Five Guidelines for Finding Your Life’s Work

Did you know that 55% of us desire a new career (Harris poll)?  If you, too, have thought of jumping ship, then chances are you are already wondering about the phrase, “life’s work.”  Taking a little liberty, life’s work could represent the contraction “life is work.” Or, it could mean the testament to one’s whole life on earth, “life’s work.”  Perhaps it is not overly simplistic to use this phrase as a choice point or wake-up-call:  is our work just a job or career? Or, could we go so far as to say it is a special calling infused with passion and meaning?  After all, our work and how we view it, at best or worst, can critically shape who we become over our lifetimes.

The trap.  The first all-too-common outlook, life is work, connotes a trap mentality.  It suggests “first you work then you die,” work is merely a means to our survival, or you find an occupation and stick with it until you are hopefully lucky enough to retire for a handful of years.  At social gatherings it is that hollow feeling that comes after you are asked, “What do you do?” or “How do you earn your living?”  While our culture necessitates you work to “earn a living,” you may find that for too long you have settled for work that pays the bills but does not begin to tap your inner talents and the fulfillment possible by giving your unique gifts.

balanceFreeing yourself.  The second outlook, life’s work, typically connotes work that is most important to a person, their main purpose or activity in life, even what they are most known for—perhaps it represents a calling or life mission.  It can take some time to figure out one’s calling and how to apply your greatest gift or most enjoyable talent.  It took this author decades to find his natural work, and a stint or two of unemployment, to discover the best setting to practice it.

Besides using our greatest talents, life’s work entails a shift in perspective:  instead of focusing solely on the physical aspects of our humanness, we focus on how we live if we are aware of a larger connectedness to all of life, our beingness.  Evidence of this shift shows up immediately—do we feel short-changed or fulfilled in our work?  That outlook can affect our physical and emotional health, our self-esteem, our relationships, and our entire experience of life.  So, there is the awareness of life’s work, the something more in life, and the conscious practice of that awareness.

How the trade-off begins.  People who come to me as a career counselor in their twenties are frequently most focused on getting a job to transition from a liberal arts degree and stave off unemployment, or as a means of escape from living in their parent’s basement.  They say, all too often, life is work and I want to get on with it, or, tell me what job I should choose with the best chance of success.  As a counselor, I engage them around practical considerations such as how their transferable skills relate to various fields and occupations, or how various work cultures may offer the best personality fit.  Yet I also want to widen the scope beyond the usual monetary gains and extrinsic rewards to passions and values and ask:  What turns you on in this life?  What is your special gift to give to the world?

Waking up at mid-career.  Alternatively, people who come to me mid-career–forties and fifties–may have been laid off, fired, or have totally lost interest in a career trajectory that was seemingly going nowhere.  All may have begun to sadly speculate, is this all there is for me?  Or, more hopefully, is there a job or profession out there that calls to me, that I would enjoy doing, which is more naturally-aligned with my talents, interests, and sense of purpose in life?

Mid-life is the time when people more readily consider their mortality, and it often takes little prompting from me to bring out their inner uncertainties:  Why am I living?  What can I best do with the great gift of life?  What is really most important to me?   If this disquieting intersection of work and life has come up for you, consulting a career counselor might help you gain perspective.  We can use all the help we can get to accurately understand reality and create lives of greater truth, happiness, and even beauty.

Lessons for Life’s work from the near-end.  With a nod to 30 Lessons for Living by Karl Pillemer, here are five guidelines for realizing the most from your life’s work, which Pillemer distilled from interviewing hundreds of older Americans:

  1. Choose a career for the inherent rewards, not just the financial ones
  2. Don’t give up looking for a job that makes you happy
  3. Make the most of a mediocre job (many elders learned invaluable lessons from less-than-ideal work situations)
  4. Emotional intelligence outplays every other kind (understand your emotions and learn to relate well to others if you want to succeed in the workplace)
  5. Everyone needs some independence-freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you without too much control from the top.

Do two or more of the five lessons above come up negative for you?  On Sunday evenings do you start dreading the work week ahead?  If so, it may be time to look inside yourself, explore how you view your life’s work, and possibly seek the help of a counselor to raise your sights.


Dave GallisonDave Gallison, MS, LPC
Dave specializes in a short term, action-oriented approach to providing career management solutions to clients seeking to choose, change or advance their careers and reach their professional and personal potential. His unique strength as a career counselor is preparing you for informational interviews and directly assisting you in gaining access to employed contacts within desired organizations.

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