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3 Key Elements of a Happy Career

A sign that says 'New Job' pointing to the right.

Does this sound familiar? You’re pretty unhappy at your current job, and you can easily list off all of the things you don’t want in your next job. But you can’t yet articulate what you do want. You’re looking for a moment of magic—a bit of inspiration that will help you clarify exactly what will make you happy in your career.

It’s a trap! The classic trap of searching for one true passion.

Last year we interviewed Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love” about why it’s a mistake to pursue a passion-driven career.

Cal has argued that the common refrain to “follow your passion” is based on a myth. Instead, he believes the best strategy for career happiness is to head in a direction you find interesting, master rare and valuable skills through deliberate practice, and be aware of the opportunities that match your skillset.

We recently caught up with him to discuss what to do when you realize your current job isn’t cutting it for you, and you’re ready to make a change.

Cal suggests evaluating any potential new career on three factors: value alignment, opportunities for autonomy, and whether you like the people.

  1. Does the field interest you and align with your values? Are you drawn to the organization’s mission and work? Would you make a donation or recommend that a friend volunteer with them?
  2. Will it provide increasing autonomy and options if and when you get really good? Does the role itself allow for professional growth and learning? Does the organization support its staff members’ efforts to grow their professional network by funding travel and learning opportunities?
  3. Do you like the people? Can you imagine spending a third of your waking hours with them? Do they get your jokes?

If you find something that scores high along all three axes, then this might be the right career for you.

But what if multiple careers fit the bill?

Cal suggests flipping a coin. In his words, “The key observation here is that the choice of what you do is not nearly important as we think. It's how you approach the work that matters. After choosing a direction using this simple framework, the hard work begins. You must systematically make yourself, in the (paraphrased) words of Steve Martin, so good you can't be ignored. It's at this point that things start to get interesting.”

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by Hannah Kane

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