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Early Career Success Guide: How to Find Meaning at Work


A 2014 survey by The Energy Project found that workers who find meaning in their work have 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, are 1.4 times more engaged in their jobs, and are three times more likely to stay at their employer. In short, if you want to enjoy what you do – and keep doing it – the most important factor may well be whether or not you find meaning in it. But what if, like many recent grads and newly minted professionals, you don’t find much purpose in your 9 to 5? Then, it’s time to get creative.

yellow brick 

(Photo Credit: Travis Isaacs/Flickr)

“If you’re among the 95 percent of us who didn’t end up landing that amazing dream job right out of the gate, there’s no need to panic,” writes Denny Meadows, career launch advisor and founder of SilverFern Advisory, in PayScale’s recent Guide to Early Career Success. “Maybe you won’t be presenting in the boardroom within your first month, or single-handedly solving world hunger by the end of the year. No matter how grand or how humble, your entry-level role is a big opportunity waiting to happen. And it’s calling you to take charge.”

Do You Know What You're Worth?

How can you do that?

1. Pay attention to what works – and what doesn’t.

Too often, in our careers, we berate ourselves for things we don’t enjoy doing, without recognizing them for what they are: clues.

“You will spend the rest of your professional life awash in everyday clues,” writes Meadows. “Clues about the activities you’re really good at, or pretty lousy at. …Start paying attention to those endless clues now.”

In other words, don’t beat yourself up about the things you don’t enjoy doing. Pay attention, and start thinking about how to align your job with your interests.

2. Don’t confuse being afraid of something with not liking it.

The popular advice is to do something every day that scares you, but if you were too indiscriminate about following it, you’d spend a lot of time in physical therapy and/or paying bail. You don’t need to skydive every day or even feign enthusiasm for public speaking in order to build a fulfilling career. You do need to ask yourself, whenever a project or career move fills you with dread, whether your issue is disinclination or good old-fashioned fear.

If you’re strongly introverted or just very shy, for example, you might legitimately never enjoy giving presentations to your co-workers, but you won’t know for certain until you examine your feelings on the subject. Often, you’ll need to give it a try in order to be sure. If your terror beforehand gives way to exhilaration afterward, you might be facing a challenge that will move you closer to your career goals, not an impediment to your professional happiness.

3. Listen more than you speak.

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening,” Fran Lebowitz once noted. “The opposite of talking is waiting.”

It’s funny because it’s true, but waiting for your chance to speak will come back to bite you in the long run. Especially when you’re new at a job – or in your career as a whole – listening is the most important skill you can develop. The next most important? Learning how to ask real questions.

In addition to developing your knowledge and skills, learning how to listen will endear you to your colleagues and network at large. It’s a rare talent, and people tend to like and want to help those who possess it (or even the ability to fake it, but that’s another story).

4. Know that meaning comes from within.

When it comes right down to it, most of us have very little control over the things that happen to us. What we do with those events, on the other hand, is entirely our choice.

You don’t need to learn to love your job, but if you cultivate the habit of finding the positives and thinking critically about your role in the negatives, you can find meaning in your work both today and in the future. It’s not about blind optimism; it’s about being present now and working steadily toward your goals.

If it’s any consolation, many of the world’s most successful people endured some pretty terrible first jobs. Someday, even the worst early job becomes just another good story.

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Do you find meaning in your job? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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