Help wanted: in finding a fulfilling career
March 14, 2009 6:57 AM   Subscribe

What are some fulfilling careers?

After the economy bounces back a bit, I plan on switching careers, and I'm up for trying almost anything (bonus points if it has to do with science or working with people and pays the bills; but the first two aren't necessities). Yesterday, I was watching a documentary and the man on there said that "No one really likes their job... it's just something everyone has to do. After all, work is work." This got me thinking, and while I realize that this may just be something that people unhappy with their careers say to make themselves feel better, I also wondered if this is true for the majority of people.

So, mefites, my question is this: Do you or someone you know have a truly fulfilling job? What is it and what do you do on a daily basis that makes your career choice the right one for you? Obviously, this depends on your interests, but I am wondering if there is some common thread in 'fulfilling careers.' Or do you find in general that work itself is not necessarily fulfilling, but rather what the money allows you to do with your life and family is what makes going to work worthwhile?

Thanks in advance!
posted by karyotypical to Work & Money (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say the ones where you can feel that you're making a difference. Either to people or animals, advancing technology, finding a cure.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:03 AM on March 14, 2009

Something where you contribute to a measurable greater good seem to be the most fulfilling to me.
posted by agentwills at 7:07 AM on March 14, 2009

My wife and I are about to do this very thing. She started her career as a teacher and she absolutely despises it. So this fall she's going back to school to get her degree in chemical engineering.

You say you love science, which parts of the field are you most interested in? Physics? Mathematics? Biology?
posted by tylerfulltilt at 7:07 AM on March 14, 2009

I find my job(s) fulfilling. I am primarily a playwright. A few months of the year, I run a theatre program for refugee and newcomer youth. When I am writing, I feel engaged in my own artistic endeavours. When I work on the youth programs, I am inspired by the young people's introduction to theatre.

Most people I know in this field find their jobs pretty fulfilling. Most people I know in this field also do not make a lot of money.
posted by typewriter at 7:10 AM on March 14, 2009

I'm an engineer, and I work in the robotics industry. I love working. I can't imagine what I'd do if I didn't work. I love designing and building robots, and I'd be doing it in my free time -- what a nice bonus that I get paid to do it instead!

I think it's really an engineering thing in general, though -- most of my friends in engineering really love their jobs (though as a note, most of us work for small companies, not huge behemoths of industry -- this may make a difference). Every day is a new problem to solve, and every day you have to learn something new to solve a problem.

I guess I don't necessarily get fulfillment out of what my company does... I used to work on (non-weaponized) military robots, and now I do manufacturing robots, so it's not like I'm personally saving the world (though my company does plan on singlehandedly saving the US manufacturing industry. No big deal). However, my more altruistic friends who are in sustainable design, renewable energy, and biomedical fields really are happy to be trying to save the world, and I know that is incredibly fulfilling to them.

But I guess the question in all this is, what is *your* background? It's not clear from your posting history. Engineering is great and all, but it's kind of tough to get in to if you're not trained for it. Same goes for "science" as you mentioned above. Part of the reason I have a job I love is that I recognized this interest/passion back in high school and I've been working toward it ever since. Thus, it is fulfilling to me to be doing it every day and getting paid for it. I can't tell you that throwing someone with a liberal arts background into a new renewable energy startup will automatically give your worklife meaning. Can you give us more details?
posted by olinerd at 7:13 AM on March 14, 2009

There was a national survey recently about job satisfaction. I can't find the actual report anymore, but here's a news story about it. I think what the top 10 most satisfying careers have in common is exactly what hungrysquirrels said: They all (at least most) leave you feeling as if you are really making a difference in the lives of your fellowmen and women.

Also relevant, according to Norm McDonald on Weekend Update: "Finally, according to the U.S. News & World Report 1997 Career Guide, the best job in the United States, for the second year in a row, is Interactive Business System Analyst. However, last year's worst job, Crack Whore, has been replaced by a new worst job: Assistant Crack Whore."
posted by crapples at 7:22 AM on March 14, 2009

Response by poster: I guess I purposely left my background vague because I wanted general answers about fulfilling careers so I could try to extract common themes of fulfilling careers. For what it's worth though, I'm currently a high school teacher, and I majored in biology and mathematics. I thought teaching would be the perfect intersection of science and working with people (as well as fulfilling the "making a difference" role), but in the area and school where I'm at, the stress detracts from a lot of the positive. Thanks for the answers so far!
posted by karyotypical at 7:24 AM on March 14, 2009

I think all of the answers here are spot-on, but I have a slightly different perspective. Obviously, the feeling that one is making a difference is pretty much inherently fulfilling, but I think that another primary source of job fulfillment is the satisfaction we get when a plan comes together.

