Career Development for Meaningful Life Work. ERIC
by Imel, Susan
This above all, to thine own self be true. (Shakespeare)
I think there is a "sweet spot" that each of us has...It's the kind
of work we want to perform, the kind of work that makes us proud. But finding
that sweet spot requires deep self-knowledge. You start by looking at the
work you are drawn to. You try it, you evaluate the experience, and you
evolve as you discover more about it. I think of this process as developmental
self-interrogation. You're working on a mental model of yourself--always.
(Larry Smith, quoted in Warshaw 1998)
The attacks of September 11, 2001 prompted many people to ask "What
am I doing with my life?" (Cannon 2002, p. 44) and "Am I really living
the way that I want to live?" (Boyatzis, McKee, and Goleman 2002, p. 87).
Some individuals have responded by changing to careers that have more meaning
for them; for example, one woman left a secure job in manufacturing to
help homeless women in the Chicago area (Cannon 2002). Although the traumatic
and shocking events of that day caused many individuals to stop and take
stock of their careers, others have been quietly seeking more satisfying
and meaningful work lives for a number of years. An article titled, "Boomers
Trade Security for Freedom," published in the ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH on
March 19, 2001, for example, began with the statement "many baby boomers,
unfulfilled by corporate jobs at which they've worked for years, are deciding
to give up the great pay and benefits to do what they want to do" (Hudson
2001, p. 8). These examples support emerging perspectives that view work
as an expression of meaning. Many individuals are no longer satisfied with
working for a living but instead want to work at living (Boyatzis, McKee,
and Goleman 2002). Career development theory and practices that foster
the development of meaning in work are reviewed in this Digest.
THE WORK-MEANING CONNECTION
Several years ago, a Wall Street Journal/ABC News poll reported that
nearly 50% of all those working in the United States would choose a new
type of work if they had the chance (Warshaw 1998). Why do so many people
feel dissatisfied with their work? The answer is complex and multifaceted.
We live in an age where work has become "more personal than ever--when
who you are is what you do--a deeper source of personal satisfaction than
ever" (ibid., online, n.p.). Many are reexamining their careers in light
of the growing realization that work should be more than a job. Instead
of listening to internal signals, many individuals make choices about work
and careers on the basis of external criteria such as income potential,
status, and the opinions of others. Although they may achieve success in
these careers, they may be unhappy and dissatisfied because their work
is not aligned with who they are--their "core self" (Clark 1999-2000).
Others may select careers based on their aptitudes-things they are good
at doing--but just like external criteria these aptitudes may not reflect
their "deep interests," that is, the things that really make them happy
According to Timothy Butler and James Waldroop, examining the terminology
used to describe work can help unravel some of the questions about choosing
work that is meaningful. Although the term "career" is used most frequently,
the term "vocation" is more profound because it has to do with doing work
that makes a difference and that has meaning. The Latin word vocare, which
means "to call," is the root of the word vocation. A vocation is a calling
that one has to listen for. It is not immediately recognizable and one
has to be attuned to the message for it to be heard (Webber 1998). Finding
meaningful work, therefore, involves listening for those internal signals
that signify "deep interests" and then allowing the interests to lead to
work that is aligned with a "core self."
JOB SATISFACTION AND CAREER HAPPINESS
Traditional vocational or career guidance grew out of the needs of the
modern industrial era and focused on measuring individual differences or
traits and then using this information to match people to occupations.
Part of this tradition was measuring job satisfaction through a positive
evaluation of individuals' attitudes toward their jobs. Career satisfaction
measures concentrated on correlating external job factors with global measures
of satisfaction (Henderson 1999-2000; Savickas 2000). Job satisfaction
also depended on an individual's ability to recognize and follow his or
her interests (Henderson 2000). According to Henderson (1999-2000), when
"the popular literature began suggesting deeper meaning in work...these
traditional studies and assessment techniques began to have an empty ring"
for both individuals and career development professionals (p. 6).
