As the director of career discovery at a prestigious liberal arts school, I have the pleasure of working with hundreds of highly accomplished liberal-arts students and recent graduates as they navigate the professional world. When speaking with alums, I find they generally fall into two groups. Some have developed careers that make them feel engaged, challenged, and driven by a larger purpose. Others feel their careers are stagnant, under-utilize their skills, and are disconnected from larger meaning.
What differentiates one group from the other has little to do with whether alums have followed their passion. In fact, as a career coach responsible for helping students find and compete for some of the most competitive opportunities in the country, I seek to help students and alums find purpose, not passion, in their professional lives.
It’s easy to be led astray by passion. I recently spoke to a young alum, who I’ll call Julie, who had secured an assistant role at a major television studio shortly after graduating. As someone with interests in both television and the entertainment industry, paying her dues in an entry-level position seemed like a good place to start.
But Julie quickly found that her days were dominated by administrative tasks. She was unchallenged intellectually and muted creatively. She has considered trying to leverage her industry experience to move into production, but she is strongly contemplating leaving the industry altogether, despite the fact that she is likely to be promoted in the not-so-distant future.
Following your passion can lead to actual jobs that do little to nurture your intellectual or interpersonal needs.
“Judd,” an athletic and gregarious computer-science graduate, has a similar story. He has been working in a software-engineering role for a technology conglomerate for the past year. Though he’s quite interested in technology and is an above-average programmer, Judd misses the camaraderie he shared with fellow students through his roles as a teaching assistant and student mentor, and feels his current workplace offers very little in way of interpersonal connection or intellectual challenge. Like Julie, he feels lost in the enormity of his organization and disconnected from his work’s larger purpose.
I encounter people like Julie and Judd regularly. Though they both graduated from a top-ranked college with marketable internships, following their passion led to jobs that did little to nurture their intellectual or interpersonal needs. Helping talented people like Julie and Judd connect to opportunities that offer more challenge and meaning is my ultimate goal. As Ryan Holiday writes in his book , what we require in our personal and professional development is purpose and realism. Here are a few important steps to take if you want to change your mindset.
1. Focus on where you can add value as a means to finding what you “want to do”
In other words, think like an entrepreneur and identify areas where you can solve problems. Nick, another graduate, took a position with a big-name consulting firm following graduation. Though intellectually challenged, he felt detached from the organization’s goals and sought work elsewhere. He left consulting and found supplemental income from his alma mater via two writings gigs, from which he created a blog profiling dozens of professionals working in careers with purpose.
If you don’t know what you want to do in your career, fear not—most people don’t. Instead, focus on how you can improve the lives of others and work backwards.
The blog inspired Nick to build a web platform pairing students with potential opportunities based on interests and personality traits. Nick’s innovative work and networking in the field of higher education eventually got the attention of a Washington, D.C.-based boutique consulting firm. The firm offered him the opportunity to continue working on projects uniquely connecting the liberal arts with job seekers.
Purpose-driven professionals like Nick are externally focused: They seek new ways to add value to their organization or cause. And they weather stress, challenges, and unforeseen circumstances quite effectively, since they view them as obstacles on the path to something more important. If you don’t know what you want to do in your career, fear not—most people don’t. Instead, focus on how you can improve the lives of others and work backward. Think about the skills you have that can prove useful to others, from helping people stick to a budget to organizing events. There’s a place for you in the world—you just need to find it.
2. Build peer and mentor networks by helping others
Many recent college graduates reach out to established professionals with the hope of getting a foot in the door in a new field. This tactic will be more productive if you research people in organizations you’re interested in, and find creative ways to add value to their work.
Looking to break into venture capital? Draft a brief white paper on a potential investment, and send it to two or three experts you admire. Interested in breaking into a boutique tech firm? Analyze their current software and provide suggestions for iterations that can improve it. Keep your correspondence short and cordial (their time is more valuable than yours), and explicitly let them know you have no expectation of a response. This will make you stand out from the hundreds of people who request coffee meetings and phone chats—who want something from them despite the fact they’re offering nothing in return.
3. Stay open-minded and prioritize work culture over industry, title, and company brand
Deanna, an anthropology major, intended to intern in Washington, DC during her junior year, in preparation for a career in international policy. But then she applied for an internship at Linxx, a women’s wellness group that operates out of Harvard University’s innovation lab, at the suggestion of the company’s founder—an alum. “The best advice I got was that I have my whole life to do exactly what I want to do/should be doing,” she told me. “This is one of the rare moments in life when I can actually explore and try jobs that I might not expect to like.”
Deanna took the position and fell in love with the collaborative environment that Linxx and the innovation lab offered. In addition to challenging projects, she worked with company cofounders and attended workshops and professional events with budding entrepreneurs. “There was a lot of flexibility in terms of where I worked, so the line between work and personal life became more fluid, but in a sense that I had the freedom to be more involved personally,” she says. “Linxx’s culture worked for me, because I am all about flexibility, creativity, hard work, and human connection.”
The opportunity broadened her skill set and opened up a whole new cluster of positions she wasn’t previously considering while informing her view on the importance of work environment. “Work culture is critical to a balanced work-life,” she has now realized. “The most successful start-ups I learned about were ones who were able to create an authentic work culture—it doesn’t work to try to copy some other company’s culture.”
To follow in Deanna’s footsteps, read Glassdoor reviews to gain insights about the culture within potential organizations. Make note of those that encourage professional growth and a sense of community, and reach out to contacts and alums through your university’s career network to gain insights and perspective on those piquing your interest.
Ultimately, some of our greatest pleasures in life come from service to others and connection to something larger than ourselves. I’ve seen this bear out in my own career. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to receive two internships with a financial-services firm. But ultimately I decided to pursue a career in higher-education student affairs—a decision that bewildered many of my friends.
At the time, I thought I was following my passion. What I realize now is that serving others by helping them make meaningful career choices gives me purpose, which I was conflating with passion. The reason I’m happy to go to work every day is that I get to build programs, services, and resources that help students. I’m happy because I’m driven by a larger purpose.