Over the past twenty years, I’ve been an employee, a business owner and a consultant. I’ve worked with non-profits, for-profit businesses, political campaigns, schools and churches. No matter what my role was or what industry I worked in, I constantly encountered men and women who were going through the motions, clearly unenthusiastic about the work they were doing.
We’ve all heard Thoreau’s saying that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And while I often think that “desperation” is too strong a word, I’ve found his observation to be apt. In my experience, the mass of men and women lead lives of boredom and repetition, at least when it comes to their chosen profession.
No one starts out this way. No one enters the working world thinking, “I’d like to be bored at work for 40 years and then spend my final years at the office counting down to retirement.” Everyone starts their working life with a dream. Even those who take a job they don’t like to make ends meet think to themselves, “someday, I’ll be able to do what I really want.” In other words, everyone starts with an answer to the question:
even if the answer is simply, “to put food on the table until I can get a better job.”
This is an important question to ask yourself. This is an important question to ask those around you. If you’re a leader, it’s an important question to ask those who follow you. It’s a question that will help you and those around you clarify what matters most to them professionally… and to take action.
It’s a Question You Need to Keep Asking!
Sadly, many people forget to ask this question. Many people forget the why for their career. They fall into the pattern of work, and weekends, and two-week vacations in the summer. They grow older, get promotions, and wonder why they hate going to the office every day. They forget to keep asking themselves why they are doing what they are doing.
If you don’t keep asking this question, you won’t have a vision for your career. Without a vision for your career, you’ll feel unfulfilled and unenthusiastic about what you are doing. You’re worth more than that… you’re worth the time it takes to constantly remind yourself of the why behind your job.
I’ve Had to Ask This Question Many Times
Over the course of my career, I’ve changed industries twice… and I’ve moved between working for political campaigns, non-profits, and starting my own businesses several times. Each time that I have made a major change, it’s because I asked myself (or someone else asked me…)
Based on the answer, I either stayed the course or made changes to reconnect with my “why.”
Answering this question can be scary, because the answer requires action. There’s no point asking why you’re doing what you’re doing unless you’re willing to make changes based on the answer. If you think about why you chose to be in your career… and find that your current role doesn’t live up to the goals you set when you started… you need to make a change. Change can be daunting… which is why most people avoid this question!
That being said, nothing is more rewarding than casting a big vision for yourself, and then taking the steps necessary to fulfill that vision.
Answering the Question… and Taking Action
As I noted above, when you answer the question “Why did I choose this career? I have found that there are really only three different possible actions you can take when you answer honestly:
If your current job matches the reason you chose your profession, and if you are still committed to that reason and feel you are moving in the right direction, the answer is to recommit to your current career. Sure, working the same job day after day can sometimes wear you down, but if you remember your why and recommit to your mission, you will find new energy to get the job done.
If your current job does not match the reason you chose your profession, or if you are no longer committed to that reason, or if you feel like you have stagnated in your pursuit of your own mission, then the answer is to make a change. There are three possible changes you can make, without setting out on your own path (see below for more on that option):
The first is a change in level, meaning that you need to aggressively pursue a promotion or a new role at your current employer to have the impact you want to have.
The second is a change in job, meaning that you realize you need to move to a new employer to fulfill your why.
The third is a change in career, meaning that you need to move into a new industry or job type in order to fulfill your goals and vision (for example, moving from accounting to sales or moving from non-profit accounting to for-profit accounting at a fast-growing startup).
If your answer to the question “Why did you choose this career?” necessitates a change in level, job, or career, you won’t feel fulfilled until you make that change.
Sometimes, your answer to the question will make it clear that you need to set out on your own path. Perhaps you have not been able to accomplish what you wanted to accomplish while working for someone else. Perhaps the company you want to work for does not exist, or the type of organization you want to help has not yet been created.
In this case, the answer may be to start your own company, become the founder of your own non-profit, or become a solopreneur working on your own projects. This has been the case for me several times during my career, and I can tell you that those times I set out on my own path were the most professionally fulfilling opportunities of my career.
Of course, setting out on your own path takes time and planning, so it is not a decision to be made lightly. But I believe that far more people are cut out for this option than realize it.
I want to encourage you to ask yourself and others this question today. Answer it honestly, and take action based on that answer. You’ll be glad you did. Then, come back to the question at least once per year to make sure that you continue to work on projects and for companies or organizations that are helping you to implement your vision and personal mission and make the world a better place.
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