What’s actually required to build a meaningful career?
Hint: It's not an elite college degree. And I promise the answer isn't just "grit" either.
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Now, let’s dive into today’s question.
👉 What’s actually required to build a meaningful career?
I was 15 years old when I first started questioning, “what’s actually going to make me successful?”
And it was all because I met someone whose story gave me goosebumps. He was a patient-resident in the medical care facility my mom worked in as a nurse of psychiatry. My mom’s job was the reason why she, my brother and I were able to move and live in a place like Palo Alto, despite being lower-middle class immigrants from Pakistan.
We lived in the facility as well. Floors 2-5 were for the patient-residents, while floors 6-7 were studio apartments where Stanford students typically lived. We lived in one of those studio apartments for five years.
Needless to say, my environment was very different than my friends’ homes.
But it was all the same while we were at school. And as far as I can recall, our school had only one answer to achieving success: get a degree from an elite university, work at a prestigious company, and you will be successful.
So, we believed it. After having a ridiculous amount of guest speakers come in to speak to us about their fancy jobs and their fancy degrees, how could we define success any other way?
But then, I had the enlightening conversation.
The man whose story got me to re-think most of what my school was telling me, was in his late-30s when we met and had been diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder.
I remember that I had volunteered to run that evening’s Bingo game at the nursing home, and he was sitting beside me. We got to talking about my freshman year in high school, and he started telling me about his freshman year at Harvard.
He had grown up in Palo Alto as well. Gone to the same high school as me. Worked hard to get into an elite university and succeeded in doing so. But during his first year at Harvard, he began suffering high stress and insomnia. The sleep deprivation eventually led to psychosis. He was prescribed anti-psychotic medication and returned back to school. But he continued to struggle and eventually ended up in the hospital, and had been in the specific care facility for over 5 years. I don’t remember all of the details of his story, but I do remember the words he shared with me that led to my re-thinking:
“Don’t burn yourself out chasing one definition of success. I did that. Don’t be like me. There are other options.”
I have never forgotten those words. There are other options.
Whenever I’ve felt stuck, I’ve reminded myself, there are other options.
Whenever I’ve felt like something wasn’t for me, even when everyone around me was doing that thing, I’ve reminded myself, there are other options.
And anytime I was told to pursue route A or route B but neither spoke to me, I reminded myself, there are other options!
We live in a society that preaches very specific ways to find success. Every career-type has its “go-to” default paths to success, and almost all of them give precedence to an elite college degree and working for a brand-name company.
But then there are some people who find the other options. I recently came across this Medium article by Zachary: I Got Into MIT, Refused the Offer, and Still Became a Highly Valued Developer.
“You need to learn to ask yourself what is really important to you and your personal growth. You have to realize that you must make the decisions and run the initiatives to bring these things to reality. You cannot just stand idly by and wait for everything to just magically fall into place.”
I found a meaningful career for myself in a pretty unconventional way. And after helping thousands of others do the same, here’s what I’ve found actually matters in building a meaningful career:
Thoughtfulness: you won’t find a meaningful career if you’ve never thought about what “meaningful” really means to you. Most people don’t invest the time to be intentional and develop an awareness of what they really need. Instead, they go from job to job based on what they think they should be doing. People who’ve spent the time questioning their default thinking and creating a clearer vision for themselves, even if it’s simply how they want to feel every morning, are more likely to build a meaningful career.
Action-orientation: do you have bias towards inaction or action?
Because you can meet pretty much learn anything and meet anyone you want to, in any field, if you commit to making it happen for yourself. People who know there is always an option, and that they have the power to find the best option for them, tend to outperform those who wait for opportunities. Don’t know what you would find meaning in? Talk to a bunch of people with different career paths and see what options exist. From my coaching days, the mentees that consistently took shots, whether it be sparking a conversation with a random stranger or showcasing their work publicly, were more likely to secure jobs that resonated with them.
Willing to invest in yourself: the world changes so fast and it’s foolish to think that your skills, knowledge, and awareness will always be relevant. Many people shy from investing in courses or tools that can help them be more productive, create leverage, and allow them to focus on things that provide a higher return for their time. You are your greatest project. (This is also why I take Personal Learning so damn seriously, that I’ve committed my career to it.)
Your friends: we all know that who you surround yourself with greatly determines your thinking and how you view the world. If everyone around you is defaulting to jobs they think they should be in, you will likely do the same. If everyone around you is betting on themselves, being more intentional about their choices, you will likely do the same.
I’ve also found that once someone in a close-knit group “unlocks” a meaningful career, there is a ripple effect. It’s as if seeing it happen for someone else close to you makes people believe that it can happen for them too.
Believing it’s possible. Not to sound cliche but I’ve met plenty of people that just don’t believe a “meaningful” job is possible. I’m a big believer in manifestation, and that you need to be able to see it in order to achieve it. People who are optimistic about their ability to find a meaningful career will always have an easier time than those who believe a meaningful career is a myth.
There can be many definitions of what makes a career “meaningful” or “successful.” What has helped me is making the time to define it for myself, and developing the confidence to find options that align with that definition. And remember, there are options. You can find yours.
Live your best life,
p.s. Know someone who can use these thoughts to navigate their career right now? Include them in the discussion:
🤔 CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Let’s put this week’s learning into practice. It’s time to get real.
What’s your definition of a meaningful career? What have you given priority to as you’ve explored opportunities? How has your outlook on your career changed over the years?
Pssst: If you’re feeling brave, let us know in the comments section (or reply just to me!) how the challenge goes—I’m here to cheer you on. 🎉
“I put my idea out there, literally posted a Craigslist ad that said, ‘Bridesmaid for Hire!’ and the ad went viral. So I knew there was something to it and I was so excited.
But my friends thought it was the dumbest idea. They would tell me, ‘Jen, this is so stupid, why are you wasting your time?’ But fortunately I didn’t listen.”
-Jen Glantz, founder of Bridesmaid for Hire and best-selling author
🎁 PARTING GIFTS
A round-up of hand-picked, highly recommended tools, and inspiration to help you live your best life.
An incredibly vulnerable and beautiful piece by Tom of The White Noice on why he writes. As someone living with Tourette, Tom opens up about his relationship with writing and why he continues to commit himself to it despite the common angst.
A TedTalk by behavioral economist, Dan Ariely who explains what motivates us to find meaning in our work. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.
One of my favorite concepts to must on and discuss with friends:
👋 See you back here next week to explore:
Why do we care so much about what other people think of us?
The Human Behind this Newsletter
❓ Got a question you want to unpack together? Tweet me, @shireenjaffer_.
🎤 Want to share your story? Email me at email@example.com—I’d love to feature you in an upcoming newsletter.
💜 This newsletter was crafted for you during an unintentional all-nighter due to too much coffee (oops!). Share with a friend who you’re always rooting for—and let them know it.
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