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How To Build a Career Worth Having

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Why Give a Damn:

Your career is not just a way to earn a living. It’s your chance to discover what you’re here for and what you love. It’s your best shot at improving the world in a way that is important to you.


The author of this post, Nathaniel Koloc, is co-founder and CEO of ReWork, a mission-driven recruiting company that specializes in sourcing purpose-driven professionals for companies operating in the purpose economy. ReWork is a 2011 Unreasonable Institute venture.


We live in a time of chronic dissatisfaction in the workplace. Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace study found that as many as 70% of working Americans were unfulfilled with their jobs, 18% to such an extent that they are actively undermining their co-workers. This is a marked increase in workplace dissatisfaction from 2010, when Conference Board found that 55% of Americans were dissatisfied with their jobs.

We live in a society where it is not clear how to design a satisfying career

How can we explain this? Certainly factors like the sluggish economic recovery and stuck wages play a role, but I believe the real answer is even more straightforward: We live in a professional society where it is not clear how to effectively design a satisfying career, especially if part of your goal is to have your work impact the lives of millions of people.

I run a company called ReWork, which benefited immensely from going through the 2011 Unreasonable Institute. At ReWork we connect talented professionals to meaningful work opportunities at companies that are making substantive social, environmental, and cultural progress. Based on our conversations with over 15,000 professionals and hundreds of hiring managers, we’ve gained insights into what’s lacking in the traditional approach to career planning, and how professionals can create careers with an ongoing sense of purpose.

Here’s my advice to professionals whose ambition has less to do with getting ahead, and more to do with feeling fulfilled in their career:

  1. See your career as a series of stepping stones, not a linear path or ladder.
    There’s an unstated view that careers are still linear. Though most people do accept that the “career ladder” metaphor is broken, the majority of professionals still attempt to somehow increase the “slope” of their career trajectory, causing them significant stress. (How do you increase the slop of a line that doesn’t actually exist?”)

    The “career ladder” metaphor is broken

    People tend to wait until they are unhappy, look around for opportunities that seem better than their current job, apply for a few, cross their fingers, and take the best option that they can get. Then, they toil away until they are unhappy again, and the cycle repeats. Though this approach can increase your salary over time, the learning cycles are so long that it doesn’t lend itself well to finding fulfillment (which requires testing and experimentation!).

    Because of this pattern, many people end up with a career path composed of somewhat arbitrary gigs that, at best, is a gradually improving wandering path, and, at worst, is just a series of unfulfilling jobs.

    The solution to this dismal cycle? Let go of the idea that careers are linear. These days, they are much more like a field of stepping stones that extends in all directions. Each stone is a job or project that is available to you, and you can move in any direction that you like. The trick is simply to move to stones that take you closer and closer to what is meaningful to you. There is no single path — but rather, an infinite number of options that will lead to the sweet spot of fulfillment.

  2. Seek legacy, mastery, and freedom — in that order.
    So then, in which direction should you move? We can look to experts to guide our thinking on this.

    Research from authors such as Daniel Pink (Drive), Cal Newport (So Good They Can’t Ignore You), Ben Casnocha and Reid Hoffman (Startup of You), and Tony Hsieh (Delivering Happiness) shows that there are three primary attributes of fulfilling work:

    • Legacy. A higher purpose, a mission, a cause. This means knowing that in some way — large or small — the world will be a better place after you’ve done your work.
    • Mastery. This refers to the art of getting better and better at skills and talents that you enjoy using, to the extent that they become intertwined with your identity. Picture a Jedi, or a Samurai, or a master blacksmith.
    • Freedom. The ability to choose who you work with, what projects you work on, where and when you work each day, and getting paid enough to responsibly support the lifestyle that you want.

    The order is important. People are fulfilled most quickly when they first prioritize the impact that they want to have (legacy), then understand which skills and talents they need to have that impact (mastery), and finally “exchange” those skills for higher pay and flexibility (freedom) as they develop and advance. In other words, legacy should guide mastery, which unlocks freedom.

    Let go of the idea that careers are linear

    People don’t typically have just one purpose. The things you’re passionate about — women’s health, early childhood education, organic food, or renewable energy — are likely to evolve over time. And it’s important to develop a high degree of freedom so that you’re able to hunt down your purpose again when it floats onto the next thing. This means being able to do things like volunteer on the side, go months at a time without getting a paycheck, or invest in unusual professional development opportunities.

