The Purposeful Career
Updated: Jan 29
In 2013, I had a crisis of purpose during my first year of law school. For my entire life up until that point, I knew with complete certainty that I was going to become an attorney and practice law. I studied intensely, joined the debate club in high school, majored in Political Science, and interned with multiple government and legal organizations in order to prepare for my life as a lawyer. So, it came as quite a shock when I realized that practicing law was not for me. I did not know what to do, who to talk to, and in particular I felt like I lost my purpose. I tried everything from counseling to an entirely new Master’s program searching in vain for that lost purpose. What I discovered, however, was that I was expecting a career or job to simply provide me with the purpose I needed to live a meaningful life. As I matured I realized that true purpose does not just innately come from a job or career, but from yourself.
Since 2013, Millennials have experienced a 47% percent increase in major depression diagnoses according to this research conducted by the Blue Cross Blue Shield. This same report shows that these diagnoses are increasing at a faster rate for Millennials than any other age group. Now, there are a myriad of reasons for this to be the case. We are the generation that came to adulthood in the age of the internet, smartphones, and began working during or shortly after the 2009 housing collapse and recession. All of these factors have played a large role in reshaping our lives, careers, and how we interact with the world compared to previous generations. However, I cannot help but think that a lack of purpose is also underlying all of these other things leading to the issues our generation, and others, are experiencing.
Purpose is more than just a goal or goals in your life. Purpose is something that is fundamental to an individual’s very being. It can affect your happiness, stress, and even your health. For me, I became depressed and riddled with anxiety after finding out that my life had been building up and preparing for a career I no longer desired. For others, and I believe Millennials in particular, it is a serious issue and a borderline crisis as we all try to discover what gives our lives meaning. We now flock to the jobs we think people respect and post the pictures we believe will get us likes in order to receive the validation and meaning we falsely assume these things will give.
Although a lack of purpose is somewhat of an intangible thing, its effects are certainly not. According to this article on Psychology Today, a lack of purpose can have severe impact on social lives, mental health, and physical health. Additionally, having a sense of purpose is even associated with a lower risk of death according to this study from 2019, by JAMA Network. In this sample of 7,000 people, the researchers concluded that “stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality.” Perhaps a more compelling argument as to the importance of purpose lies with the words of Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In his book, he details his time in concentration camps during World War II. Viktor further describes how the inmates who were mostly likely to survive were the ones that felt that their life still had a purpose. Prisoners who held onto their dreams of seeing their family again or completing some major task were more often the ones to survive. Viktor himself truly believed that having a purpose is what helped him survive 3 years in Auschwitz. If a purpose was so critical to surviving something as horrible as that, I can only imagine what it could do for so many people today in the workplace and in their lives in general.
So, this begs the question. How do I find my purpose in my career? I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t believe it is something as simple as a specific job or goal. If you are not happy with your job and if changing careers is not an immediate option, I would consider rethinking how you view it. This is sometimes called job crafting. A study from 2013 found that hospital cleaners who viewed themselves as janitors while others thought of themselves as part of the overall healing process. These two groups largely performed the same tasks, but thought drastically different about their purpose. The workers who viewed their role as healers were more satisfied with their jobs, performed better at work, and found more meaning. So, simply by reconsidering their role, these workers found a great deal more meaning in their occupation and their lives improved significantly.
As someone who has been in Sales for the last two years, it used to be easy to think of my role as a “salesman” or simply not find any meaning in my work. This resulted in a lack of passion and that stereotypical lack of desire to get out of bed in the morning. However, I have learned a great deal from others in the industry and now view my role as one of service. I see myself as someone who truly helps clients and customers by finding the solutions that can improve their business and make their lives easier and better. As a result, my job satisfaction and sense of career purpose have improved dramatically. I would highly recommend to anyone who is experiencing similar feelings in their career to consider rethinking how they view their work and its purpose. How is your role integral to your company or organization? How do you help or serve people? How are individuals at your job or that you interact with bettered by your role? If you ask these kinds of questions and try job crafting, I think you will be surprised with the results. You may just find your entire outlook change, a purpose emerges, and that you are a little more excited to get to work every day.