Stop searching for the perfect job and start finding your life’s work

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Many of us have talked at length about the pursuit of a meaningful, rewarding career. We have lived through tyrannical bosses, mergers and acquisitions, exhausting work and travel schedules and various states of financial panic. We saw the job market explode and shrivel before we knew what to do about it, and comforted far too many friends and former colleagues who spent huge stretches of time out of work. Some of us were those people and wondered if we were destined to become the modern equivalent of dust-bowl farmers.
Just about every single client I have ever worked with has started their career quest by wondering what job would be of interest. The problem is, when you focus first on the perfect job, you automatically narrow your opportunities to jobs you are familiar with.
Jobs are temporary things, often enticing on paper until you realize that as soon as you get comfortable in your position, it will change, your boss will change, your team will change or your organization will change. That is just the nature of business. Therefore if you go into a job excited by the position or the person you will be working for and not the work itself, you often set yourself up to be disappointed.
Your life’s work on the other hand, are activities that you have natural talent for, which energize you and stimulate you and do not change no matter what "job" you happen to be in.

I found this for myself when I began to think about my own life’s work. I reflected back on all the things I have done in my career and I came to the realization that the core of my life’s work is about transformation:

  • As a young community development college student, I was passionate about the capability of communities to transform themselves from repressed and poor into empowered and economically viable with grassroots leadership.
  • As a martial art teacher, I continually was awed by students’ complete physical transformations from being disconnected from their bodies to developing lean, mean fighting machine physiques and strong, empowered minds.
  • As an organizational consultant, I love watching leaders, teams and organizations transform from bitter, blocked, political and unfocused operations to smoothly running places where people want to work.
  • As a personal coach, I am amazed to watch individuals completely transform their thinking about what their life could be.
  • As an addict of home improvement shows such as Trading Spaces and Clean Sweep, I get more excited than I should about watching a shabby 1970’s family room turn into a place of peace and beauty, all on $1,000 budget.

By realizing that I thrive on transformation, I can be in many different and difficult "job" situations (even while self-employed) and still feel excited and motivated to be learning something that contributes to my life’s work.

How do you begin to understand what your life’s work is?
  1. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle (you may end up needing a couple of sheets of paper).
  2. In the left-hand column, list the jobs you have held over your working life.

    In the right-hand column, take one job at a time and answer the question:

    When I really enjoyed this job, what was I doing?

  3. List all these activities in the right-hand column. When you have finished with your first job, go through each job on the list and continue to add activities on the right-hand column.
  4. Next, in the left-hand column, list all the volunteer activities or hobbies that you have been involved with over the years. In the right-hand column, answer the same question:

    When I am really enjoying this volunteer work or hobby, what am I doing?

  5. Once you have completed your list, look at all the items in the right-hand column and try to see patterns. You can group your thoughts in categories if it is more helpful.

How can focusing on your life’s work help to find more meaningful jobs or a new business?

When we look for career direction with a "job" focus, it is very easy to see things in a linear fashion. How could you possibly go from a trainer to a restaurant owner?
When you look at things in terms of your life’s work, the transition can be very clear:

For example, as a trainer, what kind of work did I enjoy?

  • Working with all kinds of groups of people to figure out what they were interested in
  • Creating comfortable, interesting environments
  • Creating colorful, creative displays and presentations that contributed to a comfortable environment
  • Carefully planning and defining learning objectives and creating a clear path to get there
  • Ordering interesting food for my classes
  • Getting teams motivated and aligned around a single goal
  • Individual interactions and conversations
  • Trouble-shooting and solving crises in the moment
  • Developing a proposal and delivering on-time and on-budget

All of this experience can be very helpful in opening a restaurant. Clearly there are some skills or experience that you don’t have, but often it will be less daunting than if you view it as a "total career change." When you look at your life’s work, many possibilities begin to appear.

By looking at your total life work experience, you will feel confident and prepared to make significant career changes.


(Photo credit, my son Jeffery. Gratuitous picture, vaguely linked to topic — you can have your grapes and eat them too!
It is my baby Angela’s first birthday today, so I had to post her sweet
face.  Happy Birthday Sweet Pea, thanks for the joy you bring to me every day!)

33 Responses to “Stop searching for the perfect job and start finding your life’s work”

  1. […] two, another blogger I read regularly, Pamela Slim of Escape From Cubicle Nation. I sent her post Stop searching for the perfect job and start finding your life’s work from a few weeks ago to my daughter. She […]

  2. Good web page you’ve right here.

  3. […] bags. By taking the small view of a job, we easily lose sight of our greater professional purpose. Pamela smartly points out: When you focus first on the perfect job, you automatically narrow your opportunities to jobs you […]

  4. 3 Different Views on Jobs for Students

    Pop quiz: What can a college student, an entrepreneurial grad student, a working mother escapee from the cubicle job world, and a 60-year-old business owner have in common on the subject of job seeking at a bad time? Read on….

