just toiling away for a paycheck but doing something you genuinely care about?

What the Experts Say

Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to make the job decisions that lead to satisfaction, regardless of our family situation. Nathaniel Koloc, the CEO of ReWork, which provides recruiting services to companies that offer purposeful work, says that’s because no one really ever teaches us how: “Very few parents, teachers, and mentors urge us to think about this or give us mental models to use,” he says. As a result, we often pick jobs for the wrong reasons, says Karen Dillon, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life? “We look for things that we’re proud to talk about at a cocktail party or look good on a résumé.” But rarely are those the things that translate to satisfaction. Here are principles you can follow to find a career—and a specific job—you love that’s not good just for you, but for your family, too.

Know what “meaningful” means to you

Am I respected by my colleagues? Am I being challenged? Am I growing? Do I believe in the mission? Am I proud of the work I do? “These are the things that are going to make the difference between being OK with your job and being truly happy,” says Dillon. But “meaningful” means something different for each of us. “Don’t just look to obvious things, like salary, title, or prestige of the company,” says Dillon. Koloc identifies four categories to consider.

Legacy. This is about the concrete outcomes of your work. What do you want to achieve? Sure, you may spend a lot of your day responding to emails or attending meetings, but what evidence do you want of your work? What do you want to look back on and know you accomplished? What do you want your children to remember about the work you did? You might find it rewarding to advance the math skills of 80 students in one year or build six desalination plants over the course of your career. This is often a question of how close to the front lines you want to be. Some people want to help sick people directly, while others aspire to help pass policies that will give more people access to health care.

Mastery. These are the strengths that you want to improve. For example, if you enjoy connecting with people, you could use that skill to be a psychologist or a marketer. If you’re a strong writer, you could use that skill to write fiction or ad copy. The key is that you’re using your strengths in a way that you find rewarding. “Being good at something you don’t enjoy doesn’t count,” says Koloc. “It has to be something you love to do.”

Freedom. This is about the salary, benefits, and flexibility you need to live the life you want. For some people, this may mean a big paycheck that allows you to take your family on exotic vacations or to afford music lessons for your children. For others, it could be the freedom to work when and where you choose. Many working parents want the ability to work from home when a child or partner is sick, or the flexibility to take an hour or two during the workday to attend a school event. Others want to know they can be home for dinner with their family or accompany an aging parent on a doctor’s visit, when necessary. Consider the lifestyle you want and ask whether your job is helping you fulfill that.

Alignment. This last category covers the culture and values of the place where you work. This is not the same as mission, warns Koloc, but is about whether you feel as if you belong. What are the beliefs and priorities of the company and the people you work with? How do people treat one another? Are there other working parents there whom you can turn to for support? Does the organization offer community service days? Do colleagues eat lunch together? “It’s important to enjoy spending time with your colleagues and your manager,” says Dillon. The content of these categories will vary by person. Dillon suggests making a list of all the things you value and then prioritizing them. This list will help guide your decisions and can be used to evaluate specific opportunities like a new assignment in your current role, a job at a different company, or a new career path.

Form hypotheses

If you’re unsure what matters most to you, think through a given day or week at work. Ask yourself: What made me most happy on the job? What did I find most frustrating? Then, Koloc suggests, come up with a few hypotheses about what is most meaningful to you. I want a job where I create something that people can use every day. I want a job that allows me enough flexibility to pick up my kids from school three days a week. I want a job where I’m directly interacting with people in need. “Be careful not to overcorrect for a particularly bad job experience,” says Dillon. “When you have a micromanaging boss, for example, it’s easy to think that your biggest priority is to work for a manager who doesn’t smother you, but if you seek out that one thing, you may end up being unhappy for slightly different reasons.”

Run experiments

Once you’ve nailed down your hypotheses, it’s time to test them. There are a variety of ways to do this. First, you can try things out within an existing job. “You might convince your manager to let you work remotely for a month,” he says. Take on a new assignment that allows you to build new skills. “Look for opportunities to enhance your job. Sign up for a new cross-company initiative or propose taking something off your boss’s plate,” suggests Dillon. If you can’t run experiments within the constraints of your job, look outside the company. “Join industry groups, go to conferences, volunteer for a nonprofit,” advises Dillon. The third way to test your hypotheses is to have conversations. Find people who are doing what you think you want to do and ask them lots of questions. Ideally these will be folks whose involvement with their family and community is similar to yours, so they can reflect on how possible it is to do the job you aspire to and meet your family commitments. Listen carefully and critically, so that you don’t just hear what you want to hear.

