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USA Today Weekend Features Pathfinders
Design a Meaningful Career
Switching Jobs for Meaning, Not Money

Anthony Spadafore, a top career consultant in the Washington DC-area, coaches people to design, plan and launch exciting careers that have personal meaning.

By Tom McNichol

Greg ball has always loved the outdoors, but his career left him little time to enjoy it. That changed five years ago, when he quit his banking job to become executive director of the Washington Trails Association, a hiking advocacy group. Ball's $24,000 annual salary is considerably less than he used to make, but his wife also works and they have no kids to support.

Finding meaning in your current job

Not everyone is seeking a major change. "Some people can find meaning by doing some fine-tuning in their current job," says career consultant Anthony Spadafore of Pathfinders.  

Some ideas:

  • Before you make changes, pinpoint what really bothers you. Is it your boss? Your co-workers? The environment? Not using your inborn talents?

  • Before taking the leap to a new industry, make a smaller change right where you are to pave the way.

  • Find out if you can change your job or move within the company. Can you take on other, more meaningful duties? Can you move to a position more in line with your values?

  • Question what it means to be "successful." Many people are unfulfilled at work because they feel trapped by conventional notions of success. Is your idea of success making you miserable?

  • "You can transform a job just by your attitude," says Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute? "Sit down and ask yourself, 'What is my vision of life, and how can I make this job more in keeping with that vision?' "
    — T.M.
  • "I make about one-third the money I used to, but the work is three times more fun," Ball says. "I see people from the bank and they're envious."

    Ball is part of a growing trend in which workers are switching jobs not for money, but for meaning. Where once career counselors and job-hunting books focused on "building a better résumé" and "tapping the hidden job market," now the talk is more often about finding a job in line with one's values.

    "The goal of most people for the last half century was to get the good job that paid well with benefits," says Anthony Spadafore, director of Pathfinders in Alexandria, VA. "Today, many people are asking, 'How can I use my natural talents and also find personal meaning in what I do?' "

    "The No. 1 issue of people we see centers around values," says Betsy Collard, strategic development coordinator for Career Action Center in Cupertino, Calif., a counseling service. "People will say, 'I'm successful in the job I have now, but something's missing.' "

    Job experts point to a variety of factors:

  • Baby boomers, the largest segment of the work force, have hit middle age, traditionally a time to re-evaluate lives and work. And Generation X is just entering the job market, searching for more meaningful alternatives to career paths carved out by their boomer predecessors.

  • The traditional work compact, in which employees traded hard work and loyalty in exchange for job security, has been shattered. On average, American workers hunt for a new job eight times in their lives. In the absence of work they can rely on, more employees want work they can believe in.

  • A booming economy affords workers the luxury of searching for fulfilling work. During a recession, people are happy just to have a job.

    Some career experts have been talking for decades about the importance of finding spiritual fulfillment in work but are only now being heard. "I try to tell people there isn't a ghetto between spirituality and their job — there's an essential relationship between the two," says Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?, the world's best-selling job-hunting guide. The chapter that generates the most mail, he says, is "How to Find Your Mission in Life," which offers suggestions on how to marry one's beliefs and work.

    Helen Taft, 57, plans to leave her job at a direct marketing firm in Denver to launch Credentials Career Center, a resource for working women that will focus on values in the workplace.

    "I believe in this so passionately I'm willing to take the risk," Taft says. "At the end of the day, I want to take home something more than a paycheck."

    Many career counselors now spend as much time probing clients' beliefs as poring over their work histories. They conduct open-ended interviews to uncover what clients value most. Some ask job-seekers to rank a set of values in order of importance. Still, finding a career you value is one thing; getting paid well for it is another.

    "Baby boomers don't like to hear me say, 'You can't have everything,' " says Larry Gaffin, director of the Center for Life Decisions in Seattle. "But some are starting to understand having enough is more important than having it all."

    That's true for Tim Lantz, one of Anthony Spadafore's clients. See Pathfinders' client reviews. When Lantz, of Atlanta, landed an engineering job out of college, he had a rude awakening: "I found out I hated engineering."

    Now Lantz, 34, plans to start his own company, one that will produce decorative garden items. The new job will fulfill his goals: being his own boss, staying at home with his two kids, and tapping his artistic abilities. Says Lantz: "I'm making less money than I would as an engineer, but I really want a career that fulfills all my talents."

    Contributing Editor Tom McNichol.

    Copyright USA WEEKEND. All rights reserved and used with permission by Tom McNichol.

  • You can't find meaning. Meaning is something personal, you have to create it for yourself.

    ~Achilles Wes
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    ©2003 - 2014 Pathfinders. All rights reserved by Anthony Spadafore. Coauthor of Now What? A Young Person's Guide to Choosing the Perfect Career. Washington DC, Alexandria & Arlington VA, nationwide career change counseling, state-of-the-art aptitude test & personality test for professionals & students.