For me, I feel the most fulfilled whenever I come up with some sort of plan with more than one moving part (it only really has to be more elaborate than "order pizza-->eat pizza") and it ends up working out.

My field is politics. A great example is staffing campaigns (something I do from time to time): it feels amazing to realize you have a real, breathing, competent person with all the skills you wanted sitting in what used to be an empty chair, and to realize that it affirms not only your work in finding them but also your vision in terms of what you were looking for in the first place is very fulfilling indeed. And I can't even describe how fulfilling it is when the other guy takes the bait and walks right into a rhetorical trap that we carefully laid. Now THAT is fulfilling.

If you have a personality that really prizes strategy and "making things happen," I would encourage you to consider this factor when looking for fulfilling careers. Imagine how a chess player feels when they're multi-move strategy pays off, or how an orchestra teacher feels when their class of kids pull off all the parts of a harmony for the first time, or how a football coach feels when a trick play works because the defense had been lulled out of position. Those are all forms of fulfillment, but I think they are wholly separate from the fulfilling feeling of helping others.

To be clear, I am not knocking helping others, I am just trying to point out another possible avenue.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 7:25 AM on March 14, 2009

I know a high school biology teacher that feels about the same way you do. She liked science and she liked helping people so should though being a biology teacher would be great. It's not. She toyed with a few ideas and decided to try for a library position in a school, so she would still be able to help students and use/teach information.

I would also suggest doing the exercises in "What Color is your Parachute" The author really gets into the nitty gritty about what careers are right for you and how you can feel fullfilled, inlcuding what types of things make you feel fullfilled and how that, your interests, and you skills can equal a job you love.
posted by CoralAmber at 7:46 AM on March 14, 2009

Best answer: I am wondering if there is some common thread in 'fulfilling careers.'

I think many people have fulfilling careers. I was going to give you some specific examples, but what occurred to me when doing that is that with all of the jobs people I know love, there are a few things in common:

1) There is something tangible at the end of your work - a website, a book, a victory in court, a TV commercial. Pushing paper or pumping gas is generally not fulfilling in this way.

2) The people are in fields that allow for individual achievement, and have been recognised in their fields as leaders. This is probably harder if you're an account than, say, a novelist or even a lawyer.

There are plenty of people with fulfilling jobs outside this - ColdChef, our resident funeral director, is a great example of this and has one of those "all about helping and making a difference" jobs - but in general, I think these two points help.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:01 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I kind of like my job, which is translation. I would like it a lot more if I were translating good literature rather than academic pablum. It's a very structured form of writing; unlike in creative writing, you don't have to solve problems of plot, character development, etc., but at the level of individual sentences it's often a creative act. Depending very much on what sort of material you're given, however. It's good for me because I actually always wanted to be a writer, but for the life of me I just can't make a plot work. Also I like it because I don't have to leave the house, like, ever.
posted by creasy boy at 8:02 AM on March 14, 2009

"No one really likes their job... it's just something everyone has to do. After all, work is work."

That's sad. He must have never heard the story of the three stonecutters (here, about halfway down) A traveler in the Middle Ages encounters three stonecutters. He asks the first man what he's doing. He sighs and says, "I cut rocks into blocks. I've done it all my life, and I'll do it until I die." He then asks the second stonecutter what he's doing. The second stonecutter says, "I'm earning a living for my family. With my wages I have built a home, put food on our table and wood in our fire, and our children are happy and healthy." Finally he asks the third stonecutter the same question. The third stonecutter says, "I am building a great cathedral, which will give people strength and guidance for a thousand years!"

I have had lots of jobs over the years, and I'm on my second career. There has been something meaningful in everything I've done. As an editor, I worked on social science research that I found meaningful ... when my company was bought by Lockheed, I moved on because that work (although the same "job") would not have been meaningful to me. As a tutor, I made decent pocket change tutoring suburban high-school kids in honors English ... then I worked as a volunteer literacy tutor for people in jail. Same work, but very different in terms of their value to me. Even way back in the day when I was a retail cashier, every transaction was an opportunity to smile and wish someone well. (Not that I always smiled or wished people well, believe me, but the opportunity was there every day.)

