The Divide Between Ordinary and Extraordinary | Ladders

How do you think beyond the paycheck when you're on the job hunt?

The Divide Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

How do you think beyond the paycheck when you’re on the job hunt?

The objective of a successful job search is not to get a job. The objective is to fulfill your purpose.

I’m 47 now and 25 years into my career. I’ve had the opportunity to watch many people start their careers and talk with many others who have ended their careers. Through this informal research it has become clear to me that there are two distinctly different sets of career DNA in operation.

A Tale of Two Careers

The first type of career search is based on the question: “Where can I make money quickly?” The guidance: Get a good job, one that pays well and has a bright future to it. Go to a place where you can stay for a long time, get good benefits and a solid salary. Don’t rock the boat too much, keep the boss happy, and you will gain the admiration of many people. You will have the precious commodity known as security.

In the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare, this first type of employee is the hare. He sprints out ahead of everyone else. This person isn’t particularly thrilled with the work but relishes the fact that he has secured a “great job.” The money is better than what his peers are making, and the future seems bright.

Then something odd happens. The person finds that not being fulfilled with any sense of purpose at work really is a heavy price to pay. The money no longer seems to be as great as it once did. However, the person rationalizes that it’s too late to go after something that would really excite him and decides to stay with the job. The person has built up an enjoyable lifestyle and certainly doesn’t want to risk losing it. If not exactly golden handcuffs, the job has at least become silver strings that keep him tied down from ever going after what he really wants to do.

The second type of career search is based on a simple question: “What do I want to do and why do I want to do it?” That can be a difficult question because the answer may not fit with any job openings available at the moment. As a result, this person struggles at the beginning of the race. She may take a job just to get some food on the table but knows that there is no real future in that job. Peers laugh at this unfortunate soul because she seems to have no direction. The clock is ticking, and she isn’t making any real progress toward financial or title success.

This person is the tortoise. People may write her off as not being a real player in the job market. They assume she will move along very slowly and never really stand out as anything special.

Then suddenly, a door opens: An opportunity to fulfill her purpose is standing right there, and the person jumps at this chance. Unexpectedly, the person who had been written off long ago emerges as a star employee. People can‘t believe what is happening. This is very hard for them to accept. The tortoise has somehow managed to create a far more meaningful and successful career than they have.

How to find your purpose

The idea of “purpose” has been in the air a great deal lately. From Rick Warren’s massive best-selling book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” to Dan Pink’s bestseller, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” the idea of having a clearly defined purpose has been the subject of many, many books in this century.

However, my favorite quote on having a purpose at work dates back to 1943 in a book by Ayn Rand called “The Fountainhead.” Howard Roark, a young architect who is just starting his career, is in a conversation with the famous architect Henry Cameron, who is just about to end his career. Roark has worked for Cameron for three years.

Cameron says to Roark, “Well, have I taught you anything? I’ll tell you: I’ve taught you a great deal and nothing. No one can teach you anything, not at the core, at the source of it. What you’re doing – it’s yours, not mine. I can only teach you to do it better. I can give you the means, but the aim – the aim’s your own.”

What’s your purpose?

You can learn technical skills, and you can gain a lofty title, and you can get a big paycheck. Other people can give you those things. However, no one can instill a sense of purpose within you. Only you can figure that out. A clear sense of a compelling purpose is what separates an ordinary career from an extraordinary one. What is your aim? What is the purpose of your career?

Before you search for your next job, I suggest you take out a sheet of paper and start to answer these questions:

  1. Besides receiving a paycheck, why do I want to work?
  2. What difference do I want to make with my career?
  3. What am I particularly good at doing and how can I use those skills to fulfill my purpose for working?
  4. What am I particularly passionate about doing and how can I use this passion to fulfill my purpose at work?

If you’ve been out of school for any length of time, you might feel these are silly questions to ask. You might think, “Dan, wouldn’t it be better to find out what the company’s retirement plan looks like or how soon I’ll be promoted or what personality type my potential new boss has?” I don’t think so. If you don’t start with a sense of purpose, you will quickly find yourself in a daily activity devoid of personal meaning. At best, this turns into a gift of beautiful wrapping paper around an empty box. At worst, it turns into just an empty box.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I took a job purely for the money I was told would be there. Somehow I convinced myself that it would be worth it to have a lot of money. Every day, I got dressed up, hopped on the train and went to work. I was excited about buying a certain home and a certain car. I was the first one in and the last one out. Then one day something totally unexpected happened. I closed my office door and broke down crying. It took me three months to realize it, but I was doing something that had zero sense of purpose to me. I left.

These are very tough economic times. Well-paying jobs are very hard to come by. The temptation to take a job that you have no passion for and that does not fit with your purpose is very strong. If you have to put food on the table, take it. But be very careful. Remember that a “great job” can lead to an ordinary career or worse.

Every day, stay on the alert to find an opportunity to fulfill your purpose. When you find it, you are on your way to a successful job search.

Dan Coughlin

Dan Coughlin

Dan is a business keynote speaker and seminar leader on leadership, innovation, and branding. He is also an executive coach and author of four books on generating sustainable, profitable growth. His books include “Accelerate”, “Corporate Catalysts”, “The Management 500”, and “Find a Way to Win”. His clients include McDonald’s, GE, Toyota, Prudential, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, SUBWAY, Kiewit, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

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