The desire for fulfilling work – a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality – is a modern invention. Open Samuel Johnson’s celebrated Dictionary, published in 1755, and you will discover that the word ‘fulfilment’ does not even appear.1 For centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents and nurtured their wellbeing. But today, the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.
We have entered a new age of fulfilment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning. For Rob, Sameera and Iain, it is not enough to have a respectable career offering the old-fashioned benefits of a healthy salary and job security. Paying the mortgage still matters, but they need more to feed their existential hungers. And they are not the only ones. In the course of researching this book I spoke to scores of people, from over a dozen countries, about their career journeys. From stressed bankers to tired waitresses, from young graduates burdened by student loans to mothers attempting to return to the paid workforce, almost all of them aspired to have a job that was worth far more than the pay check.
Yet for most of them, the task of finding a fulfilling career was one of the biggest challenges of their lives. Some were stuck in uninspiring jobs they felt unable to escape, trapped by a lack of opportunity or a lack of self-confidence. Others had, after trial and error, eventually found work they loved. Many were still engaged in the search, while there were those who didn’t know where to begin. Nearly all had faced moments when they realized that work wasn’t working for them, whether the trigger for this was a panic attack, an epiphany, or a creeping recognition that they were on a treadmill that was taking them nowhere. The wisdom in their career-change stories emerges from them not being golden tales full of smooth transitions and happy endings, but rather complex, challenging and often arduous personal struggles.
It is possible to find work that is life-enhancing and broadens our horizons.
Their experiences reflect the emergence of two new afflictions in the modern workplace, both unprecedented in history: a plague of job dissatisfaction, and a related epidemic of uncertainty about how to choose the right career. Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it. Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that
60 per cent of workers would choose a different career if they could start again. In the United States, job satisfaction is at its lowest level – 45 per cent – since record-keeping began over two decades ago.2 Added to this is the death of the ‘job for life’, now a quaint relic of the twentieth century. In its place is a world of short-term contracts, temping, and nomadic career wanderings, where the average job lasts only four years, forcing us to make more and more choices, often against our wishes.3 Choosing a career is no longer just a decision we make – often frighteningly uninformed – as a spotty teenager or wide-eyed twenty-something. It has become a dilemma we will face repeatedly throughout our working lives.
The yearning for a fulfilling career may have begun to permeate our expectations, but is it really possible to find a job in which we can thrive and feel fully alive? Is it not a utopian ideal reserved for the privileged few who can afford fancy education, who have the financial means to risk opening a baby-yoga cafe, or who have the social connections required to win the coveted prize of a job they love?
There are two broad ways of thinking about these questions. The first is the ‘grin and bear it’ approach. This is the view that we should get our expectations under control and recognize that work, for the vast majority of humanity – including ourselves – is mostly drudgery and always will be. Forget the heady dream of fulfilment and remember Mark Twain’s maxim, ‘Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.’ From the forced labour used to build the pyramids through to the soulless McJobs of the twenty-first-century service sector, the story of work has been one of hardship and tedium. This history is captured in the word itself. The Russian for work, robota, comes from the word for slave, rab. The Latin labor means drudgery or toil, while the French travail derives from the tripalium, an ancient Roman instrument of torture made of three sticks.4 We might therefore adopt the early Christian view that work is a curse, a punishment for the sins of the Garden of Eden, when God condemned us to getting our daily bread by the sweat of our brows. If the Bible isn’t to your spiritual taste, try Buddhism, which upholds the belief that all life is suffering.
‘Anguish,’ writes the Buddhist thinker Stephen Batchelor, ‘emerges from craving for life to be other than it is.’5 The message of the ‘grin and bear it’ school of thought is that we need to accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get, as long as it meets our financial needs and leaves us enough time to pursue our ‘real life’ outside office hours. The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundits pedalling fulfilment is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.