  5. Randy says:

    Hi Pam,
    I did my list but the things I enjoy doing are so unproductive and un-monetizable that I don’t know what to do next. Are you still coaching? If so, I would like to work with you on this and see if you can help me figure out how to be more than what I am now.


  6. Janet says:

    I was lucky enough to run into your blog today, and I’m very glad I did.

    I have struggled with balancing my finances with my passions, I hope to do it sometime soon through blogging. The Corporate World does nothing but drag people down, and I wish more people would realize that.

  7. Janet says:

    I was lucky enough to run into your blog today, and I’m very glad I did.

    I have struggled with balancing my finances with my passions, I hope to do it sometime soon through blogging. The Corporate World does nothing but drag people down, and I wish more people would realize that.

  8. Hi Pam,

    First of all, Happy Belated Birthday to dear little Angela.

    I really enjoyed this post. I plan to share it with a close friend who shares Angela’s birthday, but precedes her by many years. She is absolutely miserable playing it safe in a Nursing job that she hates.

    That is the operative word. Job.
    I found myself writing down in my journal the other day how blessed I feel that I am not working, but rather living my passion.

    I never was part of cubicle nation, but escaped the constraints of a hospital.

    For the past 18 years it has been my pleasure to help mothers, babies and their families optimize their experience of breastfeeding.

    Even when my business has quiet spells, I cannot bring myself to do anything else!

  9. Gopal says:

    Having a job is simply a means to an end. Being passionate about something and having the good fortune to make a living from it constitutes a career. There is no better incentive and I wish everyone has the chance to look within themself and find their passion. Best, G

  10. chris Zydel says:

    Hi Pam,

    I’ve known about you for a while, but since I’ve never worked in the corporate world, and have always been an entrepreneur ( I haven’t had a “real job” since 1979), I never really checked you out. However, I’ve been seeing you in the blogosphere lately ( mostly on Havi Brooks site) and have been enjoying your comments there so I thought I would stop by!

    This is a great post and made me think about my motivating principal for the work that I do and I think Transformation just about sums it up. I offer workshops that help people become more creatively self expressive and I love to watch what happens for people as they become more creatively confident, more playful and more alive as the workshop progresses. It thrills me every time!

    So thanks articulating that concept.

    I also have a fabulously creative husband who DOES work in the corporate world, is dying to get out , and so I am going to send him your way!

  11. Great post, Pam!

    But how about we go further and discover our “life’s play” instead of our life’s work? Why not embrace the concept that we could get paid for something we’d happily, joyfully do for free?

    Just a thought …


  12. Miki DeVivo says:

    Hi Pam,

    I couldn’t agree more =). I’m passing this link on to my mom who’s having this conundrum right now. And happiest of birthdays to Angela. I can’t believe she’s a year already!

    All the best.

  13. Ivylane says:

    Pam – great advice. There is actually a website that does what you just described called – Good luck to those looking.

  14. I actually started my (ongoing) search to understand what kind of work would resonate with me by doing the traditional job hunt.

    I think that for some people this is the way to go as I have friends who want to work in a particular role and are looking for ways to clarify that desire and get practical advice on how to get their dream job.

    I however, like many other commentors, find that way unhelpful. For me it was because any single particular job will never fulfil me. I relate to Sandra’s point about having so many diverse interests (try mixing maths with dance) that I wonder if there is any underlying pattern at all. For the moment I believe that there is a pattern, or at least a number of connected patterns, and I continue to look for those.

    I think this is a great exercise to get people thinking and wish everyone success in finding their life’s work!

    P.S. You can mix maths with dance – just google shiva nata!

  15. iHanna says:

    Great article and interesting test, I consider myself a person who need to “document” a lot of things but I need to do the lists soon! Thanks. and yeah, your daughter is adorable!

  16. Kristy Roth says:

    This article has particularly hit home with me, because until recently, I was looking for that perfect job. I finally realized it was my life’s work that I was searching for, not the “perfect job”. After analyzing what truly made me happy, my life’s work seemed more clear than ever before. It was like one of those great epiphanies I wish I had long ago. Thanks for a great article, I am very excited I stumbled upon this blog. Looking forward to reading more great content!

  17. Chandoo says:

    This is a very good post Pam.

