What should you spend your career on? Inspiration, disillusionment, fulfillment, and chasing the wind

1:45 PM James 0 Comments

I titled this “chasing the wind” because I’ve found fulfillment in a career to be a moving target, perhaps a mirage that doesn’t really exist.

Inspiration: When I started working at The Old Place, I was swept up by the company mission “contributing to human welfare by the application of biomedical engineering to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life”. Working on medical devices meant that I was applying my skills, education, and effort towards a noble purpose, and that felt great. I was excited to get into the office every day, because I had a new opportunity to make sick people live more normal lives.

Disillusionment: After a while, I realized that large organizations, even well-meaning ones, do things that disappoint you sometimes. A product previously claimed to be safe now has to be recalled because it’s causing, rather than blocking, pain in some patients. A device is found to malfunction in certain rare conditions that could potentially kill a patient. A company that claims to value innovation under-invests in R&D, and bleeds market share while its main product grows increasingly outdated. You see your friends laid off because the company misses earnings targets. Eventually, your company dodges billions of dollars in taxes in a legally and ethically sketchy acquisition. After seeing enough of these, enough promises to turn things around, a revolving door of VPs, presidents, and CEOs, you realize you don’t believe anymore. You have to leave.

Despite my disappointment, I still know many people who believe in the company mission and who still walk into that office, committed to helping sick people feel better. It’s noble, if quixotic. I also realize that managing a department, a business unit, or a global corporation is hard. You don’t always like the cards you’re dealt. You may not know the answers, but you do the best you can and hope it’s enough. I further realize that being unhappy with one’s job because it doesn’t inspire you everyday is such a Gen Y concept that it’s cliche. But still, it affects me.

You can see this two different ways: as the one who’s been let down, or as the one who can do something about it. If you see your company doing something dumb and you know a better way, let someone know. Figure out what it takes to convince the right people. I’m not saying commit career suicide, by golly. But showing that level of ownership and initiative will get you noticed at any company. Just be prepared to discuss what you see as the problem and the solution in a way that makes sense to the decision-makers. Of course, if you’re convinced you’re powerless to change the situation, or if your well-being is suffering, then you need to figure out a graceful way to move on.

Changing jobs fixed this for me at first. SpaceX inspires the hell out of me with its mission to make life multi-planetary. My coworkers inspire me to give my best, because they damn sure give theirs. I’ve sacrificed many long days and nights for the dream of sending humanity to the stars, and I’ve had some huge wins as well as some big disappointments. I feel like I have agency, so I dust myself off and walk into the office believing I’m doing my highest good.

Will I ever get disillusioned at this job? It’s definitely possible. Although we hire people all the time, people quit too. I’ve experienced frustration about certain things my team, department, and company have done. But nothing has made me lose faith in our mission, or in the commitment we all have to it. I’m also developing what I think is a healthy sense of perspective about how much you can really expect a job to fulfill you.

A good job should definitely give you satisfaction, and it helps to believe in what the company does, but I’m not sure it’s healthy to let it define you or your ethical or philosophical standards. Companies and other institutions, like governments and churches, will make decisions you disagree with, things that look like big mistakes, and you will be disappointed. It’s best not to put them on too high a pedestal. Sure, we should hold leaders to a high standard, but we should also forgive them when they act human and make mistakes. What’s more, we should help them recover if we truly care about them, and they let us help. That’s a positive way to show you believe in what you do.

It’s also helpful to value your self-development as your career goes on. Even if a company isn’t your “dream date”, a stint there can be worthwhile if you’re learning and growing in a personal and professional sense. A job doesn’t have to be forever.

I can’t close without emphasizing how important it is for all of us to have support that’s outside our company. Friends, family, and communities we belong to all play an important part in our well-being. Don’t place too much trust in work, expecting it to meet needs that should be met by other close relationships.

With that, I sincerely hope you find a job that inspires you and makes you want to get out of bed and walk into the office every day ready to make a difference. I also hope you have people who make you feel that way too.