How to Choose a Meaningful Career


career advice
It’s something most of us consider as we complete our education and prepare for the job market: how do we choose a career that imbues our life with a sense of meaning and purpose? What does meaning look like to different people, and how difficult is it really to achieve? Is it becoming easier to find a meaningful career in a world where, thanks to technology, there are more job options now than ever before?

In a recent interview with Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman asks what it means to find your calling at work. The biggest takeaway point is the concept of “synergy” in one’s work: When people feel that they are contributing in a way that’s both personally fulfilling and makes a positive impact on others, they are most likely to consider their work meaningful.

An essential part of this synergy is the concept of self-transcendence. Wrzesniewski explains:

“The advice we tend to give people is, ‘Look inside, look inside; if that fails, look even deeper inside.’ Which is a very different way of directing people than to direct them out… forget yourself for a little while. What kinds of opportunities or problems or crises or communities… to you seem worthwhile and worth struggling for and worth sacrificing for?”

Even better if these causes resonate with you on a personal level.

You’re focusing less on yourself, Wrzesniewski says, but the impact on the self is obviously going to be profound. What happens is that these two channels—your inner world and the outer world—merge into a single stream of selfishness and unselfishness, and the process of being carried by the flow of it is what anthropologist Ruth Benedict called “synergy”:

Ruth Benedict has defined synergy as social-institutional arrangements that fuse selfishness and unselfishness by transcending their polarity so that the dichotomy between them is resolved, transcended and configured into a new, higher unity. This is to be arranged by institutions so that when one pursues selfish gratifications, one automatically helps others, and when one is altruistic, one automatically rewards and gratifies oneself. Benedict suggested synergy as a function of developed culture.

In the healthiest culture she studied, there was “no separation between self and world.” Just by being themselves, these people were helping the world; and when they helped the world, they were helping themselves. The self “disappears or merges with the world more broadly in a way that allows both to become more integrated.”

When there’s no distinction between your identity and your work, Kaufman adds, “the self transcends itself without realizing it.”

Here are some other insights from their discussion:

  • People who have found their calling say their work is “something I would want to do even if I didn’t have to”
  • People find 4 sources of meaning in their work: Self, Others, Work Context, Spirituality
  • Job crafting” is a phenomenon that allows people to adjust the nature of their work to be more meaningful
  • Money doesn’t pay off: “Empirically choosing jobs that have a focus on money even if your motivation is growth-oriented is not as conducive to well-being as having a job that is, day in and day out, focused on helping other people.”

The secret to pursuing a meaningful career, then, is identifying a purpose that simultaneously helps connect you with yourself and the outside world on a deeper level. While Kaufman and Wrzesniewski don’t delve into how we might go about finding such work, their discussion is inspiring for anyone feeling uncertain about their professional future. Aiming for this synergy can be a highly useful way to reframe “work” as something we should inherently enjoy.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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