If you had asked me just three years ago to name the absolute last place where I’d expect to be discussing the meaning of life, I may not have said a career-coaching session with a Gen X job-seeker, but it would have been pretty close.
Yet, that was exactly the question a 50something mid-level manager asked me in December when she hired me as her career coach. She’d recently been laid off by her big tech company with 60 days of severance. But despite facing the tail end of her 20-year mortgage, car payments, and private-school tuition, she was—surprisingly, I thought—not hugely interested in using our time together to figure out how to land her next job ASAP. Instead, she was way more gestalt, pondering what kind of job she could find that would be so meaningful that she’d wake up eager to get started and come home feeling fulfilled.
It was an inspiring conversation, but there was nothing that existential on my coaching questionnaire, a document I’ve shaped over the past couple decades to guide job-seekers to the next step in their career. It certainly wasn’t part of my “recommendations tree,” a series of steps I suggest job-seekers take based on their desires and priorities. For example, if a content writer at a brokerage wants to become an analyst, a higher-skilled job that pays more, I might recommend enrolling in a chartered financial analyst course, because the three-year credential both signals commitment and arms them with a new “hard” skill. But if someone wants to figure out what would make work feel meaningful—well, the path forward is a little less clear-cut.
That conversation was far from isolated. Recently, I’ve been noticing the same trend in more and more of my meetings, as multiple clients ask me their own versions of the same question: How do they find meaning in their careers? Increasingly, money, rank, and the other real-world motivations that previously fueled my clients have been taking a backseat to a desire for a more ethereal higher purpose.
During the previous crises in 2000 and 2007, the job-seekers I talked to wanted, well, jobs. They’d been laid off because their company and markets had hit hard times, and they wanted to quickly get back in the saddle. By and large, they sought the same kind of jobs they had before, maybe with better pay, more upward potential, or a better boss. Most were just grateful to be earning again.
This time around, things are different. We’re in a weird employment market: There are currently two open jobs for every unemployed person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and yet just a few months into 2023, tech companies have already laid off more than 170,000 people.
From my small corner of the world, I suspect that there’s a mismatch—not just between the skills of job-seekers and the skills required by the jobs on offer, but also between the priorities of companies and the staff they want to hire. The desire for hybrid or remote work—something a half-dozen clients in the past few months alone have told me they’re looking for—is only part of it. People want more of a focus on tasks that excite them, more of a feeling that they’re doing something significant. They’ve also specified they do not want one or more of the following: a five-day-a-week office job with repetitive tasks, PowerPoint presentations, nearly full days of meetings, roles that require them to play office politics or focus solely on hitting their numbers.
Amid this shift, I’ve adapted my own coaching tactics and given my questionnaire its most significant update to date. Where my role as a career coach was previously much more focused on the nuts-and-bolts next steps, I now focus on more nuanced measurements of job satisfaction, helping people to discover their own definitions of meaning and purpose. Here’s what that process—which may help anyone who’s feeling unfulfilled in their current role—looks like now.
Questions to ask yourself:
1. What’s wrong with your current or previous job?
The goal here is to identify the scope of the problem. Do you:
- genuinely hate everything about your job?
- like the actual work or skills you use, but face something situational you can’t stand, like the commute, office politics, or a bullying boss? or
- simply feel burned out or unmotivated?
Having this knowledge in hand makes it easier to determine next steps: Is your effort best spent making a big change, solving a workplace problem, or figuring out how to draw stronger boundaries and find time for rest?
2. If you eliminate money, location, or any other limiting factors, what’s your dream job?
Here’s where I discover the ex-Google employee liked the 15% of her time she spent on a pet project, but not the other 85% of what she did. Or that the data processor secretly wants to be a jazz saxophonist. Or that someone who has spent 15 years in public relations wants to open a shelter for dogs and cats. No matter the answer, this is the question that provides a clear sense of what might happen if you could put heart over mind.
3. How do you define “meaningful?”
In the past, it was fairly common for me to hear from job-seekers that they were almost glad to lose a job where they felt unappreciated, undervalued, or overlooked. The 2023 lexicon, though, has shifted to “I want my work to mean something.” Part of my job is to get them to explain what “meaningful” means to them.