Form a personal “board of directors”

Don’t go it alone. Work with others to kick the tires on your hypotheses and share the results of your experiments. Invite four or five people to serve as your informal board of directors, making sure to include a few fellow working parents who understand the realities of your life (see chapter 17). You might tell them, “I’m doing some exploring about what I want from work and I’d love to talk with you on occasion to get your feedback on my direction.” Include any mentors and trusted professional peers. And if your manager is receptive, include her as well. “Not all bosses may be supportive,” says Dillon, “but if you have a manager whom you can bounce career ideas off of, take advantage of that.”

There are a few people you shouldn’t include, says Koloc. “Family members can be tough,” says Koloc. “Spouses, for example, need to know what you’re doing, but they may not be best positioned to help you figure it out.”

Think long term

This work shouldn’t just be in service of getting your next job. “Career design is different than a job-search strategy,” says Koloc, and the question you should be asking yourself, he advises, is not “What job do I want?” but “What life do I want?” Think about where you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years. Consider what type of relationship you’d like to have with your family as your children grow up. Talk to colleagues and friends who have children who are older than yours to help you anticipate what types of challenges you may face as a parent later on in your career. Of course, you have to answer more-immediate questions about what you want in your current job or your next, but do so only in the context of your longer, larger career goals.

When you’re already deep into a career

Midcareer professionals can and do make big changes—even those with rent and college tuition to pay. “Your ability to turn the ship is no different, but the speed at which you turn it is going to be slower,” says Koloc. “If you’re 35 and have two kids, it’s going to take longer to explore.” There’s good news though, he says: “You have more clues as to what you want and enjoy.” The important thing is to not feel stuck. “You may feel locked into a job, a higher salary, a higher title because you have more responsibilities, like a mortgage and kids, and sure, you may need to take fewer risks, but you don’t want to settle for a job or career you’re not happy with,” says Dillon.

Buckle down on your finances

One of the main reasons people give for staying in a job or career they don’t love is money. “Take steps to give yourself a financial cushion and a little psychological freedom,” says Dillon. Make a budget if you don’t have one. Look for ways to lower the amount of money you need each month: Downsize your house, move to one car, and be more disciplined about saving. Involve your family in this effort, making sure everyone in your household is on the same page about reducing spending and the reason behind it. Having a financial buffer will make it more likely that when you find something meaningful, you’ll be able to act on it.

Make the time

“I have yet to meet anybody who wouldn’t benefit from setting aside dedicated time to sit down and think about what they want from work,” says Koloc. Schedule a time in your calendar to reflect on your career. While it can be difficult to find room in an already full schedule, even if it’s just an hour every other week, you’re going to make some progress. If you have older kids, you might even involve them in the process, asking them to also reflect on what a meaningful career will look like for them in the future. “Sometimes just thinking about it will get the ball rolling, and then, often, the change becomes inevitable,” says Koloc.

Case Study: Get Your Finances in Order

Tim Groves liked his job at a civil litigation law firm. But he didn’t love it. “I didn’t get up in the morning excited to go to work,” he says. “And I knew if I continued on that career path, it wasn’t going to get better either.” Making a career change wasn’t straightforward, given that he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize his current job or his ability to provide for his family while searching for another role. He was interested in mission-driven work, so he started by talking to people in the nonprofit world and signed up for automated job listings. “I volunteered and served on boards, and I had friends and relatives who worked in nonprofits, so I had an inkling of what I could do with a law degree in a nonprofit setting,” he says.

He also did a few informational interviews with people he respected who had made similar transitions. He was careful in how he set up these conversations. “I told people that I wasn’t miserable at my current job, but that I was looking around and would love their perspective,” he explains. “I also mentioned that I had a mortgage and a family, so I didn’t want to broadcast this.”

To broaden his network, he became more active in his volunteer and board work and upped the pro bono law work he was doing. “I put myself in contact with people who could connect me to an opportunity or who could vouch for me when an opportunity came up.”

Tim and his wife had supported each other through several career transitions, but this time, as he says, “the stakes were higher because we had kids, school tuitions, and college looming on the horizon.” Given that Tim was going to almost certainly take a pay cut, he and his wife came up with a budget and the lowest salary figure he could take. To give themselves more financial flexibility, they downsized and moved from a one-family to a two-family house where rent from tenants could help pay the mortgage.

About a year and a half after starting the process, Tim took a job as a development officer at the Rhode Island Foundation. “The process wasn’t always easy, but I feel good about where I ended up,” he says.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, February 4, 2015 (product #H01V4K).

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