  3. Treat your career like a grand experiment.
    In ReWork’s experience, people who are successful in finding — and maintaining — meaningful work (that also pays them well) approach their careers like a grand experiment.
    All of the things you think you know about what you want to be doing, what you’re good at, what people want to hire you to do (and at what salary), how different organizations operate, etc. are hypotheses that can be validated or invalidated with evidence — either from the first-hand experience of trying something (including bite-sized projects), or second-hand from asking the right questions of the right people.

    Your career is not just a way to earn a living, it’s your chance to discover what you’re here for

    The faster and cheaper that you’re able to validate your career hypotheses, the sooner you’ll find fulfillment. You don’t have to take a job in a new industry to realize it’s not for you. You can learn a ton about potential lines of work from reading online, having conversations, taking on side projects (paid or unpaid), and volunteering.

    By doing your homework on what’s actually a good fit for you, you won’t waste your time applying to jobs that you aren’t competitive for. And like any good scientist, you’ll achieve a healthy detachment from your incorrect hypotheses — they are just par for the course, after all.

    I use the word “grand” to describe this experiment because the reality is that your career is not just a way to earn a living. It’s your chance to discover what you’re here for and what you love. It’s your best shot at improving the world in a way that is important to you. It’s a sizable component of your human experience, in a very real, day-to-day way. As such, it should be an adventure with a healthy dose of magic and mystery along the way. Enjoy it!

So if you’re one of the many who find themselves on the path to meaningful work — remember to enjoy the journey, don’t give up, and don’t settle.

Your work should be an adventure with a healthy dose of magic and mystery along the way.

A version of this post first appeared in Harvard Business Review on August 5 2013.

Nathaniel Koloc

About the author

Nathaniel Koloc is co-founder and CEO of ReWork, a mission-driven recruiting company that specializes in sourcing purpose-driven professionals for companies operating in the purpose economy. ReWork is a 2011...

Nathaniel Koloc has written 3 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • http://danielepstein.me/ Daniel Epstein

    Nathaniel… this is brilliant my friend (you know I love your work!). I’m curious though, in all your research, what is the most common reason that people DON’T think of their career path in the manner you have outlined here. What is holding people back?

  • PEEZY

    @daniel_epstein:disqus There are many examples of success stories that promote a one-way path to glory, so it’s easy to fall into this trap. Additionally, we believe that we have to be perfect which implies not being able to mess up; this lends itself to efficiency and a linear approach. Lastly, many students graduate with debt and must hold themselves back with a less risky “linear” option over making a bold/entrepreneurial choice.

    Great Article. Great Organization. Thanks.

  • Chris Yeh

    Another thing I’m fond of telling people is to take a “portfolio approach” to their work life. You don’t have to get everything you want from a single job, just like you wouldn’t try to meet all your investing needs with a single stock.

  • Braden Herndon

    As a college student graduating soon, hearing careers described like this is a breath of fresh air, and far more compelling than the outdated linear approach. I think the “college” branch of the grand career path is especially prone to such linearity, with university, and our expectations of university, being so linear in and of themselves.

  • http://www.nathanielkoloc.com Nathaniel Koloc

    I’d be curious to hear from the readers – do folks think it would be useful to have a visual model of the stepping stones, with archetype “paths” for different fields and industries? e.g. impact investing might have a best-practice path that is: graduate from school, spend time overseas on-the-ground with a social enterprise (1-2 years), intern at an impact investing firm (6-12 months), get an MBA (2 years), become an analyst at an impact investing firm, get promoted to partner, etc.

    (That’s just a hypothetical, I’m not suggesting that one is true.) It seems like having a library of career paths like that – maybe crowdsourced from people in industries – might be super valuable?

  • http://www.nathanielkoloc.com Nathaniel Koloc

    Absolutely. I honestly think the main reason that people struggle with this IS the lack of a compelling and grasp-able metaphor or image for people to hold in their minds. We are taught from a young age that it’s best (essentially) to conform, and that there are right moves and wrong moves – so even some of the smartest most innovative thinkers still feel a lot of pressure to have high-caliber (and well-documented, well-understood) career paths – e.g. McKinsey – even though they can readily admit that they don’t really plan to stay at those companies, and they’ll admit that there are other very valuable places they could be working and spending their time.

    I think it’s also sort of crazy that high school and college doesn’t automatically include courses in highly-relevant “real world” skills – things like career strategy, personal finance, health and wellness, etc… You might find electives here or there, but I think we’d be better served as a professional population if from a young age people were taught the realities of career dynamics, not the outdated stories of how they are “supposed” to work.

