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The One Question to Answer When Choosing a Career

What’s the starting salary? Does this career have upward mobility?

These are common questions when choosing a career. But there’s one important question that often gets neglected:

Does this work give me energy?

This might seem like some vague, zen-like question, but it’s crucial nonetheless. Ideally, you’ll be in your career for the long haul, so you’ll need the mental endurance to reach your goals. Several prominent professionals advocate for the necessity of finding energizing work including Jerry Seinfeld (comedian), Daniel Ek (Spotify), and Jason Fried (Basecamp.)

In this post, we’ll address the importance of starting a career that gives you energy, how to find your niche, and how to prevent career burnout. By time you finish reading, you’re sure to see that purpose is more valuable than a paycheck early on.

The Pursuit of Purpose

Matt Hall walked into his boss’s office, stood in front of his desk, and and threw away what was supposed to be his ticket to wealth and success.

“This isn’t for me. I can’t find anybody here who cares about how to serve our clients. It feels like it’s always about the same thing: ‘How do we get paid?’”

He didn’t have the energy to be diplomatic. After a six grueling months at a greedy brokerage firm, Hall was one of five trainees that remained from an original group of fifteen.

“Matt,” the manager replied, “I really thought you were going to be the one who made it.”

“I’ll make it,” said Hall. “Just not here.”

He bolted out of the building with no plan and no connections, but he knew this was his chance at a fresh start.

Starting Fresh

Hall was obsessed with investing, especially the data and research aspects. But each day, he would look around the office and wonder: Can’t there be a way to use the markets to help people instead of just making a profit?

After a few months of hard-core networking, Matt was introduced to a gentleman who worked at a wealth management firm in St. Louis, ironically located across the street from the firm he’d stomped out of just weeks ago. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Hall immediately fell in love with the new firm’s investment philosophy, one that used data to achieve long-term success for clients instead of short-term wins for brokers. This new financial worldview excited him so much so that he and his coworker/mentor started their own wealth management firm.

Hall’s early twenties may have been a dumpster fire, but his newfound purpose was worth any hassles he had at the brokerage firm. In fact, he became so enthralled with his work that he wrote a book about it: Odds On: The Making of an Evidence-Based Investor.

“I like to think of things in this way,” says Hall. “Does the person, activity, or experience give me energy or zap my energy? I try to pursue people, relationships, and experiences that fill me up. Tend to this and the rest will fall into place.”

The Value of Energy

Does this career give me energy?

That’s typically not the first question you ask yourself when you’re trying to narrow down a career path — understandably so. Everyone’s asking about your post-grad plans, you’re in a hurry to start making money and you see your peers flaunting their early successes on Facebook. So we preoccupy ourselves with the salary, the benefits, the location and so on.

That’s not to say those things are unimportant. But unless that career excites you — unless the work gives you energy — none of the perks in the world can elevate you to your potential. Robert Greene, author of Mastery, points out that human beings excel the most when their work is aligned with a deep, emotional interest. But ignoring those interests can be a disastrous mistake.

“Once you choose a career that doesn’t suit you, your desire and interest slowly wane and your work suffers for it,” says Greene. “You come to see pleasure and fulfillment as something that comes from outside your work.

Steven Pressfield puts it bluntly in The War of Art: “Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on Earth, would I still do it?”

The Dangers of Draining Careers

An energy-draining career takes a physical and mental toll, and it’s not easy to hide. You’ve probably seen it yourself: the burned out executive, the irate doctor, the heartless attorney. From an outsider’s perspective, these people “made it”: graduate degrees, six-figure salaries, the corner office. But if we were to peer into their minds, we’d see that they couldn’t be further away from where they truly want to be.

Contrast these people with comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He got his start in the 80s doing stand-up gigs at dive bars that paid him the equivalent of a couple cheeseburgers. But it didn’t matter — telling jokes made him feel alive. When his back was against the wall, he had the endurance to keep hustling. Today, at 64 years old, he’s as prolific as he was in his twenties. How can this be when most people his age are cashing in? According to Seinfeld, it’s the energy his work gives him.

“When I think of the things that I love: more than money…more than just about anything, I love energy,” said Seinfeld on Bob Roth’s “Success Without Stress” radio show. “I think money’s great. But energy — physical and mental energy — to me is the greatest riches of human life.”

Tapping Into Energy

As children, we have primal inclinations — we’re drawn to activities that seize our attention and ignite our curiosity. We enjoy them not because the market demands them, but because we’re emotionally connected to them.

You can probably remember immersing yourself for days on end in a favorite childhood hobby: drawing, writing, acting, building, cooking. You didn’t have to force yourself to do that activity, nor did you need someone’s permission to enjoy it. In fact, your teacher probably had to drag you away because you were missing out on the day’s cookie-cutter lesson plan.

The first step towards starting a career that gives you energy is to reconnect with whatever that childhood inclination was. Set aside the term “job” and observe the patterns that have remained constant throughout your life. Here are some thought starters:

  • What do you think about in the shower?
  • What would you do for free?
  • What makes time stand still?

Whatever that is, start there — it’s your ticket to freedom. You may not land your dream job right away, but you need to at least get in the ballpark. Say you want to work in professional sports: instead of applying for jobs in the NFL or NBA, see if you can latch onto your high school athletic department. The barrier to entry is lower, and chances are you’ll get more hands-on experience as well.

The last thing you want to do is turn 180 degrees away from your wheelhouse: if you’re an artist, don’t go to law school because you heard lawyers make a lot of money. Seems like common sense, right? Unfortunately, those decisions happen more frequently than you’d expect.

Maintaining Energy

After selling a business and retiring to a life of partying, Daniel Ek, the co-founder and CEO of Spotify, noticed his life becoming more and more dull. After noticing how complacent he’d become, he came out of retirement and started the world’s most popular music streaming service. This time, however, Ek wanted to avoid stagnation, so he came up with a new strategy: a five-year expiration date. If, after five years, Spotify no longer energized him, he would abandon it and start something new.

“Five years is long enough for me to achieve something meaningful, but short enough so I can change my mind every few years,” Ek told The New Yorker.

Ek relies on two specific questions to guide his career path:

  1. Does what I’m doing still work?
  2. Do I still enjoy it?

If one of those answers is no, he reevaluates. It doesn’t matter if he’s cozy. He knows if he’s complacent, he won’t reach his potential. Ek’s five-year cycle gives him the clarity, purpose, and urgency needed to keep his mind sharp.

The Sustainable Plan for Career Satisfaction

When we see people slacking off at work, it’s easy to give them the label of lazy, washed up, or undisciplined. Things may appear this way at surface level, but the root cause of their disinterest isn’t usually a lack of work ethic or a demeaning boss. The problem is settling for work that doesn’t provide energy.

The people we admire, from Socrates to Einstein to Michael Jordan, didn’t just stumble into a career and hope for the best. They followed their inner voice — they pursued energy. You and I are no different in that we learn faster and achieve more when we’re emotionally invested in our work. When we strive towards something we actually care about, we find ourselves “in the flow”: that state of pure focus where your mind is completely absorbed in the work.

Granted, even if you end up with a picture-perfect career, not all your work is going to flow effortlessly from your fingertips. There will be projects you hate. There will be difficult people. There will be grunt work. That’s all part of the process. But at least you’ll have the energy to take them on. And that’s more valuable than any benefits package.

Image Credits: featured