    I could totally relate when you said “Jobs are temporary things, often enticing on paper until you realize that as soon as you get comfortable in your position, it will change, your boss will change, your team will change or your organization will change.” In just 2 years I have seen almost 10 different bosses in the same company.

    It is always better to look for your “life work” instead of “what is my job” outlook. Your posts helps me in finding that clarity and thanks soo much for that.

  18. Working Girl says:

    Nice reminder of the distinction between “job” and “work.” Lovely post!

  19. JB says:

    Thank you so much for this post. You’re right. My troubles stem from looking for the perfect JOB, which doesn’t seem to exist. I’ll complete the exercise and update my insights on my blog.

  20. GML says:

    Happy birthday to the cutest little girl! The year has flown by, I miss seeing that cute little face!

    Oh yeah, I love the article too Mama!

  21. A perspective I found that complicates this: Catana, at the wonderful Spectrum of Minds blog (which I’ve linked) gives an example of a life work that is extraordinarily hard to create as a self-employed business.

    I love the worldview this blog presents about overcoming fears and understanding today’s universe of realities that enables more people to be self-employed. At the same time, I, along with a large cluster of friends I know, are challenged by something else.

    If one of your needs in work is intense intellectual challenge, that is actually easier to get in, for example, a senior engineering position (if math is your direction) in R&D than it is as a self-employed person – even if all of your other preferences lean towards self-employment. I had a job where I was the least educated person there! I worked with hard-core engineers, computational linguists, attorneys, and high-level industry scientists. I MISS interacting at that level in my work.

  22. Meesha says:

    Oh, how I wish I had read this ten years ago! It’s only recently that I’ve realized the same thing. Thank you for this post.

  23. Steve Errey says:

    Absolutely agree Pam. I’m always getting people to take off the job title blinkers and create their next job from the inside out. It’s the kind of experience you want that counts, not what title goes on your resume.

    Often the problem is in getting people to trust themselves enough to act based on their insights around their lifes work.

    It’s the old thing about being confident enough to go after something that actually means something to you rather than going through the motions – it’s suddenly scary when something’s on the line or when something you want might not turn out as you want it to.

  24. Laura says:

    Thank you for reminding us to expand our thinking about our life’s work. When we are stressed and unhappy it is so easy to “contract” and think narrowly. This post reminds me of Dick Richard’s book: Is Your Genius at Work which helps us look very widely at the things we are naturally compelled to do in the world, and THEN decide how to use that innate genius in our work.

    Your approach is a wonderful complement to the discussion we are having on my blog right now ( and I will definitely trackback.

    Thanks so much!

  25. Excellent advice! The hard part is probably when you are looking for your life’s work, not finding it, and need a step job to pay the bills.

  26. Great activity Pam! I’ve always thought of myself as a “Renaissance Soul” because I love doing so many different things and can see myself in a wide variety of fields.

    I have been doing a lot of self help reading along this line – finding life’s work through patterns of joyful experiences. It’s tough finding a pattern when you feel you are all over the place.

    And then what if your life’s work doesn’t make enough $$ to pay the bills? This is a fear I struggle with everyday.

  27. Tim Berry says:

    Great post, Pam. I’m forwarding it to my daughter, starting senior year in college, starting to worry about jobs, a job, the right job. Words of wisdom,

  28. Janet Bailey says:

    Your line-down-the-middle exercise: gorgeous. It’s like the “transferable skills” thing that career counselors talk about, made non-clinical and so so simple. Also, happy birthday Angela!

  29. Dan says:

    Some really good points to look at for everyone who reads your blog there. I just hope I can put it into practice and start making some money out of it.

  30. A dilemma I struggled with: Does “life work” = the cause/purpose or does “life work” = the activity. I’ve come to the conclusion that it means both, which makes it complex!

    Specifically – “writing” is an activity that I love. “Educating people” is the way I use it. The causes and situations within which that has worked for me have really varied, and (I hope) will continue to vary.

  31. Oh, I forgot to say how cute your baby Angela is!

  32. Great topic Pam. I have recently escaped the corporate job life and started working as a freelance web designer. The change feels fantastic and I have already found my first clients, but now things begin to open up and I am beginning to realize some other passions I have – particularly for music and song writing. And for the first time in my life this doesn’t make me feel overwhelmed, but rather excited 🙂

    Yeah Danijel, congratulations to you!

    Working for yourself does open things up, doesn’t it?

    Your sites look great, I wish you great success and will call on you if I need design!

    Thanks for the comment about Angela — I am biased as her Mom, but I agree she is quite cute. 🙂


  33. Pam,

    Could not agree more…

    Stop looking externally for a job and look internally for your life’s work.