What Makes a Meaningful Career? 8 Signs That Have Nothing To Do With Money or Status

We’re living in a unique time in history when it comes to careers.

With innovation and technology, entire industries are both appearing and disappearing.

Thanks to the global pandemic, many of us discovered that remote work was not only possible but often preferred.

And in this interconnected, digital world, many professionals are reevaluating their career priorities.

While some feel optimistic about work, others feel trapped in their roles.

Here’s the truth: With the average person spending a third of their life at work, taking the time to reflect is worthwhile.

So, how do folks build meaningful careers that are more than just a means to making money?

Let’s dive into some non-monetary signs that you’re on the right path and look at how to keep improving your career over time.


People with meaningful careers work hard to become great

In his book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” the author Cal Newport argues that finding a job that makes you feel passionate is the wrong way to go about finding your passion. Instead, get good at a skill first and watch the passion come second.

Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

As you move forward in your career, focus on building “career capital.”

Career capital comes from developing rare skill sets and gaining competence in these skills. If you’re one of the few people who can do a certain skill really well, you’ll gain more freedom, autonomy, and income as a byproduct.

But the income itself isn’t the point.

Getting good at something is the reward. The pride and sense of meaning you’ll gain are invaluable.

Embracing this mindset leads to many benefits, which brings me to my next point…


Money matters but not as much as you think

Money doesn’t buy happiness. Studies have shown that happiness actually levels off at about $75,000 a year. But there are certain factors that increase our sense of well-being and job satisfaction.

When you feel great about your work and you’re satisfied with what you do for a living, you’re more motivated to keep getting better. This is great for companies, too, because having motivated employees helps foster great company culture, retains employees longer, and ultimately leads to better products and services.

So how do you motivate your employees? How can employees get a sense of meaning from their work? A pulse survey is a great way to show your team how much they matter in the company. Tools like this allow you to spot issues, avoid burnout, and give your people a voice. Both parties can work together to create a work environment that drives success.

Daniel Pink discusses this sense of motivation in his book, “Drive”:

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

If you’re an employee, you can “manage up” and discuss ways that you can have more freedom in your role. If the company culture isn’t a good fit long-term, you can make a switch to a company that prioritizes autonomy. For the ultimate sense of autonomy, you can start your own business.


With a fulfilling career, you’re excited to show up for work

At the end of the day, the emotions you feel about your work matter. Your relationship with your work has a cascading effect on the other areas of your life.

Excitement and satisfaction with your work can lead to the inspiration that drives you to adopt a bunch of other positive habits. On the flip side, people who find their work draining can adopt negative habits to cope with their dissatisfaction.

You want to have the same feeling as Warren Buffet, who says he “tap dances to work” every single day.  Even if you don’t have a career you love right now, there are steps you can take to create excitement for your current work and build a bridge to better work in the future.

  • Look at every job as a chance to build valuable skills you can use in the future
  • Find a sense of pride in staying positive and working hard regardless of your role
  • Understand that your attitude carries over to your future


People who succeed in their careers never stop learning

You want to evolve as your industry involves. Learning a lot about many different subjects gives you a mental edge within your professional space.

Charlie Munger, successful investor and partner to Warren Buffet, talks about this:

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models.

When you learn and adopt different mental models, you can make smarter decisions because you have access to insights people who only study their own industry don’t. This gives you an edge when it comes to dealing with competition, whether you own your own business or you’re trying to compete for better jobs.

There are countless tools and online programs that can help you advance your career and stretch your business skills. From books to free content online, paid online courses, coaching, and more, you can learn a ton of different skills to create your own tailor-made career.


Your work environment makes you feel good

Your career can provide a great sense of excitement and joy. It can also become a major source of stress. This is where your work environment comes in. No career is perfect, but you want to put yourself in an environment that has a net positive effect.

Many factors can influence your environment:

  • Company culture
  • Relationships with co-workers, management, and leadership
  • The location of your job (see the explosion of remote work as a case study)
  • The nature of your work or profession
  • The choice between whether to work for a company or work for yourself

The list goes on, but the point is that your environment has a major impact on your life as a whole—not just your career. Treat it with the respect and care that it deserves.


You define your own success and build a career that suits you

Daniel Pink career definition with a photo of an artist in the background:

Speaking of the word career, there are a ton of different ways to define the word.

You can be an employee at a company. You can own a business. Or you can do both at the same time. In fact, one of the best ways to build a business is to do it on the side while you’re working at a 9 to 5 job.

You can work in a variety of different ways from doing one-off freelance projects, contracting with companies for periods of time, selling products, creating content, and more.

You don’t have to be tied down to one way of making a living and one path to reaching your career goals.

Angel investor Naval Ravikant had this to say:

The internet has massively broadened the possible space of careers.

With the power of the internet and the ability to not only learn new skills quickly but connect with others who value those skills, you can create a career path that has never existed out of thin air.

You can choose the projects you want to work on. Because you’ve developed an array of skills and have mental models under your belt, your leverage and flexibility continue to increase.

Most important, you get to live and work on your terms.


You build a lifestyle that isn’t all about work

So many people end up spending nearly all of their time working with little left over to enjoy themselves. With a commute back and forth to work, getting ready, and working an eight-hour day, you’re looking at up to 10 hours focused on work.

Some people have jobs so demanding that they take their work home with them. Others are stuck in roles they don’t enjoy and must work massive hours to make ends meet.

So what’s the solution?

This comes back to the breakdown above: Build rare skills. Develop competency. Tailor your career. Become a learning machine.

When you combine these elements, your career fulfillment doesn’t come at the cost of everything else. You do what you love and you enjoy your life.

@workingstudentlife rest is productive 🫶🏼 #selfcare #selfimprovementjourney #hustleculture #restandrecovery ♬ original sound – hi

The more control you have over your career, the less you have to work. You can love work and want to work, but having an overly demanding career where you feel like you’re forced to work won’t make you happy even if you make a lot of money.

Work is an important part of life, but if you focus on it too much you’ll miss out on the many simple pleasures life provides.


Want to do something meaningful? Making an impact is key

You want to feel like the work you do matters.

You want to serve a purpose bigger than yourself. And you want to avoid wasting your life away doing unimportant work.

“Important” can be defined in a number of different ways that have nothing to do with how much money you make. Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the job or career itself but your interpretation of what you’re doing.

For example, in the book “The 10x Rule,” author Grant Cardone talks about a job he had at McDonald’s in his early twenties.

In his eyes, he was just flipping burgers to make a quick buck. One of his co-workers, who was the same age, planned to own a McDonald’s franchise in the future. He wasn’t looking to make a quick buck, he was studying the business from the ground up.

His co-worker went on to own several McDonald’s franchises. For some, owning restaurants that serve low-quality food doesn’t feel like making an impact, but owning a business that employs people and helps young adults gain work experience could be seen that way. It’s all a matter of interpretation.

Your sense of purpose doesn’t have to come from pure ambition. Being a stay-at-home parent that brings in zero income can be a valuable and truly meaningful career.

It’s not always about what you do, but rather why you do it and how you do it.