Balancing Productivity and Passion: Define Your Career Goals

Here’s a question you were no doubt asked countless times as a child by adults: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

It’s an innocuous, fun question for a five year old, but the phrase takes on a much more confrontational tone when posed to a 15 year old. Indeed, some people truly know what they want to do for the rest of their lives from a very young age, while others still haven’t picked a college major by their fourth semester.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with being undecided about one’s professional path at any age, U.S. work culture places a whole lot of importance on career accomplishments. From the very beginnings of kindergarten to SAT test prep courses, young Americans all over the country are constantly bombarded with the notion that each step they take in life should be leading them toward a prestigious career or lucrative job.

Here’s another question you’ve probably been asked too many times to count (this time as an adult): “What do you do for a living?” Work is akin to life in the USA, which is why no party or social event seems to pass without that question being posed endless times as strangers become acquaintances. 

Our jobs are supposed to help us live meaningful lives and provide for ourselves and our families, but somewhere along the line Americans made a habit of building their entire identities around their jobs. It’s true; a successful career is a wonderful achievement, but is it worth neglecting all other areas of one’s life? Of course not. 

Career goals and personal passions: A balancing act

A recent survey of working Americans found that just under a quarter (22%) are unhappy with their professional lives, 37% added they feel “behind” on their career goals, and 34% aim to improve their work-life balance moving forward. What do these statistics tell us? Many modern employees feel both overwhelmed and unfulfilled by their day jobs.

If you can relate to any of those sentiments, it may be prudent to reassess your own career goals, especially in relation to the topics and causes you are most passionate about. If your job is leaving you no time at all for friends, family, hobbies, and other interests, it’s likely time for a change. 

The benefits of finding time to put career goals aside for a few hours each day are supported by science. Recent research published in the Journal of Personality assessed close to 200 people living in Turkey, India, and the United Kingdom, and found that those who prioritized job achievements over their own enjoyment and freedom were less happy the next day. 

Meanwhile, other workers who always carved out time for hobbies and relaxation reported better well-being and less stress and anxiety. Study authors even speculate that disconnecting from work and spending some time on other interests or personal goals will eventually help employees feel more refreshed and determined once it comes time to get back to work.

Notably, that study also found that “self-direction” often led to increased happiness among participants (across all 3 countries). So, in other words, ask yourself who is really setting your career goals. Is it you or your manager? Are you defining your career and professional goals, or is your career defining you? 

The benefits of boundaries 

It may feel near-impossible to balance your career goals with the rest of your life and personal aspirations, but just like most tough tasks, it helps to take it one step at a time. First and foremost, it’s key to figure out what you want. Not what you want for lunch or your next birthday, but what you truly want out of your career and life’s work. Some people want to make a lot of money and sit in a corner office, others want to make a real difference in their chosen field. There’s no wrong answer because it’s your choice!

Once you’ve figured out what’s most important to you professionally, begin setting boundaries. While flexibility will of course be necessary at times, make an effort to communicate with your co-workers and managers what you are and aren’t comfortable with professionally (availability, assignments, etc). If your current organization is less than thrilled by your new priorities, or the entire company as a whole doesn’t align with your career goals, it’s likely time to begin considering a change.

Looking for more opportunities to reach your professional aspirations? Take a look at The Ladder’s job filter. The next, much more rewarding, phase of your career may be easier to find than you think.