The Cold Truth About Following Your Purpose

On average, people say they’d take a 32% pay cut if it meant having a more meaningful job. But that’s easier said than done.

Published: Feb 20, 2020

Chris was always good with numbers. As a senior analyst in a large financial company, he had to be. But in recent months, he had begun to get the creeping sense that he was wasting his life poring over financial models and obsessing about interest rates. Deep down, he knew his purpose: he wanted to be a teacher.

But Chris knew his lifestyle would have to drastically change if he went the traditional teaching route. With the average public-school teacher in his area making $49,000 a year, his salary would be a fraction of what it was as a banker. Plus, he’d have to go back to school to get certified, which would be hard to juggle, especially while he and his wife were already busy working, raising their two young children, and taking care of their aging parents. And there was no guarantee that he’d actually like being in front of a classroom, since he hadn’t ever done it.

What might look like big changes to an outsider may not feel like big changes if they’re in pursuit of something that truly makes you happy.

Chris’s dilemma is one that many people face as they consider making a career change into a job they find more meaningful. On one hand, there’s the priceless feeling of doing work that leaves you fulfilled; on the other, the fear that comes with shedding your old life and salary. While research shows that the average person would take a 32% pay cut if it meant having a more fulfilling job, the decision can be very difficult.

“It can be hard,” says Hamaria Crockett, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. “But if you want to find more meaning and purpose, the best thing to do is start exploring.”

Know your ‘why.’

You might have a hunch about a job you’d like, but what is it about that job that grips you? Is it that it allows you to use some skill you value? Is it that it allows you to serve a population you care about, or solve a problem that means something to you? Career coaches say there are usually many ways to fulfill purpose, but knowing your motivation can help put any lifestyle sacrifices in perspective. For example, if Chris’s motivation for being a teacher is to help people advance toward their goals, he might be happy as a learning and development officer at his current company; but if his motivation is to support the emotional health of children, sticking around at a bank, even in a teaching role, might not be the answer. “Purpose isn’t mystical, and it’s not something someone else can decide for you,” says Crockett. “If there’s something that you find yourself thinking about or feeling frustrated over, that’s probably a good indication about what you should be doing in your life.”

Solve as many unknowns as you can.

Don’t make assumptions. To make a decision you feel good about, you have to get crystal clear about the steps and costs involved; it could be that the that nonprofit job you assume won’t pay much actually pays much more than you think. From there, look at your current lifestyle and start to weigh what might have to change if you go down this route. What might look like big changes to an outsider may not feel like big changes if they’re in pursuit of something that truly makes you happy. Experts also recommend getting as much exposure as possible to your desired path, whether through job shadowing or volunteering. Some people find that volunteering not only helps them figure out whether the route they’re considering is truly right for them but gives them the meaning they were looking for without requiring them to leave their day job.

Stretch and negotiate.

There may be options for making the job you want more lucrative. For example, if your goal is to write for an animal-rights group, you might want to rethink taking a low-paying full-time copywriter job with one animal shelter and instead try to build a freelance business that serves multiple animal-welfare-related clients. You could even pitch yourself to a well-funded corporation that might value being aligned with such a cause. Of course, you could also negotiate with an employer to get more money down the line; for example, you could propose that if you increase donations by a certain percentage, you get a salary increase. As with any job, the more you can tie your work to the core priorities of a company, the more likely you are to be seen as valuable to that company.

Don’t feel like you’ll be stuck forever.

If changing into a more meaningful career isn’t possible at the moment, don’t lose hope: make it your goal and start working toward it. “If you’re really focused on your finances, focus on what’s in your scope right now and figure out how you can incorporate the thing that you love later on in your career,” says Crockett. “You can make a good decision now, then make the best decision later.”

The ultimate career guide, from Korn Ferry CEO and New York Times best-selling author, Gary Burnison
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