  • http://www.nathanielkoloc.com Nathaniel Koloc

    Chris – couldn’t agree more. I’m planning to write a piece on this, which breaks down the different ways that people can earn money / earn a living. The most successful and fulfilled professionals I’ve met all use a portfolio strategy, which is directly at odds with a more traditional 9-to-5/employee mentality. Great comment.

  • http://www.nathanielkoloc.com Nathaniel Koloc

    It’s true that the debt pressure is very real for a majority of college grads. I think it plays a key role. It is worth noting that it IS possible to walk an uncertain path while still paying down student loans, but I don’t blame people for whom that feels too risky to do. It takes a higher level of risk tolerance, stress, and grit to forge a path when you know you have to make an extra $XYZ each month to cover your debts.

  • http://www.nathanielkoloc.com Nathaniel Koloc

    Agreed! Hopefully we’ll see more and more disruption in the higher ed narrative, and how people interact with institutions of learning.

  • http://danielepstein.me/ Daniel Epstein

    I feel like this almost goes against @chris_yeh:disqus’s portfolio approach or your notion of “treating your career as a grand experiment.” Any path feels a bit oversimplified and misguided to me. That said, visuals that showed the paths of really “successful” individuals and shows just how crazy their paths were / non-linear they were… that would be amazing! It would provide “proof” for people who want to feel great about following their passions or who struggle to communicate to their parents or advisors why pursuing a career in what you believe in is smart.

  • http://www.nathanielkoloc.com Nathaniel Koloc

    Fair points. I think that it is true that each person needs to apply iterative thinking and test things for themselves – but I also observe real trends and (for lack of better term) “best practice” arcs or paths to how people grow professionally. That said, you’re right that path doesn’t mean linear – and it would be interesting to visualize different sorts of peoples’ path just as a reference point, even if it wasn’t meant to be prescriptive. It could be meant to inform without being meant to instruct exactly what someone “should” do. You’d have to get the design really dialed to not misconstrue what was being presented.

  • Braden Herndon

    Absolutely. I imagine a map of ‘nodes’ which are simply the career/life paths of various personas overlaid on top of each other to form a mind-map-esque visual aid. If the personas are all based on the experiences of actual industry professionals, rather than the hypothesized career maps often found in university websites, it’d be a great way to demonstrate the concept of non-linearity and see what an adventure people’s careers truly are. Not to mention, if you had enough data it could be a pretty impressive design piece, too.

    Addressing what Daniel said, I think it’d be important to convey that the map isn’t a guide, per se, but a proof of concept. Plus it’s also possible to jump to the other side, or exist in multiple spots on the map at once, whether it’s a side-business flourishing into a life passion or freelancing one’s way into some cool projects. With some clever visual design I can see it being a great visual aid.

  • http://www.sandygrason.com Sandy Grason

    Personally, I would love to see some real-life examples/inspirations of different career journeys. I have always been driven to figure out a way to make a living doing meaningful work and that has certainly led me through some interesting twists & turns. I love to learn about other people’s paths and what worked for them. So, @nathanielkoloc:disqus More please! :-)

  • Ana Pantelic

    It’s an interesting example you give, but actually people who work in impact investment are increasingly becoming frustrated with bright professionals leaving to go back and get their MBAs. While the additional degree helps (and in some cases results in an increased salary bracket), it’s challenging to lose employees. I think that the workplace is changing dramatically and rapidly, particularly with the advent of new technologies, so the assumptions we make for the future are likely going to be different from the outcome given the exponential rate of change we’re seeing. I would say that it all depends on your career choice and your personality type. For example, if you’re going to study medicine, you’re pretty locked into what you do – you can spend time doing Doctors without Borders or work for the World Health Organization, but beyond that, degrees like law or medicine are challenging to move across borders, whereas other degrees are more malleable. My best advice would be to study things that you are passionate about, test the waters and try out a wide range of courses, and get as much practical experience as possible.

  • Adam Davenport

    Great Article Nat! I love the legacy, mastery, and freedom steps. I find myself in the mastery step in creating my business right now, it is motivating and exciting. The stepping stones analogy is great as well, even though getting a business to the freedom step is a goal, the stepping stones helps you realize that it is important to try, fail, and try again.

  • Kristi Newton

    It would be fascinating to see the different path(s) people have taken to grow professionally and achieve success (however one defines it). As a business professor it would be beneficial for students to see these rather than the traditional linear paths they normally are presented.

