If you’re already on a stable or semi-stable career path, this article will help you determine whether your current career is really the right one for you, using a very simple assessment process.
Career fulfillment defined
What does it mean to have a fulfilling career? Here’s how I would define it:
A fulfilling career is an effective outlet for your creative self-expression that satisfies the following criteria:
- You are sustainably meeting your needs and increasing your ability to meet those needs with greater ease and abundance.
- You are working from your strengths and further developing those strengths into major talents.
- You are doing work you enjoy, and the overall enjoyment you derive from your work is increasing.
- You are making a meaningful positive contribution to others, and that contribution is increasing over time.
Here are a few things I want you to notice about this definition:
- It follows the four-part model of body (needs), mind (skills), heart (desires), and spirit (contribution), as explained in many other articles on this site.
- It balances the logical, practical, emotional, and spiritual. It recognizes that you must pay your bills and that a financially abundant career is better than abject poverty, but it also integrates the emotional needs for enjoyable work and meaningful contribution.
- The definition is entirely personal, meaning that it will apply differently to different people. Your needs, skills, desires, and sense of contribution will be uniquely your own. You can’t simply copy someone else’s approach and expect that it will work for you. In this case modeling someone else too closely is a recipe for failure.
- It sets a high standard for genuine fulfillment, but in doing so, it can help you diagnose where you may currently be falling short. It seems to do a good job of explaining why so many people don’t feel fulfilled in their careers, even if they’re experiencing relative success in one, two, or three of these areas.
- It is sustainable and synergistic. Once you have all four of these areas in alignment, they tend to mutually support and enhance each other. It may be difficult to get there, but it’s fairly easy to maintain. When you’re working from your strengths, doing what you love, making a meaningful contribution, and abundantly meeting your needs, your skills, desires, purpose, and resources will all be working in harmony.
- To a certain degree, you can satisfy this definition at any point in your career if you’re on the right path. When you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of money or skill, you can still do work you enjoy and help people, but you may need to do something on the side to pay the bills. You may work as a retail sales clerk to make ends meet, while knowing that your real career path is to be a writer.
Assess your current career
Using the above definition as a guide, please take a moment to rate your current level of career fulfillment on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the worst and 10 being the best. While it’s fine to assign a separate number for each of the 4 criteria, ultimately I want you to come up with a single overall rating. Don’t continue reading until you settle on a specific number, not a range. I’ll wait.
Now let’s take that number and run it through a certain transformation. I promise this will be very simple. If you picked a 9 or 10 (or higher), you’re golden. You can keep that number as it is. (If you did pick a 9 or 10, I would encourage you to share in the forums how you achieved such a fulfilling career.) But if you picked anything other than 9 or 10, you’re a 1. That’s right, you’re a 1.
Am I saying this just to annoy you? Is this some silly form of exaggeration to make a point? Not this time — I’m being straight with you. Let me ‘splain….
I want you to recognize that if you don’t have a deeply fulfilling career, then you don’t have a deeply fulfilling career. Career fulfillment is a matter of core essence, not merely of degree or range. Either you’re there, or you’re not. A career that’s just OK, that you tolerate, or that you’re generally content with is NOT the same as a career that deeply fulfills you. Not remotely. You can’t take a so-so career and simply turn up the volume to become fulfilled. You can’t take a career that’s a 7 and multiply it by 1.4286 to get a career that’s a 10. The math may seem to suggest that, but a real-life career just doesn’t work that way. The difference between a 7 career and a 10 career is fundamental and profound.
Embracing your own fabulousness
Consider the Star Trek universe created by Gene Roddenberry as an example of someone’s outlet for creative self-expression. Now it’s really up to Roddenberry himself to determine how effective an outlet that was for him personally, but from an external standpoint I think most people would be inclined to rate it a pretty clear 9 or 10, even if you’re not a Trekkie. Now consider this. Can you take a second-rate sci-fi series and turn it into something as powerful as Star Trek simply by turning up the volume (in a figurative sense). Can you produce a long-term hit like Star Trek by throwing more money at it, adding cooler special effects, swapping in different actors, etc? It would be extremely unlikely. Star Trek possesses an ineffable quality that cannot simply be duplicated by trying harder. Why? Because the magic behind Star Trek was Roddenberry himself. Obviously many others contributed to it, some in very big ways, but without Roddenberry, there is no Star Trek.
Similarly, you are the Gene Roddenberry of your own career path. Either your career is overflowing with your personal magic, or it isn’t. Recognize that if you aren’t there yet, you aren’t there yet. The wrong path is the wrong path. The wrong path doesn’t suddenly turn into the right path around the next bend.
A friend of mine, who seems pretty happy in his current career, calls this “embracing your own fabulousness.” He said that people who are unhappy fail to recognize and embrace how fabulous they are, so they can’t express or share their fabulousness with others. I completely agree.
