Seven steps to building a meaningful career

By Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review

Everyone aspires to have purpose or meaning in their career but how do you actually do that? What practical steps can you take to make sure you’re not just toiling away at your desk but doing something you genuinely care about?

Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to make the job decisions that lead to satisfaction, because no one teaches us how. We often pick jobs for the wrong reasons. We look for things that we’re proud to talk about or that look good on a resume. But those are rarely the things that translate to satisfaction. Here are principles you can follow to find a career and a specific job you don’t just enjoy, but love.

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? These things make the difference between being ok with your job and being truly happy. Don’t just look to obvious things, like salary, title, or prestige of the company:

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? What did I find most frustrating? Then, 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.’ ‘I want a job where I’m directly interacting with people in need.’

Run experiments
Once you’ve formed your hypotheses, it’s time to test them. You can try things out within an existing job. Take on a new assignment that allows you to try out 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. 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 not-for-profit organisation. 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. Listen carefully and critically, so that you don’t just hear what you want to hear.

Form a personal ‘board of directors’
Work with others to test your hypotheses and share the results of your experiments. Invite four or five people to serve as your informal board of directors. 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.

Think long term
This work shouldn’t just be in service of getting your next job. Career design is not just a job-search strategy. Don’t ask yourself, ‘What job do I want?’ but ‘What life do I want?’ Think about where you want to be in five, 10, 20 years. 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.

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. Make a budget if you don’t have one. Look for ways to lower the amount of money you need each month. 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
Schedule a time in your calendar to reflect on your career. Even if it’s just an hour every other week, you’re going to make some progress. Sometimes just thinking about it will get the ball rolling, and then, often, the change becomes inevitable.

A longer version of this article with useful links first appeared at Harvard Business Review.