Most people don’t know what exactly they want to do with their careers. Even among leaders at Harvard Business School, fewer than 20% report having a strong sense of their career purpose.
Yet the perspective I consistently hear from job seekers (and that I have been pressured to feel in my own career) is that we are all born with one innate career purpose. And that if we just look hard enough or in the right places, we will find it. And that once we find it, we will be happy in our careers for all eternity.
This is quite simply the worst career advice out there. It’s not reflected in the numbers. It’s certainly not empowering to the 80% of us who don’t have that one career goal in mind. And most importantly, it’s not grounded in the reality that we are constantly changing people in a constantly changing world.
A metaphor I like to use for all the “innate purpose” and “follow your passion” advice is Michelangelo’s David. Michelangelo believed that “every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
While I appreciate that in some contexts those words might inspire, this type of advice usually has the opposite effect on today's professionals, especially job seekers.
Too often, I’ve seen people spin their wheels and stagnate in their careers, searching and waiting until they find that clear sense of purpose to ignite them. But our career purpose cannot be “found” anywhere, because it isn't some permanent, static, flawless object (with perfect abs!) like the David.
Our career purpose must be created instead, step by step.
A more fitting inspiration for our careers is Jackson Pollock. In the critic Harold Rosenberg's words, Pollock viewed the canvas not as "a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or 'express' an object... [but as] an arena in which to act."
Yes, he started with some idea of what he wanted his paintings to become and where he wanted them to go. But more importantly, he engaged in the active process of creating them step-by-step, splatter-by-splatter. He evolved as he painted. And with each stroke, he created more complex, whole, beautiful works of art.
Successful professionals take the same approach to their careers.
When they think about their career purpose, they think about the direction they want their careers to lead, and then they define the best next step to head in that direction today.
Only once we acknowledge that there is no one perfect, innate career purpose for us, can we start fearlessly taking steps in the right direction. In the process, we open ourselves to learn, and iterate, and create impact authentic to ourselves every step of the way.
So if you feel stuck in your career, remember first that you are not alone, and then stop trying to find your career David.
Instead, define the general direction you want your life’s work to head towards, what the best next step could be, and how you plan to achieve it. Resolve to stay open and keep listening for what the world needs and what you could do, or learn to do, to help.
In the process, you will develop a more complex, whole, beautiful career -- and life -- for yourself.