Anything you do can be drudgery and "just a job" and anything you do can be meaningful and fulfilling. It's up to you. If you go with your interests and strengths, add a bit of principle and passion for what you believe in, and you've got it made.
posted by headnsouth at 8:10 AM on March 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

then you've got it made.
posted by headnsouth at 8:13 AM on March 14, 2009

Finding Your Perfect Work is a great book about this very subject.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:53 AM on March 14, 2009

International public health (or even national public health) might be interesting to you. Check out the Gates Foundation for an idea of what that might mean.
posted by barnone at 9:33 AM on March 14, 2009

I really like my job. I'm in charge of the promotions at a blood bank. Obviously, part of it is working at a non-profit and knowing that by doing my job well, I'm encouraging people to give blood which helps save lives. But I think the other part is doing something that I'm good at, but not a lot of people are.

Creating and designing promotions and ordering merchandise isn't exactly rocket science, but if you've ever seen, say, really crappy band tshirts or been given junky, lame freebees, you'll know that it's an easy thing to screw up. I also have a decent sense of design and am proud of some of the marketing materials that I've designed. And I feel a great sense of accomplishment when an item is really popular and just looks fantastic (Blood Center pint glasses, anyone?).

So find something that you're good at, and you'll enjoy it.
posted by radioamy at 9:44 AM on March 14, 2009

"No one really likes their job... it's just something everyone has to do. After all, work is work."

Totally bogus.

I love my job now--I work in the publisher's office for a major US trade publisher. I find it fascinating and rewarding, even though my particular lowly rung on the totem pole involves making lots of copies and scheduling phone calls and meetings.

I enjoyed my previous job as well, working in a radio marketing company. It wasn't until some staff changes happened that made me question the integrity of the people I was working with that I questioned whether I could continue doing that indefinitely.

I've enjoyed some aspect of every job I've ever had, I think. I liked working at Taco Bell, McDonalds and even in a carpet sample factory simply because the challenge of solving problems and accomplishing something are valuable rewards for me. The work can be mind-numbingly boring, but I still find it better than not doing anything at all.

I can also imagine myself finding satisfaction in lots of other careers, partly because I can't really define myself by my job, and therefore I can find a lot of life satisfaction in the things I fill my life with that are outside of work.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:01 AM on March 14, 2009

I love my job, too. It's demanding, high-pressure, and very stressful with unworkable deadlines that have to be met anyway. I generally work 10 hour days, of which only 7.5 hours are paid. I don't like those parts.

But the job uses the skills I have and sometimes makes me stretch. I have the opportunity to lead and make real changes, my colleagues are all dedicated, and I also deal one-on-one with our clients making a real difference in their lives, too. Just yesterday one of them told me that a number of them of them have said they wouldn't have been succssful in our program without my efforts on their behalf.

And last, but certainly not least, I'm paid well. I earn about double the average salary in my province.

So what I take home at the end of an exhausting day is:
-- work I believe to be meaningful (i.e., congruent with my values)
-- work that uses and expands the skills I have
-- opportunity to lead and improve
-- dedicated colleagues whose values match my own
-- real, deep connections with clients
-- remuneration well above average

Hope this helps.
posted by angiep at 10:33 AM on March 14, 2009

Best answer: I hated every job I had until my current one. Even if I was very good at doing the job (programming / business analysis) - and I know in my heart I was a damn good programmer - I hated it because of poor work environments, lack of meaning and many other reasons.

After a several year break of being a stay-at-home dad, I ended up (after a stint of volunteering) with a small part-time job at a non-profit fair trade retail store. I'm now - 6 years later - the full-time manager of two stores, and love it. Knowing that every item sold makes a difference to somebody in a developing country keeps the job worthwhile, even on the days when I have to deal with particularly stupid customers / haul the garbage out in the pouring rain / whatever.

I get to do financial management AND creative stuff - web site / flyers / posters / event planning. It's a real mix of responsibilities, which keeps it interesting.

