What Is Your Career?

January 6th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

What is your career? Forget about how you define this to others for now, and just think for a bit about how you define your career to yourself. What does it mean to you to have a career? Is it just your job? Is it something you do to make a living? Is it what you do for money? Is it your work?

Most people would define a career as more than a job. Above and beyond a job, a career is a long-term pattern of work, usually across multiple jobs. A career implies professional development to build skill over a period of time, where one moves from novice to expert within a particular field. And lastly, I would argue that a career must be consciously chosen; even if others exert influence over you, you must still ultimately choose to become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. If you didn’t make a conscious choice at some point, I would then say you have a job but not a career.

One of the difficulties I see a lot of people experiencing lately is that they spend the bulk of their days working at a job that isn’t part of a consciously chosen career. Once you graduate from school and enter the work force, you don’t suddenly gain the knowledge of what kind of career to build. Most likely you just focus on getting a job as your first step after school. And you probably have to make this choice in your early 20s. After a decade or two, you’ve established a pattern of work and built up some expertise. But at what point did you stop and say, what is my career going to be?

Sometimes when you ask people what their career is (instead of asking what their job is), the question makes them uncomfortable. Why? Because they think of a career as something intentionally chosen, purposeful, and meaningful, and they don’t see those qualities in their job. Another possibility is that they feel deep down that their real career lies elsewhere.

Just because you’ve been working in a field for many years doesn’t mean you have to turn that pattern of work into your career. The past is the past. You can continue to run the same pattern and follow that same path into the future, but at any time you’re also free to make a total break with the past and turn yourself onto an entirely new career path in the future. Ask yourself if you were starting over from scratch today, fresh out of school, would you still choose the same line of work? If the answer is no, then you only have a job right now, not a career. Your career lies elsewhere.

I went through this process myself last year when I asked myself, “What is my career?” I’ve been developing and publishing computer games since 1994. And that was exactly what I wanted to do when I was 22 years old. Game development was the career I had consciously chosen; I didn’t just fall into it. It took a lot of work to start my own company and build it into a successful business. But at age 33, I had to stop and say that I no longer wanted game development to be my career. I still enjoy it, and I may continue doing a little on the side as a hobby for many years, but I no longer think of it as my career.

And yet, when I looked around for what else I might define as my new career, I was in a quandary. I saw all the assets I’d built in my game development career… and a long list of goals yet to be accomplished. Of course, the real problem was that I was looking to the past and projecting it onto the future. So all I could see on the road ahead was a continuation of the road behind. My solution was to use zero-based thinking… imagining I was starting from scratch again, forgetting the past for a moment, seeing the present moment as something fresh and new that didn’t already have a directional vector assigned to it — it could point in any new direction I gave it.

At the same time I started thinking like this, I also decided to broaden my definition of career. While running my games business, I had been operating with a very 3rd-dimensional view of a career. It was about success, achievement, accomplishment, making a good living, sales, serving customers, etc. At different times my career was that I was a game programmer, a game developer, or a game publisher. Those were the labels I used.

But whereas these kinds of objectives were very motivating to me when I was in my 20s, years later I found them to be far less motivating. Achieving more and succeeding more just wasn’t enough of a motivator by itself. And I’ve seen others fall into the same situation too — the things that motivated them greatly at one point no longer seem all that motivating years later. The motivational strategies that work in your 20s don’t necessarily keep working in your 30s.

The solution I found was to look behind the labels and discover the core of my career. When I looked behind the labels of game programmer, game developer, and game publisher, I saw that the core of my career was entertaining people. That was the real purpose behind what I was doing. And that’s when it made sense to me that this was a very motivating purpose for me in my 20s, but that in my 30s it lost its edge because I had grown to the point in my own life where I felt that entertaining people was no longer the BEST way for me to contribute.

Think about this for a moment. What is the core of your career? What do you contribute? What is the big picture of what you do? If you work for a large company, then how do your actions contribute to some larger purpose? Be honest with yourself. And don’t ignore the role your company plays in your career; your career depends heavily on what you’re contributing down the line. If you truly assign a noble purpose to what you do, that’s great. For example, if you work at a grocery store, you might be inspired by the fact that you help feed people. But don’t force it if you don’t actually believe it. If you feel your contribution is weak or even negative, then admit that to yourself, even if you don’t immediately plan to do anything about it.

Go behind the labels. Don’t stop at defining your career as computer programmer or lawyer or doctor. What are you contributing as a computer programmer? How does your career make a difference in other people’s lives? Is it nothing more than a way for you to make money? As a lawyer do you resolve disputes and spread peace, or do you milk conflict for money? As a doctor do you heal people, or are you just a legal drug pusher? What is the essence of your career right now?

Now when you have your answer, you next have to ask yourself, is this you? Is this truly a career that reflects the best of who you are as a person?

For example, if you see the real purpose behind your current line of work as making a handful of investors wealthier… nothing more noble than that… then is that an accurate reflection of your best contribution? Is that you?

If you already have a career that accurately reflects the best of who you are, that’s wonderful. But if you don’t, then realize that you’re free to change it. If your career as a regional distributor for a major soda manufacturer basically boils down to pushing sugar water to make people fatter, you don’t have to keep it that way.

I think if you realize that your current work doesn’t fit who you are, then you have to make a choice. You have to decide if you deserve having a career that truly suits you. If you don’t feel you deserve it, then you will settle for defining your career in such narrow terms as job, money, paycheck, promotion, boss, coworkers, etc. No one is forcing you to accept that as your definition of career.