  • SivakumarPalaniappan

    Nathanie….excellent thoughts on Career Strategies. I am Career Coach and most of the time I found people are not ready to spend time to think about their long term career and it’s crafting process instead are filled with shortsighted vision of getting a job at the moment. I love your views on “Treat your career like a grand experiment”. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Tyler Grant Hartung

    @nathanielkoloc:disqus, I am worried about the demand for awesome, meaningful jobs outstripping the supply of awesome jobs that are out there. For example, when I went to Net Impact (grad students interested in social/environmental good) I was seriously scared that many of them had high ambitions to do good but they were all going to compete for a few jobs that exist. My main concern is that too many would not be able to find a job that was up to what their ambitions were, even if they were persistent for a year in searching, At Unreasonable Institute, I can only hope we grow and we help our companies grow, so they can hire this top talent, but I think the pace of growth of this supply is nothing compared to the pace of growth of the demand. How do you see this playing out? How can we overcome this so ppl don’t get discouraged and say “forget it!”?

  • Frank_Stanek

    A great article and really one that outlines a path we would probably all want to take. My problem that I come across when trying to take advice like this is that I tend to over think things and view them in a more “all-in-one” perspective. I try to be more linear and think in a step-by-step way when trying to view my career goals and options but inevitably end up thinking about all the pros, cons, alternatives, and the ever present fear of making a mistake that means I will spend even more time in a path that was not where I wanted to be. It certainly is easier to read advice than to change yourself eh?

  • Jansscor16

    This article is exactly what I needed, it really helped my clear my mind and know that I am on the right path!! My future is undecided, but I have a feeling I want to start my own business in the fitness field. Although I am still in College I find it hard to work jobs that are not my true passion!! This really has helped me understand that everything thing is just a stepping stone in the right direction!! I really just want to enjoy and have fun with life. What would you say is the best way to inform people, that I have multiple purposes in life and they often change?

  • treehugger90

    Truly inspirational! Thank you Nathaniel! Your article makes me think about what I truly love in life and what I exactly want to do! I know I want to work in the health world! I always like to say, “I was born in this world to help people.” Your quote at the end encourages me to keep going and to not give up! I agree that, “Your career is not a way earn a living, it’s your chance to discover what you’re here for.” I love it!

  • katie yanke

    Nathanial, Thank you for the article it’s clear that you enjoy your job and the most important thing is not to be so focused on the money aspect, but to be enjoying what you are doing and hopefully changing some lives along the way. I think that 70% of Americans that are unfulfilled with their jobs is because they are not looking at a job as something they can enjoy but something that they need to do to in order to enjoy the time they have when they are not working. Sadly doing something you are passionate about is easier said than done. The first problem is finding something that you are truly passionate about, but the biggest problem is incorporating your passion into your job. I will be graduating college soon and I will make sure to treat a career as an experiment until I discover one that I can be truly passionate about. Thank you!

  • Max Rude

    “Your career is not a way earn a living, it’s your chance to discover what you’re here for.” This has to be one of the strongest quotes I have read on here. I hope that the general public starts to think like this instead of just thinking about the rat race that many people have decided to live. I am going into teaching not for a pay check but to help build the world.

  • KJ

    I’m only a freshman in college, but I always hear people saying that it is hard to get a job if you don’t have experience in a certain industry or bounce around a lot. How is it possible to be qualified enough to follow different passions and test more than a few of our hypotheses ? Even in college there is so much I want to try but not enough time or money. Once I get into the “real world” , it seems like it would be an even bigger struggle.

  • MeierKM23

    Thank you for this great article. As a college student, I have had so many thoughts of what exactly I want to do. My freshman year of college I decided on physical education major but didn’t think it was for me so now I know I want to go into the health field but just not sure what that is yet. I feel like one day I am interested in one thing and something different the next so after reading this, I have want to know what exactly I am here for. This article was very helpful, meaninful, and inspirational. It really made me think about what I truly love in life, and in my case it is to help others and I feel I will be able to do that if I go into the medical/health field. As I got to the end, I read the quote, “Your work should be an adventure with a healthy dose of magic and mystery along the way” and totally because for me it HAS been a mystery but your article has given me inspiration to really go out and find what I love to do. Thanks again!

