Karilyn Dearie, a hiring manager and career expert at cover letter builder CV Genius, savors each of her mornings. She sips a cup of coffee while reading an article or two before heading out to her office, which is only a 10-minute walk from her home. She looks forward to going to work — she loves her job, she says, though she’s not necessarily fulfilled by it.
Checking emails, writing content, advising clients and managing hiring and onboarding agendas wasn’t anything she’d highly anticipated her whole life. Whenever anyone asked her what she’d wanted to be when she was growing up, she never had an answer.
“I expected that to suddenly change in university, or during internships or, at the very least, when I entered the workforce — but it didn’t,” she explains. “I never found that dream career that was supposed to determine my purpose in life. Instead, I began to discover what I want to be outside of my job — not as an employee, but as a person.”
Dearie says her fulfillment comes from the city in which she lives, the people with whom she spends her days and the places she’s able to explore; she loves to travel.
“I go into work every day of the week, fulfill my duties and go home knowing that my actions have afforded me the opportunity to pursue the things that make me truly happy,” she says. “I find enjoyment in my work. But I don’t find fulfillment in it. And that’s okay.”
Dearie isn't overly passionate about her job. One of the joys she does find in her job, however, is interacting with her coworkers, who tend to congregate where the coffee is dispensed. She says it’s always a pleasure to start her mornings with some camaraderie over caffeine. Besides, she’s passionate about people — whether it’s with her coworkers or her clients — so the connections she makes because of her job are a major motivator for her.
She’d entered her line of work about six months after university after traveling under the guise that it’d give her some clarity to realize what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to continue to “travel, eat strange food, drink entirely too much coffee and meet weird and wonderful people from around the world.” But, of course, that lifestyle costs a pretty penny, so she took a job with a stable paycheck and the ability to work remote when the itch to explore becomes overwhelming.
“One of the big attractions of my current job is the company culture and people I work with,” she says. “As it turns out, weird and wonderful people can be found whether you’re at home or abroad. While the work I do may not necessarily be fulfilling, the opportunity to make connections with amazing individuals definitely is.”
Dearie isn’t alone in feeling this way about work. Like Dearie, some women who are fulfilled by their work just more so cherish a work-life balance.
"To say my job fulfills me is an understatement," says Jessie Woods, a New Jersey-based landscape architect. "I’m so lucky to have found a field that I’m so passionate about — one in which I shape the city from the ground up, implement different methods to combat climate change and boost resiliency, and engage with the public to create outdoor spaces worth being in. While I think being a landscape architect is one of the top three fundamentals that make me up as a person, I’ve recently realized that I definitely don’t live my life to work."
One of the milestones that really proved the importance she places on work-life balance was when she recently declined a job offer to which she’d have to spend way more time commuting.
"I ended up adopting my dog shortly after that and I’m not sure that would have happened had I had a job that was more time consuming," she explains. "It’s impossible to imagine my life without her and that helped me learn that being equally fulfilled by your work and your personal life doesn’t make you less successful."
Another woman, who’d asked to keep her identity concealed to protect her job, says that she does love her work and, though it doesn't entirely fulfill her, it's necessary in getting her to the next level — a level in which she'd feel more passion.
“Sometimes I just feel like I’m in a rut,” she explains; she works in the administrative office of a family practice in Philadelphia. “I think everyone must feel this way at some point in there lives, especially in their mid-20s — just kind of stuck, wanting to do something more. But it’s okay because I’m doing what I have to do to get to where I want to be.”
She, too, finds “enjoyment” in her job, helping oft-terminally ill, young patients. It feels good to help, she recognizes, but she knows that it’s not going to be the job she works for the rest of her life. Right now, it pays the bills so she can save up for more school to be a psychologist.
“I’m working in this field so I can save up for school while making contacts in the industry,” she explains. “I definitely love what I’m doing, but it’s not the most fulfilling thing I could be doing. That’d be working with patients one on one. That's what I'm really passionate about, and I’ll get there.”
According to data by Gallup, only 13 percent of employees are actually “engaged” in their jobs, or emotionally invested in their work and focused on helping their organizations improve. The data, based on nationally representative polling samples in 2011 and 2012 from more than 140 countries, suggests that 63 percent of people are “not engaged” (or simply unmotivated and unlikely to exert extra effort), and 24 percent are “actively disengaged” (or truly unhappy and unproductive).
According to Forbes, the top five reasons professionals dislike their work are because “the skills they need to use to succeed in their job feel difficult and uncomfortable for them; the rampant toxicity or crushing demands exhaust and depress them; the outcomes they're working on feel either meaningless or wrong; they sense they're made for something much better, more meaningful and more exciting; and they long to use different talents, and leverage their creativity and ingenuity but have no idea how to do that and make the money they need.”
Of course, as in Dearie’s case, working a job that isn’t quite fulfilling doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s dreaded. But the research is proof that there are a number of people who wake up each morning feeling entirely uninspired.
Despite the many ways we all feel about our careers, there are volumes of text online and in self-help books that advise us all to "follow our passions" in our work lives if we want to be fulfilled. We spend a good chunk of our days at work, anyway. But that leaves a lot of people still wondering, "Can I earn a living doing it?" or "Would it still be my passion if I had to do it every day to make money?" Also, "Would I start to resent it if it didn't earn me a living?"
“Sometimes I think about the things that do fulfill me and wonder if there’s a career that allows me to collect a paycheck for doing them — whatever Anthony Bourdain’s does is the only solution I’ve come up with so far,” Dearie adds. “But then again, I think, would that ruin my passions? Does Anthony Bourdain maintain his zest for food, travel and adventure, or is it all just a job for him now? I would hate to diminish my passions in life because I attach a value to my achievement of them.”
Dearie advises other women just entering the workforce not to lose sleep over figuring out what “to be” in life.
“University felt like a mob mentality of everyone feeding off of each other’s anxiety over what to do when the dreaded graduation day arrived," she remembers. "Everything was so centered around what to do, what to be and how to achieve these arbitrarily-defined notions of success, that it was impossible not to be constantly swept up in the chaos of it... The only thing you really need ‘to be’ in life is happy.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.
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