On the other hand, you can choose to embrace another definition of career that uses terms like purpose, calling, contribution, meaning, abundance, happiness, fulfillment, etc. This requires a top-down approach. You first think hard about what your purpose here is… what kind of contribution do you want to make with your life? Once you figure that out, then you work down to the level of how to manifest that in terms of the work you do.

And for many people, the seeming impossibility of that manifesting part is paralyzing. This is especially true for men, who usually take their responsibility as breadwinners very seriously. You see yourself logically having two choices: I could stay in my current job, which pays the bills and earns me a good living, or I could go jump into something that fits me better, but I just can’t see how to make money at it. I have a mortgage to pay and a family who depends on me; I can’t do that to them.

The problem though is thinking that these are the only alternatives… thinking that you have to make a choice between money and happiness. That assumption is what causes the paralysis against action. You can also envision the third alternative of having money and happiness together. In fact, that’s actually the most likely outcome. If you don’t currently have a career that is deeply fulfilling to you in the sense that you know you’re contributing in a way that matters, then deep down, you will sabotage yourself from going too far with it. You will always know that you’re on the wrong path for you, and this is going to slap a demotivating slump over everything you try to do in that line of work. You’ll do your job, but you’ll never feel that you’re really living up to your potential. You’ll always have problems with procrastination and weak motivation, and they’ll never be resolved no matter how many time management strategies you attempt. Your job will never feel like a truly satisfying career — it just can’t grow into that because you’ve planted your career tree in bad soil. You’ll always be stuck with a bonsai.

But when you get your career aligned from top to bottom, such that what you’re ultimately contributing is an expression of the best of yourself, the money will come too. You’ll be enjoying what you do so much, and you’ll find your work so fulfilling, that turning it into an income stream won’t be that hard. You’ll find a way to do it. Making money is not at odds with your greater purpose; they can lie on the same path. The more money you make, the greater your ability to contribute.

But most importantly you’ll feel you really deserve all the money you earn. When your career is aligned with the best of who you are, you won’t secretly feel that your continued career success means going farther down the wrong path. You won’t hold back anymore. You’ll want to take your career as far as you can because it’s an expression of who you are. And this will make you far more receptive to all the opportunities that are all around you, financial or otherwise.

But how do you make this transition? Is a leap of faith required? Not really. I don’t think of it as a leap of faith. It’s more of a leap of courage, and it’s a logical kind of courage, not an emotional one. It comes down to making a decision about how important your own happiness and fulfillment are to you. Really, how important is it for you to have meaningful, fulfilling work? Is it OK for you to continue working at a job that doesn’t allow you to contribute the very best of who you are? If you find yourself in such a situation, then your answer is yes — you’ve made it OK for you to tolerate this situation.

But you see… self-actualizing people who successfully make this leap will at some point conclude that it’s definitely not OK. In fact, it’s intolerable. They wake up and say, “Wait a minute here. This is absolutely, totally unacceptable for me to be spending the bulk of my time at a job that isn’t a deeply fulfilling career. I can’t keep doing this. This ends now.”

These people “wake up” by realizing that what’s most important about a career is the high-level view that includes happiness, fulfillment, and living on purpose. Things like money, success, and achievement are a very distant second. But when you work from within the first category, the second category takes care of itself.

Before you’ve had this awakening, you most likely don’t see how that last sentence is possible. And that’s because you don’t understand that it is nothing more than a choice. You have probably chosen to put money above fulfillment in your current line of work. That choice means that you won’t have fulfillment. But it’s not that you can’t have fulfillment — you can choose to change your priorities and act on them at any time. The real choice you made was not to be fulfilled in your current line of work. You bought into the illusion that money is at odds with fulfillment, and that money is the more important of the two, so that is all you see. No matter what job you take, you find this assumption proves true for you.

But once you go through the “waking up” experience and firmly decide to put fulfillment first, you suddenly realize that being fulfilled AND having plenty of money is also a choice that’s available to you. There are countless ways for you to do both; you simply have to permit yourself to see them. You realize that you were the one who chose EITHER-OR instead of AND, while all the time you were totally free to choose AND whenever you wanted.

You set the standards for your career choices. Most likely your current standard ranks fulfillment and meaningful contribution very low in comparison to working on interesting tasks and making sufficient money. But those standards are yours to set. At any point you’re free to say, “Having a deeply meaningful and fulfilling career is an absolute MUST for me. Working for money alone is simply not an option.” And once you make this conscious choice, you WILL begin seeing the opportunities that fit this new standard. But you’ll never even recognize those opportunities as long as it remains OK for you to spend all your work time being unfulfilled.

I want to drive home this point. Having a fulfilling career that earns you plenty of money doesn’t require a leap of faith. It only requires a choice. You just have to wake up one day and tell yourself that you deserve both, and that you won’t settle for anything less. It’s not about finding the right job. A career isn’t something you find; it doesn’t require someone to give you something. You aren’t at the mercy of circumstances. A career is something you create, something you build. It means that the work you do each day is aligned with what you feel to be your purpose. Once you start doing this kind of work, even if for no pay initially, your self-esteem will grow to the point where you’ll become so resourceful and open to new opportunities that you’ll have no trouble making plenty of money from it. However, when you do so, the money won’t be that important. It will just be a resource for you to do more of what you love.

Your life is too precious to waste working only for money or for a purpose that doesn’t inspire you. No one can hold you back from making this decision but you. Especially don’t hide behind your family’s needs. If your family truly loves you, then they need you to be fulfilled and living on purpose far more than anything else. And if you love them, then isn’t your greatest role to serve as a model to them of how to be happy? What would you want for your own children for their careers? And do you want the same for yourself?


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