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How to Build a Meaningful Career Path

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Published on June 17, 2014

By Anita Manuel, Career Strategist & Consultant

I was recently meeting with a student who was very frustrated and stressed about what to do after graduation.  She said “I just don’t want to get some meaningless office job, but the problem is, I just don’t know what to do?! I want to have a meaningful career, you know?  I just want to find a way to do work that I love, but also make a decent living.”

So my response to her was, “Well, tell me more about what you love.”

And here is where she drew a blank, and said, “that’s just it, I DON’T KNOW!”

Truth be told, we’ve all come to a point where we ask ourselves, “What exactly am I meant to do?”  And, this question gets even more daunting when you happen to be on a timeline to find a job, or make a transition (e.g. you’re graduating, your parents are kicking you out of the house, you lost your job etc.)

So, the first step in figuring this out, is to give yourself some time to actually think about what it is that gives you purpose, makes you happy, gives you pleasure, excites you, makes you curious…

And here’s the important part, what you discover is unique to you.  We each have our own experiences, personalities, and genetic make-up, which all contribute to our world view. What you love or get excited about is going to be different than just about anyone else in the world.  That doesn’t mean that you have to figure out the answers all by yourself, but it does mean that you will be the only one to know the answer to some of the following questions:

  1. What is most important to you?  (success, wealth, adventure, growth, balance, family, status)
  2. What are the things or activities that make you feel fulfilled, happy or excited? (if you say, “the only thing that gets me excited these days is hanging out with my dog,” that’s fine.  Do you know how many animal related organizations exist?  Do you know how many companies let you bring your dog to work?)
  3. What problems do you like to solve?
  4. Are those problems focused on people, ideas or things?
  5. Who do you admire? Why? What do they do for a living?
  6. What kinds of people do you want to work with?
  7. What strengths/skills do you like using most? (writing, speaking, programming, research, analysis)
  8. What do other people say that you do well?
  9. What are your favorite websites, blogs, social media channels?
  10. In reflecting on past courses, projects or work experience, which tasks or roles did you enjoy most?

The answer to these questions should generate some themes and give you an idea of where you might like to work or what type of environment would be a good fit for you.  If you still feel stuck, I’d recommend checking out Imperative.com which offers a tool to identify how you find purpose in your work.   After completing the assessment you’ll be able to identify WHO you want to serve, WHY you are motivated to work with them and HOW you want to serve them.

The second piece of this puzzle is to try things out.  You need to get some experience in order to actually know what it is that you like or don’t like.  Sometimes, classroom experience is just not enough.  You need to test the waters in the real world and the best way to do this is through an internship or volunteer work.

Check out the opportunities here on WayUp as well as volunteer positions through www.idealist.org or volunteermatch.org.   If you realize that you want to work for a non-profit that focuses on animal advocacy, then you need to see which organizations exist in the field and what they do.  What better way to show a potential future employer that you are passionate and dedicated to their cause than by volunteering or interning for them.

Bonus tip! Don’t forget to connect with your university career center or alumni association for contacts and opportunities directly related to your alma mater.  Remember, those who have a natural connection to you are much more likely to provide leads, support and referrals.

At this point, you might be wondering what happened to the student I was working with… How does this story end?  Did she figure out the rest of her life?!

After we reviewed the questions above and talked through some of her concerns, she was able to identify that relationships and teamwork were very important to her and that she liked to use her communication skills, specifically writing.  She also checked out some of the sites mentioned and found internships that sounded interesting and that were paid opportunities.  She was now excited about the possibility of pursuing a career that encompasses her values and interests.  This wasn’t an “I’m going to change the world” moment…but it was an “Aha” moment, for her.  She was able to connect with something that excited her and that was enough to help her know that she could find work that was meaningful to her.

And that bring us to the last part of the puzzle…perception.

Are you a glass half full or half empty kind of person?  It’s important to remember that there is not one job that can bring you 100% fulfillment.  Personal purpose encompasses all aspects of yourself and how you find meaning in the world.  This includes what you do for fun, how much time you get to spend with your family, participating in hobbies and knowing that you contribute to something greater than yourself.  Work or “a job” is just one part of what you do in your life.  If you can approach your work with an understanding that you are contributing to a greater cause or outcome, you will find it much easier to complete the tasks that you don’t love as a way to reach a meaningful goal.  A classic examples is exercise.  You love the results but may not always love the work involved.

All experiences can provide insight into what drives you and gives you purpose (or what doesn’t).  Approach opportunities with an open mind and don’t be afraid to make a mistake.  If you are still stuck, don’t do it alone!  Reach out to family, friends, colleagues, and professionals in your field of interest.  You’d be surprised how willing people are to share their experiences and tips.  And at the end of the day, only YOU know what gets you excited…listen to that voice, because it’s your purpose speaking to you.

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