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What makes a happy career?

Growing up, were you ever told that you needed to know what you wanted to be as an adult (like, ASAP), because, the sooner you knew, the better off you’d be in life? I sure was. Throughout my formative years I heard over and over again that I needed to pick a career (a lucrative one), and spend my life pursuing that career decision to be successful.

Talk about pressure. 

How does anyone know exactly what they want to be when they grow up? Let alone what will make them a decent living and make them happy. We need the benefit of time, real world experience and perspective to come to those conclusions.

Nevertheless, I assumed that once I picked something, I’d be doing that thing for the rest of my working life, moving up the ladder until retirement.

On the contrary, job-hopping is on the rise, and like many of my fellow Millennials, my career journey hasn’t been as predictable as I was initially led to believe. I’ve tried a lot of different things, from fine arts to accounting, and it’s those varied experiences that have led me to where I am now.

Thankfully, the now is a good place. My work brings me joy and I’m proud of what I do.

So I asked myself, what is it about my career that makes me happy now, in a way I haven’t felt before? After taking some time to reflect on the experiences that have been part of my career journey, I realized the answer is a combination of five essential things.

  • Sense of purpose. My work, like that of many nonprofit professionals, is meaningful and rewarding. I get to make a positive contribution to society through the work I do everyday, and I can actually see how that work is making a difference in the lives of those we serve. 
  • People. I genuinely enjoy the people I work with. My colleagues are supportive, respectful and kind. We’re all in it together as a team, committed to the mission and working hard to achieve it. We also know how to have fun in the process. 
  • Creativity. Each day presents new challenges and opportunities. The organization is dynamic, and I get to flex my creative muscles everyday to help carry out our mission. During my morning commute, I look forward to what the day will bring, and I enjoy knowing that today will not be the same as yesterday or tomorrow.
  • Growth potential. Continued learning and development in any job is important. The opportunity to take on more responsibility with each project I work on keeps me engaged and motivated. An expanding scope of responsibility, plus the confidence that my team has in my abilities, equals more opportunity for learning and growth.
  • Flexibility. I love that I can work from anywhere with a reliable WiFi connection. While I enjoy spending time in the office and interacting directly with my team, I appreciate the option to work off-site, (and to change my schedule as needed), because it offers flexibility and encourages a healthier work-life balance.

Of course there are other things I could add to my list, but these (in addition to the more obvious things like salary and healthcare) are the essentials for me.

Defining these things was an eye-opening exercise. And, knowing what they are is at least as valuable as compensation and benefits packages.

My point is, we shouldn’t feel pressured to pick a career based on salary alone, or to stick with it if it’s not bringing us joy. It’s not an effective way to find happiness. And, working for the same company for our entire careers, or following a clear cut career path, is not the way the job market works for most of us anyway.

Of course, what makes a happy career will be different for everyone. With this in mind, we should all feel empowered to try things, sometimes very different things, and spend more time reflecting on what those different things have taught us, so we can get to where we want to go.


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