I am more hopeful than this, and subscribe to a different approach, which is that it is possible to find work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human. Although the search for a fulfilling career has only become a widespread aspiration in the West since the end of the Second World War, it has its roots in the rise of individualism in Renaissance Europe. This was the era in which celebrating your uniqueness first became fashionable. The Renaissance is well known for having produced extraordinary advances in the arts and sciences, which helped to shake off the shackles of medieval Church dogma and social conformity. But it also gave birth to highly personalized cultural innovations, such as the self-portrait, the intimate diary, the genre of autobiography and the personal seal on letters. In doing so, it legitimized the idea of shaping your own identity and destiny.6 We are the inheritors of this tradition of self-expression. Just as we seek to express our individuality in the clothes we wear or the music we listen to, so too we should search for work that enables us to express who we are, and who we want to be.
Some people, especially those living on the social margins of poverty and discrimination, may have almost no opportunity to achieve this goal. That I recognize. If you are trying to support your family on the minimum wage or are queuing up at the local job centre during an economic downturn, the idea of a life-enhancing career might come across as a luxury.
For the majority living in the affluent West, however, there is nothing utopian about the idea of a fulfilling career. The hardships that existed in the past have eased. You are unlikely to wake up tomorrow with no other option than working a fourteen-hour day in a Lancashire textile mill or to find yourself picking cotton on a slave plantation in Mississippi. As we will discover, the landscape of career choice has opened up remarkably over the past century, offering a new vista of purposeful possibilities. Yes, the bar has been raised: we expect much more from our jobs than previous generations. But when somebody asks us the deadening question ‘What do you do?’, let us set our sights on giving an enlivening answer, which makes us feel that we are doing something truly worthwhile with our lives, rather than wasting away the years in a career that will leave the bitter taste of regret in our mouths.
Grin and bear it? Forget it. This is a book for those who are looking for a job that is big enough for their spirit, something more than a ‘day job’ whose main function is to pay the bills. It is a guide for helping you take your working life in new directions, and for bringing your career and who you are into closer alignment.
My approach is to interweave an exploration of two vital questions. First, what are the core elements of a fulfilling career? We need to know what we are actually searching for, and it turns out that there are three essential ingredients: meaning, flow and freedom. None of them are easy to attain, and their pursuit raises inevitable tensions. For instance, should we prefer a career that offers great pay and social status over working for a cause we believe in, with the prospect of making a difference? Should we aspire to be a high achiever in a specialized field, or a ‘wide achiever’ across several fields? And how can we balance our career ambitions with the demands of being a parent, or with a longing for more free time in our lives?
The second question threading its way through this book is: how do we go about changing career and making the best possible decisions along the way? Although I offer no blueprint strategy that will work for everyone, there are three steps we ought to take. A starting point is to understand the sources of our confusions and fears about leaving our old jobs behind us and embarking on a new career. The next step is to reject the myth that there is a single, perfect job out there waiting for us to discover it, and instead identify our ‘multiple selves’ – a range of potential careers that might suit the different sides of our character. Finally, we have to turn the standard model of career change on its head: rather than meticulously planning then taking action, we should act first and reflect later, doing experimental projects that test-run our various selves in the real world. Ever thought of treating yourself to a ‘radical sabbatical’?
To help answer these questions we will seek inspiration in the lives of famous figures, amongst them Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie and Anita Roddick. We will look for insights in the writings of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and historians, and encounter practical – yet intellectually imaginative – activities to help clarify our thinking and narrow down the career options, such as writing a Personal Job Advertisement. We will draw lessons from the surprising stories of everyday workers, including a Belgian woman whose thirtieth-birthday present to herself was to try out thirty different careers in one year, and an Australian former fridge mechanic who found fulfilment by becoming an embalmer. I will also touch on some of my own career experiences and experiments, which have ranged from journalist to gardener, academic to community worker, with a smattering of telephone sales, tennis coaching and caring for young twins.
In a moment we’ll launch our odyssey by exploring why it is so hard to decide which career path to follow. But before we do so, spend a few minutes thinking about the following question – or even better, discuss it with a friend:
• What is your current work doing to you as a person – to your mind, character and relationships?
Copyright © 2012 by Roman Krznaric Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and founding faculty member of The School of Life. He advises organizations, including Oxfam and the United Nations, on using empathy and conversation to create social change, and has been named by The Observer as one of Britain’s leading lifestyle philosophers. His works, including The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live and The First Beautiful Game: Stories of Obsession in Real Tennis, have been translated into more than a dozen languages.