The No-BS Guide to Finding Purpose In Your Career

“Goodness, not another ‘rah-rah-rah, follow your passion’ article,” you groan, reading the title. I feel your pain; if I had a dime for every time that type of post showed up on my feed, I’d donate it all to charity just to keep myself from hurling at all the pseudo-motivational BS.

That’s why I’m writing this post: to give you something different, something useful, to take away about that beaten-to-death topic called “purpose.” No, it doesn’t involve any bibbidi-bobbidi-booing on my part; I’m neither a fairy godmother nor am I acquainted with any fairy godmothers. And even if I’m either of those, I don’t think granting you your wishes — material or otherwise — would solve all your purpose-related problems.

Finding purpose in your career doesn’t take a magic wand; it takes the following:

Reframe the Way You Think About “Purpose”

We tend to think of purpose as something big or something that “makes a mark on the world,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. After all, people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa must’ve cried “I’m gonna make a name for myself” the moment they rolled out of their mother’s wombs, right?

Not really. I don’t know any of them personally, and I won’t pretend to, but I’m pretty sure none of them set out specifically to change the world. What I’m reasonably sure happened is that they took a good long look at their immediate surroundings and said to themselves, “This could be so much better.”

So the question is: What do you think could be better in your career? How can you make it better, in your own unique way? What can you change to be happier and more fulfilled at work?

Trim It Down to the Essentials

If you’re like most people, your answer to the first question is probably along the lines of: “A lot, actually! I want to move up the corporate ladder, amass a lot of money, and become rich enough to end hunger, poverty, class divides, wars…”

To that, I say: Stop. Sit down, take a deep breath, and think about everything you just said.

I’m not saying those aren’t great goals. They are, and it’s awesome that you have them. It’s just that, if you look at it from a “realistic” perspective (yes, I went there), you can’t do all of that — at least, not within your lifetime, and not without a ton of help from other people. If world leaders with all the resources and power at their disposal have trouble tackling the issues I just mentioned, how do you expect to do any better?

You might be thinking: “So, are you telling me to give up? To hang up my coat, and join the hordes of adults who have resigned themselves to cynicism?” No, I’m not. What I’m telling you is to focus. Focus on one or two values that you strongly, genuinely care about. They can be as small as “Making things easier for my co-workers”, or as big as “Putting my company on the same playing field as Apple, Samsung and Google.”

Then, find ways to incorporate these values into your daily life, as follows.

Take Small, But Careful, Steps

Let’s say you value better female representation in the workplace, especially in the upper echelons of the company. You don’t have to do anything as extreme as parking in front of the male CEO’s office the entire afternoon, with a humongous placard saying: “MORE WOMEN LEADERS, PLEASE.” Large, but poorly thought-out, gestures aren’t going to help you, or the people you claim to care about.

Instead, start small and subtle. Help new female employees find their way around the office. Encourage them to form networks among themselves, so they can exchange work tips, job leads, and the like. When the male CEO praises his favorite employee – who happens to be also male – again, bring the accomplishments of other team members to his attention (politely, of course).

If things work out, you’ll have helped others stand out, and found your purpose in your career at the same time. If not, well… 

Prepare Yourself for Change

The way media talks about “purpose,” you’d think it’s something you should have figured out by the time you hit your 20s. Honestly, I think that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes, you go down a road, and end up liking the journey so much that you don’t want to turn back anymore. Other times, you keep going and going until you hit a dead end, and you’re forced to turn back.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a failure. It can also mean that changes have happened — to your interests, circumstances, and other things beyond your control. Ask a good number of elderly people, and chances are a handful of them will say: “You know, when I was your age, I wanted to do this — but ended up doing that instead. And I don’t regret one bit of it.” Basically, your purpose can change, because you do. And that’s usually a good thing.

So stop over-thinking your “purpose.” Take a deep breath, figure out how you can make the world — and yourself — better. Start small, and keep it up. Before you know it, your purpose will come knocking on your door, instead of the other way around.

This post first appeared on Sarah’s bog, Punched Clocks.

Sarah Landrum

Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer and blogger sharing advice on career development, leadership, and finding happiness and success at work and in life. Catch Sarah on Twitter @SarahLandrum and be sure to subscribe to the Punched Clocks newsletter for more great tips.

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