Careers Jun 10, 2022
How to Craft a Fulfilling Career
Practical tips for aligning your values with your work.
The last few years have taken a toll on many people’s sense of self. The pandemic has ushered in new ways of working, a new understanding of our families’ health and safety, and often new priorities for what we want out of our professional and personal lives. This can leave us feeling both highly uncertain and hungry for change: we realize we want something different, even if we can’t put our finger on exactly what.
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Carter Cast, a clinical professor of entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and author of The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made and Unmade, describes the disconnect between our stated values and our actual behaviors as an “integrity gap.”
These gaps often emerge gradually, when we find ourselves making incremental values trade-offs that begin to erode our sense of personal integrity.
For example, an MBA graduate may take a role that requires a heavy workload and plenty of work travel, vowing not to lose touch with good friends and committing to stay only as long as it takes to acquire specific job skills. They realize that the rigors of the job may threaten to affect their relationships and hobbies. Yet, they are willing to accept this grueling situation, knowing it is for a limited time.
Until it isn’t. The money is nice, and two years becomes three, then four, then five. Soon enough, their personal life does not remotely reflect their intentions.
Avoiding an integrity gap can be achieved through reflection and consistent recalibration, says Cast. Below, he shares tools to keep your values and actions more closely aligned.
Commit to Regular Self-Audits
Understanding both your values—those things important enough to you that you don’t want them to be part of any trade-offs—and your motives—those things that give you energy and fulfill you—is critical to making better career decisions. Gaining that understanding takes a bit of self-reflection.
“Check in with yourself on a regular basis,” Cast says, “about what motivates you and what you consider to be most important in your life. If you do that, you’ll be less likely to find yourself in a job that no longer aligns with your values.”
Maybe you’ve stayed too long in a job where you work every weekend, or no longer feel you are progressing or being challenged. Maybe you just want more time with people you love. Recognizing that can be tough, especially for high-achieving people.
“For a number of years, I was not very self-reflective,” Cast says. “I just put my head down and worked. But in my early forties, I realized that I had an empty personal life. I was lonely and realized that progressing in my career wasn’t enough. I needed to recalibrate and create the context for a richer, more balanced life.”
Eventually, Cast realized the importance of having a keen sense of what motivated and energized him. This knowledge helped him identify jobs congruent with those motivations.
“I asked myself: How can I get paid to do what I love? That question fueled my self-exploration,” Cast says. “I began to listen to my inner self and started making changes in my life to follow it. That meant realizing I loved teaching and counseling people. From there, it dawned on me that I really wanted to be a teacher, not a c-suite executive.”
Cast suggests conducting a two-part audit. First, create an activity-by-activity list of how you spend your time, drawing from the past month of activities in your calendar. Then, label each activity by whether you consider it an “energy creator,” “neutral,” or an “energy reducer.” Cast color-codes his audit—red for energy reducers, yellow for neutral activities, and green for energy creators.
At the end of the month, pull out the audit and look for trends. Do certain activities give you energy? If so, how can you create a work environment where you do more of that? Do certain activities demotivate you? Can you take them off your plate?
“I was 38 years old and I felt stuck, and I did this very exercise at a Comfort Inn Suites in Colorado one night,” Cast says. “I actually pulled out my resume to refresh my memory and started listing all the activities I’d done in different assignments. I had a list of about 50 work activities.”
When Cast assessed his audit, he saw that many of the tasks that motivated and inspired him were not part of his current job. He took that as a sign and left that job within a couple of months.
“I realized that it wasn’t just about progressing in my career,” Cast says. “It was about finding ‘good work’ that was a heartfelt expression of myself, work that energized me and had meaning both to me and to those with whom I interacted.”
Armed with the result from your time and energy audit, you can begin reconfiguring your overall calendar to draw closer to the activities that energize you, while articulating where your limits are.
For example, if your job demands long hours which negatively impact your family, set defined boundaries to make the work more tolerable. This might mean eating dinner with your family a certain number of nights a week or capping the number of late-night calls you are willing to take.
“Most integrity gaps emerge when we ignore—or never set—our non-negotiables,” Cast says. “It’s up to you to know where that line is. What are your non-negotiables? That’s something to think about before you dive into a new job.”
“It’s up to you to know where that line is. What are your non-negotiables? That’s something to think about before you dive into a new job.”
— Carter Cast
Every decision you make about how you spend your time is a trade-off. Should you meet with a salesperson who believes there’s a solution for your company or should you see your daughter’s soccer game? Should you be out in the market talking to customers or in your office, spending uninterrupted time focusing on strategy? Should you take a red-eye flight to arrive at a client’s site early or work out and get a good night’s sleep?
“Don’t abdicate that decision to somebody else, including your boss,” Cast says. “Just because you can make something fit into your calendar doesn’t mean you should make it fit.”
Create Little Tests to Help Navigate into the Future
One of the reasons it can be so challenging to address a misalignment between what you want to do and what you’re doing is that a new, desired position often requires new skills that will take time to develop.
“It’s not like you flick a switch and all of a sudden you’re prepared to do something different,” Cast says. “You have to seed new opportunities and develop the requisite skills.”
To help bridge this gap, Cast recommends two practical activities.
First, conduct a skill-gap analysis where you list the key skills needed for your dream job and then grade yourself in each skill area to find where you are strongest—and where you may need additional training and development.
“In the 90s, I had a beat-up career notebook,” Cast says. “In it, I had a section for each of the skills I needed to build to reach the goal of becoming a chief marketing officer.”
Cast developed this list—which he honed to six key skills and competencies—by talking to senior marketing executives at his firm, including Frito Lay’s CMO. Then he created an action plan to try to bridge the various skill gaps.
For example, under “trade marketing and account selling,” Cast graded himself an “F.” His action plan included shadowing several strong selling managers to learn the key elements of their job. When the opportunity arose, he rotated out into the field to do trade marketing in the west division office at Frito Lay. The study and experience helped him close that particular skill gap.
“It didn’t happen overnight, but the approach worked,” Cast says. “Within eight years, I worked my way up the marketing ladder until I became a CMO.”
The second activity Cast recommends is taking what he calls “little bets.”
“In the lean startup method of entrepreneurship, you create hypotheses, develop prototypes, and test them,” Cast says. “You learn, then you iterate, over and over until you get it right.”
Cast recommends a similar approach to career development. In his case, he created and tested several hypotheses for a career future.
“I asked myself what I would like to do in five years. I came up with three or four ideas. Then I designed little tests to see if the shoe fit—to gauge whether each career path resonated with me,” Cast says.
If, for example, you think you may want to become a professor in the future, the “little bet” can include presenting in a class as a guest lecturer. If that goes well, try co-teaching a class with an experienced professor. That may give you a better feel for the job’s rigors. Still enthusiastic about teaching after that? You can set up a meeting with a dean to find out if a more enduring role with the school is available.
“I’ve rarely seen people know what they’re going to do in five years and then just do it. Instead, we learn and we adjust. I had no idea I was going to end up being a venture capitalist and a teacher. I thought I was going to take another CEO gig. But I stayed open-minded and curious and continued to adjust and test out ideas whenever and however I could, which led me down a very different path.”
Susan Margolin is a writer based in Boston.
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