More often than not, the answer involves helping people. I often tell my clients that doing something “meaningful” doesn’t require you to be the next Mother Theresa. It means finding the potential impact of your interests and skills. Giving someone a haircut that makes them feel better about themselves could be your thing. If you’re an investment advisor, focusing at least part of your time and services in underserved communities might be meaningful to you.
Once I have someone’s answers, I draw mental lines between what they were saying and the choices they need to make about what comes next. Realism, rather than validation of a dream, is the goal here: These plans always account for age or generation, financial situation, sector, skills, and willingness to change sector or location. Nearly all of the time, my recommendations fall into one of three categories, with a small portion in a fourth outlier category. They are:
1. Get a hobby.
I’ve found many looking for new work are doing so because they’re missing fun and fulfillment in their lives. If they’re more worried about finding a new job than about languishing in it for years on end, I might suggest that someone in this category pick up the violin they haven’t touched since high school, schedule a once-a-week dance class with their partner, or find another group or hobby that gives them something to look forward to when they’ve done their day’s work.
2. Go gig.
Gen Zers without significant college debt fit most neatly into this category. Provided they have access to affordable health insurance, young job-seekers with strong, marketable skills, like coding or digital design, who don’t have that much prior experience or that much to risk, can test how they like being their own boss by bidding for projects on Upwork or Fiverr. They can set their own rates and get a sense for how competitive the market is, but most-importantly, they can pick and choose the gigs they want. They can specialize in social-service or public-service entities, or only companies with good sustainability plans. Once they have enough clients they enjoy working with, they could also consider starting their own company.
I also counsel some older workers down this path, especially if they’ve been laid off and are facing difficulty finding a new full-time job. If they’re old enough to start receiving Social Security and/or Medicare, it’s often far easier for them to hire themselves out as consultants, advisors, or paid mentors, either part-time or for projects, and companies will often pay well for their experience.
3. Find a side hustle or carve out a niche.
This may be the most viable path for workers whose life circumstances don’t allow them the flexibility of gig work, who need the steady income of a full-time job.
In those cases, if your job doesn’t come with any express restrictions about unrelated side work, dip your toe in the water. Start your party-planning business part-time on the weekends. Take a course in corporate social responsibility at night. Get yourself certified in life coaching if you like to help others on their journey. Tap your network, use word of mouth to market, and see if that thing you thought you’d enjoy actually measures up—and if you have the skills and patience to stick with it.
Another option: See if you can make more room for meaning at your current employer. If you find joy in event planning, see if you can join the committee for the next corporate retreat. If you think your purpose lies in diversity, equity, and inclusion work, raise your hand for more of those initiatives or speak to your manager about how to get more involved.
4. Make a radical change, but look before you leap.
In my clients’ quest to find more meaningful work, I’ve sometimes struggled mightily at separating dreams and aspirations from reality. A pharmacist wants to become a firefighter, a contracts lawyer wants to run a nonprofit organization, a marketer wants to become an addiction-recovery counselor. In most cases, they’re not qualified to make the leap without significant changes in their lives, training, experience, or education.
If you’re mulling a dramatic change of your own, I’d encourage you to start by asking these additional questions:
- Do you have any background in the field or a longtime interest in it, or is this a new passion you’re just starting to explore?
- Do you have any certification, training, background, or experience in the area?
- How long will it take you to learn, train, get certified?
- Can you afford the time and money to get the new training and certification?
- Do you have any network you can activate in that area or field?
- Are you talking to as many people as possible about the reality of their work?
I ask these questions to help clients uncover the answer to a deeper, more difficult one: Are they really committed to making a massive life change, in exchange for more meaning in their work? Some conclude that they are. Others already start to have doubts during our conversation.
No matter what, I urge them to “try before they buy.” Volunteer, intern, sit in, observe a master at work. When you’re unsatisfied with what you do, the grass may simply appear to be greener on the other side of the job market. And there may be a way to find the meaning you crave that makes more sense for the life you’ve already built.
Adam Najberg is a part-time career coach and the author of Jumpstarting Your Career: Tips & Hacks to Crack the Job-Search Code. He has been helping and mentoring on job searches and career choices since 1997.