What Makes for a Great Career?

To me, a great career is one that facilitates the attainment of a life that provides truly rounded fulfillment:

  • Offers the ability to achieve some personal growth and attain some personal goals
  • Has some degree of positive impact on others
  • Provides freedom from high levels of stress and a good level of physical comfort (not necessarily luxury)
  • Allows the time to cultivate and enjoy meaningful relationships and activities
  • And offers a good sense of security.

No great revelations there, right? Easy to agree to. But in practice I encounter among many clients a strong bias towards money and power, a bias that I work hard to counterbalance because I’ve found that placing money and power first doesn’t provide lasting fulfillment.

A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post reported the results of an eleven year study conducted among thousands of demographically representative Americans by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It measured, among many other things, people’s subjective evaluations of key aspects of their lives: Happiness, Meaning, and Stress.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “finance and insurance” ranked lowest on happiness of 18 occupational categories, while it tied for highest (with “educational services” – I.e. mainly teaching) on stress level and tied for lowest on meaning (with five other categories). Wow! Highest stress, lowest meaning, lowest happiness. Who’d want that?

Obviously the answer is “lots of people” – primarily because of the high compensation which provides a comfortable-to-lavish life style, a boost to the life paths of their children, and a cushion against the vicissitudes of life. But I think, and have actually seen, that they’re at least a little off base, as mentioned earlier. Having just returned from two weeks in East Africa I was impressed by how people’s individual happiness seems just about the same as ours, although their income is a small faction of Americans’.


I often have my clients do an internal “inventory” to specify and measure what they’re really looking for in their careers, nested within their descriptions of their overall ideal lives. This is a process that requires some deep self-reflection, and thus results in profiles that they truly believe points to the types of paths they should be pursuing. And yet when we’re exploring possibilities all too often they’re held back by a reluctance to consider all but the most modest of compensation decreases.

I’ve concluded that this disconnect is fueled at least in part by the fact that there’s no universally, or even widely, shared measurements of happiness or of meaning, in contrast to the easy-to-understand, very precise measurement of annual compensation or financial assets. Simply stated, then, most people place too much emphasis on the dollar signs as opposed to the ability to lead a more multi-faceted life pursuing various interests, with far fewer stressful moments and many more restful nights.

The BLS survey reveals lots of other interesting insights, including that there’s an activity category that ranks highest on happiness and meaning, AND lowest on stress: a perfect trifecta: religious/spiritual activity. And that being outdoors or connected with nature in some way is very satisfying and meaningful. And that lawyers are the single most stressed occupational category (another highly compensated category, but for many of my clients the trade-off turns out not to be worth it).

How to come to a more valid assessment of what’s REALLY important in designing the kind of career and life you’d most like to have? Ask for help in painting your desired picture, and then be open to observations about where your societally-shaped, oriented-to-easily-measured quantities, less-reasoned thinking leads you astray. I do it a lot, I love it, and it’s led to happier and more fulfilling careers and lives for many, many hundreds of my clients.