  • LevenhagAL14

    very well written article! I started my college career in the hopes of becoming a marine biologist, as I’ve grown up with a deep passion for environmental issues and a need to contribute to society. After a few years of this, I have recently realized that this isn’t the job for me. I decided to switch to environmental journalism, where I am able to research and accomplish my goals more realistically. This wasn’t an easy decision for me though. I spent years trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, where exactly my passions lie, and how I can go about accomplishing those… without spending too much time and money at a university. I am curious, do you have any advice for someone who is struggling between figuring out which passion is right for her? Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have switched my career path, if I should have stuck it out with biology and made it work rather than switching to journalism. I still struggle with this issue sometimes and I was wondering if you had any advice?

  • Joseph

    Nathaniel,

    Excellent article. Loved all of it. I bookmarked this page so I will be able to come back anytime I want and reread this. I loved the second step that you had with “Seek legacy, mastery, and freedom” I always think about my future job and that was the way I would always think about it. I want to change students lives with helping them maintain a healthy life style. I am taking as many classes as I can to further educate not only myself but the students I will one day be teaching and coaching. I understand that my future job isn’t the highest paying job out there. That is perfectly fine by me because I am going to wake up every morning and love every second of my job. So I will be living the life style that i want.

    If I had to ask Nathaniel a question I would ask him how many jobs he had, had before he had started ReWork? And why he didn’t stick with the previous jobs that he had?

    Awesome article Nathaniel. Great work.

  • Jake Eckhardt

    This is a great comment as it’s something I’m currently struggling with. I want that perfect job that’s going to satisfy all my desires, but it’s silly thinking something like that exists, and if it does, it will probably take years of job experience to figure out what can offer me those desires.

  • Sam Kuchenreuther

    As a college student this is a nice way to view my career after college. I often see my major as the only thing I’ll ever be doing with my life. So this is a very refreshing way to look at my career after college. Why do you think people don’t see their career as a series of stepping stones?

  • justin bowers

    I definitely agree with you Sam! I find myself wondering and thinking about what I’m going to be able to do for the rest of my life with my major when I should really be thinking about how am I going to add on to my knowledge from my major and find more things that are supportive of my career. It’s hard not to think about a singular route when looking for a career. Sam, what are you looking do with your career now that you look at it as a series of stepping stones?

  • Sam Kuchenreuther

    ok

  • clemonsel02

    This article is very interesting. I had no idea that that many people were dissatisfied with their careers. I feel that college students really need to get this message. I think that this needs to be taught at universities that even though you are coming right out of college and in search for a good job, it does not necessarily mean that you need to take the first job that is handed to you. What if someone coming out of college has a bad experience the first job they get out of college and no longer believe that path is made for them? Would you tell them to look for other jobs just using your method? I feel that by using your method people will be more satisfied not only with themselves but in their career.

  • Joseph

    You hit it right on the head. This is very inspirational. I too love that quote “Your career is not a way earn a living, it’s your chance to discover what you’re here for.” I have it hanging on my wall in my room so every morning when I wake up I see it. You talked about how you’re going into the health world. How do you plan to people change their lives?

  • treehugger90

    That’s awesome you have that quote on your wall! :) Right now, I am going to school for kinesiology and want to get a masters in dietetics. I plan to open my own business showing people how to properly nourish themselves and proper workouts. I think nutrition is neglected so much and I really want to get the word out! I also think that many people don’t know a lot about just using body weight as a tool for working out! I know I am just one person, but one person can help change many lives!

  • Palecekb

    Nathaniel, Thank you for the post. This is very meaningful to me, not as a professional but as a college student. We are told to imagine our future and work towards the careers we want to have. The chart of success is of course covered in some form by almost every professor. The stepping stone is a great idea, instead of plummeting to our death on the scale we instead take another step in another direction, but mostly the same area towards your goal. How do you think we can get such a strict, stick to the rules society, be able to understand and take risks towards the things or careers that will make them feel the world is better place after they are done?

  • Haley Horn

    Thank you for sharing. I am currently a sophomore in college and one of my biggest fears is picking a career path that I am going to hate/regret, or wish I would have done something else. It is really hard for me to pick just one thing that I love, so in my college experience not only am I trying to figure out what I love and want to do with the rest of my life, but also trying to incorporate everything I love into my future career.

  • pinsolera

    Thank you for posting this article. I won’t lie, especially about number one, I have trouble sometimes taking life as a stepping stones because sometimes I want to take “giant leaps” over the stones and make things happen right away. It is something I am currently working on, but with patience comes great things. But you posted a great article and I enjoyed reading it!