Are You Searching for the Wrong Things? Research Shows What Actually Matters in a Career

Alex Howe

Right now, there are 16 million unemployed Americans looking for a job. Many more are employed but still chasing the elusive goal of “meaningful work.”

Seventy percent of millennials are disengaged at work and, according to a 2016 Deloitte survey, 44% want to leave their job within the next two years. And they probably will: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American has seven jobs before turning 29.

Where are we going wrong?

Millennials seek meaningful work, but sometimes our strategies are misinformed. What millennials think and say we want in surveys often differs from what we actually find fulfilling long-term.

Below are three such discrepancies:

1. We want to keep our options open. But we need commitment.

Liberal arts educations advocate well-roundedness. But, in today’s knowledge- and service- based economy, it’s deadly. While broad, generalized abilities sink in the job market, advanced skills—particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—are more needed than ever. In fact, graduates of short professional certificate programs feel more prepared for the real world than college students, according to a recent report by Pew Research Center.

Employers reward expertise and commitment. In fact, each additional year we stay with an employer corresponds with increased income, better retirement benefits, more specialized skills and better reputation.

Commitment is intrinsically rewarding, too. Autonomy and self-efficacy (which is linked to self-esteem) fuel purpose. One study even found that professional commitment has a buffering effect on the development of illness.

Here’s how one person explained commitment in a kununu review:

“I am a professional and I love my profession. Even with all the negativity, I accomplish my task to the best levels. I feel that you need to stay focus[ed] and continue your great work ethic so you carry it over to the next company that will appreciate you.”

By contrast, not having a defined work identity can be frustrating and unfulfilling. One reviewer lamented, “No one gets to establish any sense of their own area of responsibility.

When we close doors, commit to developing our skills and find companies that value them, the payoff is unparalleled.

2. We want cool co-workers. But we need great mentors.

Teamwork is undoubtedly important. But cool coworkers pale in comparison to strategic guidance.

Sometimes buddy-buddy relationships can even impede important training. One kununu review complained, “Manager tried to act as a friend and not as a leader.” On the other end, leaders can sometimes act as “cops, not coaches,” as one employee put it.

Seek organizations that prioritize learning over friendship or punishment. University of Texas psychology professor Art Markman explained, “The most successful organizations are ones that promote learning throughout a career.” Examples from kununu reviews include “monthly refresher quizzes,” “regular reviews and coaching” and “comprehensive training programs.” We need managers to be, as one reviewer concluded, “concerned about employee job satisfaction and career development.”

Training increases employee commitment, job satisfaction and intention to stay with an employer. It is, therefore, one of the most important facets of meaningful work. Determine what skills you need to achieve your professional goals. Then target companies and mentors who offer them.

3. We want to have fun at work. But we need to be challenged.

Millennials understandably want to enjoy work. But, for fulfillment, we need challenge. Job perks have almost no bearing on employee retention. Challenge, on the other hand, makes employees less likely to leave.

According to positive psychologist Roy Baumeister, people find meaning by “pursuing projects that are difficult and uncertain.” Perhaps this is why challenging work is one the most important qualities in a job according to thousands of kununu reviews.

One adequately challenged employee said she could “do the same work for 15 years straight.” Challenge isn’t just a plus; for many, it’s the very thing that makes work worthwhile—or bearable. One reviewer quipped, “If you create your own challenges, the job is tolerable.”

These reviews underscore research suggesting that hard work is both necessary and enjoyable. People report the greatest enjoyment not when they’re passive, like watching TV, but when they’re absorbed in a “mindful challenge.”

Seeking pleasure, in contrast, is usually counter-productive. One study found that students who set goals based on anticipated pleasure performed worse. Another showed that participants who prioritized hedonic enjoyment—the pursuit of near-term goals and immediate pleasure—when setting academic goals did inferior work compared to those who displayed eudaimonia—a long-term commitment to “self-realization.”

The fun of a job wears off with everyday life. Investment in and commitment to our work, on the other hand, yields profound enjoyment over time.

Perhaps the distinguisher between what we say we want and what we ultimately find fulfilling is long-term perspective. At the outset, commitment seems boring in comparison to adventure and experimentation. Challenge feels insurmountable, while fun feels irresistible. Cool coworkers brighten up our day, while mentors and training burden us with responsibility.

Ultimately, however, guidance, stability and challenge light the way for a fulfilling future career.

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.