Even on good days your career can seem a bit hazy. You're not sure what your next step will be.
It’s happened to all of us. We start a career with the best of intentions, planning to give it our all and to find fulfillment. Then, for one reason or another, it doesn’t happen. When your career is lacking in the meaning department, you’ll likely start to lose your sense of purpose and your drive to give it all you can. In the end, nothing positive can come from this situation.
I’ve been there. I went to a great college — Penn State — enjoyed my time there and did my best. After graduation, I moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to pursue my career. I landed — what I thought — was a great job and couldn’t wait to get started. This was the type of position that would look great on a résumé and would really help me move forward in life. Then, reality hit.
A few months into the job I realized that I was “just getting by.” I was punching the time clock and doing what was required of me, but I was starting to feel limited in my position, hampered by my cubicle. I needed something new. I chose a better opportunity and path in marketing and started a side gig as a freelance writer. I found my passion in these areas, starting a blog — Punched Clocks — to share my advice with others who are navigating the work world while trying to achieve happiness and success in life and in their careers.
For me, finding career meaning meant switching jobs and taking control of my career. For you, it might be a different avenue. Try one of the 10 ways to find career meaning where you wouldn’t think to look if you’re feeling stuck in the same rut I was:
1. Practice Gratefulness
Here’s the thing. Even if your job isn’t what you hoped, or if you’re struggling to find meaning, there’s still a silver lining: You have a job. 8.3 million Americans are currently unemployed and actively searching for work. 2.1 million of these individuals have been searching for over 27 weeks — that’s almost 7 months. Sometimes, finding meaning is as simple as examining the world around you and being grateful for what you have. It might not be ideal. It might not be what you’re looking for long term, but it’s paying the bills. Remind yourself of this next time you’re ready to turn in your notice on a whim.
2. Identify the Real Problem
What’s driving your perceived lack of meaning? If you cannot identify this issue, you’ll likely to fall into the same rut regardless of what career or position you find yourself in. So many times we hear — and maybe say — “I’m not happy at work,” or “I have no purpose in my job,” but what’s underneath that discontent?
Ask yourself honest questions to find the real problem. Could your discontent be related to:
- A sense of dissatisfaction with your actual role?
- The fact that you’re working in a field that doesn’t match your passion?
- The idea that you find yourself longing to set your own schedule and to be your own boss?
- Finding yourself thinking of a different passion while you should be focusing on your job?
- Feeling undervalued for the job you’re doing?
These are deeper issues than feeling as though you should be paid more or a simple sense of frustration. If you can’t identify the real problem, you’ll have a hard time finding meaning, no matter what you do.
3. Build Relationships
If you find yourself punching in at 9 and out at 5, sitting in your cubicle and performing the tasks that are required of you without going above and beyond in any way, you’re likely missing out on an important part of your workday: relationships.
Many employees list relationships with co-workers and managers as two of the top ten contributing factors for career satisfaction. What do you know about Peg in the cubicle across from yours, other than what she eats for lunch daily? Maybe finding meaning in your career means looking outside of yourself to those around you. When we’re stuck in a place where we are our only focus, it’s likely to get lonely. Put time into getting to know those around you to brighten each day and to give a little more meaning to what you do.
4. Work Together to Make a Difference
Once you’ve established a few solid working relationships, maybe it’s time to work together to make a difference. When you invest in the lives of others in a tangible way, you’re likely to feel more fulfilled yourself.
Look around for local charities. Start a clothing drive at work. Sign up for a 5k that benefits a special cause and make team shirts, or find another way to get involved in your community. Work together to brighten someone else’s day.
5. Enhance Your Personal Abilities
Maybe you just feel stuck. You feel like you could be achieving more, but you lack the training or skill set to make it happen. Perhaps, like me, your real passion lies somewhere else — in another field altogether. In this case, it’s time to enhance your personal abilities. Sign up for a few online continuing education courses. Consider going back to school to pick up a different degree, or look for seminars offered by local professional organizations. Maybe to find meaning, you just need a little extra training.
6. Stop Depending on Your Job for Meaning
Too many people find themselves in a place where their sense of meaning is linked solely with their job. There should be meaning there, but it should also lie elsewhere. What you do outside of work is just as important. To find meaning elsewhere, consider:
- Investing in your family. How could you work to make your spouse or children happier?
- Setting new goals outside of work, starting a fitness regimen or taking a cooking class to find pride elsewhere.
- Joining a community organization and finding ways to contribute.
Or, try something else altogether. When you feel more fulfilled outside of work, the feeling will likely carry over to working hours.
7. Improve Upon What You Do
Here’s the thing: If you’re doing only the bare minimum to get by, you’re probably under-achieving. How could you improve upon your current role?
Sit down with your manager to discuss options for improvement. Perhaps changing a few processes, changing a few responsibilities or improving on how certain tasks are completed could improve your attitude and your actual position. This type of initiative could even lead to promotions down the road.
8. Track Your Progress
If you feel as though you’re just getting by and just punching the clock, perhaps you’ve lost track of what you actually accomplish each day. Start a portfolio to remind yourself. Not only will this help you track your progress, but it may help in future job searches.
Collect pieces you’ve worked on. Gather metrics from campaigns in which you’ve played a part. Print out screen shots, and do whatever else it takes to prove your value. Keep a journal that helps you reflect on the good and what you can improve about your career. When you see how far you’ve come, and what you’ve actually done to make a difference, you may start to find more career meaning than ever before.
9. Take On New Responsibilities
While this goes along with improving upon what you do — see # 7 — it also takes it to the next level. If you’re the type of employee who regularly avoids speaking up at staff meetings, volunteering for task forces and taking on new projects, you might be stuck in a rut.
To find meaning, consider challenging yourself by committing to new responsibilities on the job. This effort could help you improve upon working relationships while helping you find something new to be passionate about. What responsibilities have you been avoiding that could help you take your career to the next level? If you’re not sure where to start, ask your manager for ways to take on new responsibilities. Pay attention in your next meaning, and read company-wide emails looking for individuals to commit to various projects. You might just surprise yourself in the meantime.
10. Look Elsewhere
If all else fails, maybe you’ll find yourself in the same place I was — somewhere that cannot be improved and where you’ve done all you can to find meaning. If you’re here, there’s no reason to stick around. You owe it to yourself to find something different. Remember to identify what the problem was in your old role and to look for positions that will give you the opportunity to improve. That way, you’ll avoid falling into the same rut once again.
Your career is a part of who you are. It’s what helps you live a fulfilling life and where you spend a large number of your waking hours — 18.5% over a lifetime according to one study. Are you wasting your time due to a lack of fulfillment and a lack of meaning? Start with the ideas listed above to make a difference. You deserve to lead a fulfilling career, and the time to act is now.
What have you done or seen at work that has helped people build career happiness?