In response to the need to address the evolving concept of meaningful
work, a new construct known as career happiness has emerged (Henderson
1999-2000, 2000). As defined by Henderson (ibid.) and a number of colleagues
(see the Winter 1999-2000 issue of CAREER PLANNING AND ADULT DEVELOPMENT
JOURNAL), career happiness results when individuals find or develop careers
that allow them to express their core identities and values, that tap into
their true essence. According to Henderson (1999-2000), "Career happiness
appears to have emerged more from philosophy, mythology, and psychology,
than from the existing job satisfaction literature" (p. 6). Theories underlying
the construct include the following (adapted from Henderson 1999-2000,
* Concept of true self and its potential (Maslow and Kiekergaard)
* Concepts of innate self and potentiality related to processes for
psychological healing (Jung and Carl Rogers)
* Mythological processes for self-discovery and self-expression in career
and life stage development that honor life journeys of profound purpose
and meaning (Joseph Campbell)
* Concept of serendipity that enable individuals to take advantage of
unexpected or chance events (Bandura)
* Optimal experience as critical determinants of personal happiness
Career happiness is connected to human development and is influenced
by developmental processes (Harris 1999-2000). Career happiness may result
"when career activities, challenges, and environments support, gently challenge,
and resonate with fundamental developmental tasks," but as an individual
grows and changes, activities that once resulted in career happiness may
not continue to be meaningful (ibid., p. 28).
A study (Henderson 2000) of eight people who experienced career happiness
revealed that the participants had the following personality traits: a
positive sense of self, self-determination, energy, strength of character,
positive and productive relationships with others, and a positive relationship
to the world. Work environments contributed to their career happiness by
providing freedom and autonomy, challenges, a positive social atmosphere,
and the opportunity to make personally meaningful contributions.
DEVELOPMENTS IN CAREER DEVELOPMENT THEORY
A number of recent developments in career development theory support
the concept of meaningful work:
* Constructivism. The search for meaningful work is connected to constructivism
with its emphasis on deriving meaning from experience. As a part of their
career development, individuals can construct careers that are personally
meaningful and self-managed. To have meaningful careers, individuals will
need to reflect on their experiences and make the changes necessary to
keep their careers aligned with their values and interests (Patton 2000;
* Career adaptability. Career adaptability emphasizes making career
changes without great difficulty to fit new or changing circumstances.
It involves both an ability to cope with the predictable tasks of career
development such as preparing for and finding a job as well as a future
orientation that allows individuals to improve the match between their
internal job description and the external world on a continuing basis (Plimmer
et al. 1999-2000; Savickas 1997). It "involves planful attitudes, self-
and environmental exploration, and informed decision making," (Savickas
1997, p. 254).
* Planned happenstance. Planned happenstance is a theory that helps
individuals develop skills to recognize, create, and use chance in career
development. Closely related to both constructivist notions of career development
and career adaptability, it requires individuals to exercise curiosity
to explore new learning opportunities, to persist despite setbacks, to
meet changing attitudes and circumstances with flexibility, to optimistically
view new opportunities as possible and attainable, and to take risks by
being proactive in the face of uncertain outcomes (Mitchell, Levin, and
* Connecting spirit and work. The idea that work has a dimension that
is spiritual or carries with it a sense of harmony is connected to meaningful
work (Bloch 1999-2000). When individuals connect what they really like
to do with what they do for pay and when they are absorbed in that work,
they have achieved a connection between their spirit and their work. Career
development plays a role in this process by helping individuals discover
their needs, interests, and values and understand the nature of work and
occupations, and then by assisting in bringing the two areas together.
Meaning lies in how the two areas are merged. (Bloch 1997). Bloch (1997)
suggests the practice of intentionality--a process of using the mind to
influence events outside one's self--as a way of creating career changes
that will lead to more meaningful work.
Achieving meaningful life work is a process that involves aligning one's
work with one's true essence or core self. It is an ongoing process that
involves self-reflection to discover the deep passions within and then
exploring how to bring those passions or interests to bear in meaningful
ways in work (Clark 1999-2000). Career development theories such as constructivism,
adaptability, and planned happenstance support the development of careers
that are purposeful and meaningful. As described in the literature reviewed
for this Digest, career development for meaningful life work has a middle-class
orientation. The concepts discussed do not address gender, class, or race,
and they are also reflect Western culture in their emphasis on the individual.
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