Working with volunteers is great - the vast majority of them are totally committed to our mission and make life very easy. The seasonal aspect is good - it can be a bit slow from April to September, but the Christmas season is insanely busy, in a good way! I've always been very shy / introverted, but can now enjoy working with peopel and doing public speaking in support of our work, because I'm passionate about it.

All of the above would likely suck (for me, not necessarily for other people) if I worked at a regular retail store.

My advice? Perhaps experiment with volunteering with different organisations - see what groups really fit well with your values and personality. Figure out what employment opportunities there are and don't be hesitant about making it known that you'd be interested whenever a position came available.
posted by valleys at 11:30 AM on March 14, 2009

Any job can be fulfilling. Many of us have seen happy janitors and happy bus drivers.

Take a personality test / MBTI assessment and go from there.
posted by querty at 12:31 PM on March 14, 2009

I think you should make the distinction between enjoying your job and being fulfilled by your job. The two are not always mutually inclusive.

Case in point: I love my job and the people I work with (software testing for a video games company). It is not very fulfilling and not of great significance on any large scale. My girlfiend works as a nurse and though her job is emotionally (and physically) draining and not always fun, it is a very fulfilling job. No matter how bad it gets she knows that the work she does is important and makes a significant difference in people's lives on a daily basis. Though a rare occurence, when I have a bad day I find myself questioning my career choice.

Good luck with your new career, whatever it ends up being.
posted by slimepuppy at 1:13 PM on March 14, 2009

Best answer: Park Ranger. Many people work as such for the whole of their careers, then retire and continue working. It becomes its own self-contained world--a system of national parks and monuments, which are connected across the nation by the people who work for and in them, and their shared culture. It is meaningful, fulfilling on an immediate basis (helping a grateful visitor), and on a long-term scale (in decades-long revegetation, repopulation, conservation and policy efforts.) And, as my friend said, you work in the places where other people vacation.

Your training materials will tell you that you are expected to continually learn and add to your knowledge of the place where you work--and even come to love it.
posted by Tufa at 2:34 PM on March 14, 2009

I've read and thought a lot about this subject. I'd say that a fulfilling job is one where you can 1) exert your talents, 2) in fields you find interesting, 3) for values (both personal and social) you find worthwhile.

The best book on the subject is The Pathfinder, by Nicholas Lore. He makes the point that of the above priorities, the first -- finding work that exploits your natural strengths -- is the most important to a feeling of fulfillment. It naturally leads you to excel, and that achievement automatically leads you to the other two criteria.

Research is critical. Try going to a bookstore and browsing magazines and just seeing what catches your interest the most. These could be potential leads.
posted by shivohum at 2:50 PM on March 14, 2009

I'm a job changer. I've been an artist, a gallery manager, an office drone, a fundraising professional (still do that one) and a figure skating teacher (also currently). I have found all of them except office drone fulfilling and I've enjoyed every one of them. I have also hated some bosses, hated some customers, hated some colleagues, and hated some of the things you have to do at every single one of them. You can't get away from that. There's no such thing as an endeavor (ANY endeavor, let alone a job) that is 100% fulfilling and 100% enjoyable 100% of the time.

It sounds like you already have a fulfilling job, but the requisite bullshit is burning you out. Don't dismiss teaching as a way to find fulfillment, but maybe find a job that's more of a place holder (office drone, anyone?) and find the fulfillment, for now at least, volunteering your teaching and science skills somewhere. Get past the burnout, take a breather to look around, and then go back to your first loves of teaching and science.

There is nothing worse than having a job with such potential, but where the stress from a dysfunctional work environment robs it of joy. Find a way to get rid of the dysfunction while still meeting your needs (I know that's not the practical advice you were looking for, but I hope it helps anyway.)
posted by nax at 5:05 PM on March 14, 2009

Best answer: I've just quit a job I loved as a newspaper reporter. I mean *loved*. I worked on weekends and holidays and at night and early in the morning for not a lot of money because my job was just so much freakin' fun. It offered constant variety, excitement, and unpredictability. I had the opportunity to create stories and entertain an audience every day with words and photos. I had a ringside seat at all kinds of events and situations I would never have had access to other wise: birth, death, fire, flood, and every human drama between. And on the ''make a difference'' side of things, the opportunity to hold people who run the public sphere accountable. It was freakin' fantastic. I don't know how I will ever find something I enjoy that much again. (I quit due to illness, not because of the job).
posted by t0astie at 12:26 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

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