Build the Career You Want with These Four Elements

Meaningful work matters so much that many people would earn less to do it. Almost half of Canadian Millennials and 90 percent of Americans in recent surveys said they’d choose meaning over more money at work. But do you need to take a pay cut to build the career you want? Maybe—but maybe not.

You can find meaningful work in every industry, but not every organization. It’s easy to assume that rewarding work opportunities are concentrated in the traditional “helping” industries—education, nursing and the nonprofit world. But researchers say that when work is meaningful, it’s because it offers four key components: alignment (which I think of as admiration), freedom, legacy and mastery. The way to build a career you’ll love is to seek out opportunities that offer these four elements.

What does that look like? In my case, I’ve found meaningful work in e-commerce fraud prevention because I found a company whose culture supports all four elements of meaning. The path will look different for everyone, of course, but there are lessons we can draw from every meaningful work experience.

Admiration and Respect Between Co-Workers

For me, admiration is the most important element of meaningful work. I’m happy to work with people that I like and respect, in a culture that promotes collaboration across departments and management levels. In every level of the company where I work, there is someone I view as a mentor or a teacher. And I depend on the people who run the departments in the unit I manage as sources of important insight and knowledge.

Liking and respecting your co-workers matters so much, it’s one of the foundations of a meaningful career. So, when you’re considering a new job, take note of how the people there treat one another and how they engage with you during the interview process.

Freedom to Analyze, Collaborate and Innovate

Freedom implicitly carries a certain amount of responsibility. For me, the freedom to critique operations comes with the responsibility to help solve the problems I point out. Collaborating with others to find a solution is the goal—and another reason to seek a workplace with people you admire and respect.

My current role leading a business unit gives me a lot of freedom to make decisions. That freedom isn’t a new experience, because the company culture has always fostered freedom to suggest new ideas, critique existing practices and collaborate across teams. From the start, I could be fearless in sharing my opinions and ideas to other teams and to upper management.

For me, the ability to share ideas and use them to set my career path is freedom. But researchers say for others, freedom may mean earning enough to pursue an expensive hobby, or it might mean a flexible arrangement that frees you to work from anywhere. Whatever freedom means to you, look for a company that supports it.

A Legacy That Means Something to You

Like freedom, legacy means something different for everyone. It’s important to think about the kind of legacy you want from your work and how to achieve it.

For me, a good legacy is solving problems for clients. But in technical careers like data science, there’s a trap that many people step into. They fall in love with the tools they use instead of with the problem-solving process. But tool use isn’t where you can make your mark; problem-solving is.

So, my main advice for people who want to build a legacy in technical fields is this: Fall in love with understanding problems from the ground up and solving them. Don’t get too attached to any tools. Technology evolves, and you may change companies, but your process for solving problems will always be important.

In fact, that’s true in any type of career. Your problem-solving ability can make you an attractive prospect for companies and leadership roles. And as you solve more problems, you’re building your legacy and your career. You’re almost certainly mastering new skills along the way, too.

A Supportive Environment for Mastering Skills

Over the past decade, my skills and experiences have grown along with my employer. The company’s change from a startup with about two-dozen employees to an international company with a team of 1,000 supported my evolution from freshly hired data scientist to executive vice president. As part of that growth, I’ve mastered a variety of important skills.  

My data science department took on new responsibilities during that company growth. As our services and customer base expanded, we also handled financial planning, product management and sales engineering. Mentorship is a key to mastery, and I was fortunate to share a background in data science with one of the company’s co-founders. That meant he understood the way I approached challenges, and I knew that I could consult with him when I had questions. That support was critical as the company and my department grew.

As my team and I mastered these skills, we were prepared to take on bigger challenges. In my case, the challenge was taking charge of an entire new business unit, with a high degree of autonomy in a new region. Whatever career path you follow, make sure it includes opportunities to master and refine a range of skills.

When you find a role that offers the opportunity to master skills, freedom to grow, work with people you admire and build a legacy, that’s a potentially meaningful job. You may not even have to take a salary cut to obtain it.

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