This is an area where it takes great courage to admit and accept the truth. For most people it isn’t too difficult to admit that a 2 or 3 is essentially a 1, but it’s really hard to admit that a 7 is a 1. In some ways it’s better to make the mistake of getting a job you know you hate vs. getting trapped in one you almost like.
Your emotional journey vs. your physical journey
The reason those 7s can be such a trap is that our emotions play tricks with us. Our feelings seem to indicate that we’re close, but we still have a little ways to go. Meanwhile all the exit signs indicate that if we pursue an exit strategy, we’ll end up feeling much worse, at least in the short term. We appear to be stuck in a local maximum.
However, when we actually do commit to leaving that 7 behind and get moving towards where we think the 10 may be, even if we must seemingly take a big step backwards (in income, status, security, etc), we usually feel better, not worse. We experience relief, exhilaration, and freedom. We feel very awake and fully present. So the tricky part is that it’s easy to succumb to the illusion that movement away from a 7 would make us feel worse, when in reality it almost invariably feels much better.
The irony is that when you leave behind a career that’s a 7, your emotional journey and your physical journey will usually be out of sync. You might assume that messing with your income and job security is a bad thing that could easily turn your 7 into a 3 or less. And from a purely physical standpoint, that may be true. (I wrote about that process in How to Get From a 7 to a 10 if you’d like to explore it more deeply.) But from an emotional standpoint, your 7 will almost immediately rise to an 8, 9, or 10 as soon as you get moving, even if your physical reality seems to worsen in the short term. Even while your physical security may seem to decline, you’ll actually feel relieved to leave an unfulfilling job. In this case your emotions are giving you the correct feedback, and it’s important to trust them. While your physical journey may follow the path of 7-6-4-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-6-7-8-9-10, your emotional journey may be much more direct… perhaps closer to 7-8-9-10. This comes as a surprise to most people.
Trust your feelings
When you are really on the right career path, you can actually be at an emotional 9 or 10 even while an objective observer might rate your physical and financial reality as a 1 or 2. Trust your feelings! If you keep trusting those 9 and 10 feelings, it won’t be long before your physical reality catches up.
For example, when I started blogging, I didn’t make any money from it for the first several months. My income declined significantly as I pulled out of computer game publishing. From an objective standpoint, you could say my physical/financial progression went from an 8 to a 5. But emotionally I went from a 6 to a 10 almost overnight. That emotional 10 felt so good and so right that I knew it was only a matter of time before the external reality caught up to it, even though at the time I wasn’t sure how that would happen. When we finally get on the right career path, the emotional shift can happen very quickly, but it takes the physical world a while to catch up. In my case I had the feeling of abundance well before my finances began to reflect it.
Accept the truth of your situation, no matter how difficult
If I were to ask you if you currently have a fulfilling career, and your best answer is maybe, mostly, or sort of, then your honest answer is no. Only a yes is a yes. Anything less than a straightforward yes is a no. In future articles I’ll help show you what to do with that no, but for now I just want you to accept that a non-yes is in fact a no and that even the best positive thinking won’t change that fact.
When you see that you’re on the wrong career path, acknowledge to yourself that you’ve made a mistake. Truth is truth. If you aren’t gushingly fulfilled and deeply grateful for the work you do, accept how you feel. It’s perfectly OK to be at that point. It’s perfectly OK to feel bad about it too. But it’s not OK to lie to yourself or to pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t. You can play pretend in front of your boss and co-workers if you feel that’s necessary, but never be less than truthful with yourself in your private thoughts.
Creating a fulfilling career may seem to require a lot of effort, but the real challenges are emotional and spiritual, not physical and financial. The path from a no to a yes is largely an emotional journey. It runs through fields of buried desires, self-esteem issues, and unexpressed values. You will face many challenges along the way, none greater than facing your own fears. Once you get there emotionally though, the practical challenges almost take care of themselves. If you simply start taking steps to honor your desire for fulfillment — even if you aren’t physically there yet — it will feel good to do so.
Don’t settle for the illusion of fulfillment. Don’t settle for the temporary ego boost of making a sale, earning a title, or trying to please someone you don’t genuinely respect and admire when you know that deep down, when you’re by yourself and take time to reflect on your life, you still feel empty and unfulfilled. You deserve better than this.
You deserve to be fulfilled. If it takes you a decade or more to get there, so be it. The time will pass anyway, so invest it wisely. There’s no limit on how many tries you get. Just know that in your heart of hearts, you really want that 9 or 10, and no matter how much you try to deny it, the desire for creative self-expression still burns within you, and you will never be truly and deeply fulfilled until you have an effective outlet for it.