When Your Career Becomes a Job

What's a job? A means to make money performing tasks that you are capable of, but may not necessarily fulfill you.

What's a career? A series of jobs that reflect growth, mastery and contribution to one or many fields.

Those are my definitions for the sake of creating context.

Is it OK when your career becomes a job? I suppose that depends on what you want out of work. It's a welcome relief for some people when their work hits a plateau. They don't really have to climb anymore or prove anything to anyone. They can coast knowing that they still collect a satisfying paycheck and can give attention and time to other areas in their life.

To me, and the people I talk to daily about work, a career that becomes a job is a career that has stalled. Like the owner of a vehicle, a stalled mode of transport is a ruined day. We naturally want to get the engine working again.

As far as careers go, we don't have to be in a constant flurry of ambition. Ambitions and motivations change with us as we mature and take on new priorities. However, I can say with confidence that not having career goals or a trajectory of growth within your job can quickly lead to restlessness and dissatisfaction.

As Dan Pink points out in his book Drive, recent research shows that people are motivated at work when three things are present: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Today's buzzword is engagement. We want to be engaged. Let's explore how to attain each of these things as a way to keep our careers from becoming 'just a job.'


Unless you work alone in a vacuum, complete autonomy is not likely, but being free to make your own decisions and reach benchmarks in your own way is critical to feeling good about work. Knowing that you are trusted feeds into feeling capable and provides enough autonomy for you to experience growth and satisfaction in your work.

A certain amount of accountability proves to help performance, while being micromanaged or needing approval for every move grossly reduces one's creativity and life force. Like being chained to the floor, a lack of autonomy will quickly frustrate you.

Questions to consider:

  • How can I negotiate more autonomy if I don't already have it?

  • Where do I need to build trust to have autonomy for myself or where can I give autonomy to others?
  • Which relationships need new parameters to work well in the context of autonomy?
  • Mastery

    According to Malcolm Gladwell, mastery at something comes with 10,000 hours of application and practice.

    It may not be conventional wisdom to think of work as something where you can harness mastery (unless you're a craftsman or practitioner of some kind). However, it is feeling competent and seeing a path for growth that keeps work interesting.

    Ask yourself:

    • Am I still learning?

  • Is there room for me to grow here?
  • What do I still want to master?
  • What has been the biggest source of growth for me in the last year or two?
  • What do I want to do more of?
  • Purpose

    For some, a paycheck is enough of a purpose behind working. Again, those are not the people I come across. The people I talk to want to feel like what they do matters. They want to know that they impact those around them. They want to know that their part of the greater enterprise makes things better in the world. I'm not necessarily talking about a high-calling type of altruism, but certainly, feeling like what you do makes a difference inside or outside the organization (or preferably both!) does count.

    Questions to ponder:

    • Do my values match the ones my organization holds?

  • Do I stand for what my boss stands for?
  • Do I have to hide part of myself to do this work or can I be me?
  • Do my talents get used in this work (or at least somewhere in my life?)
  • Am I doing what I'm built to do?
  • I'm biased. I don't want your career to feel like a job. There are times when it's appropriate as other parts of your life really need your attention. However, to feel alive and well, we need to keep learning and growing.

    Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. They are worth the effort. They can redefine your work and your life. Do you want a job or would you like a career?

    Let me know your thoughts. Please comment or send an email.

    Laura Berman Fortgang is the author the 10th anniversary edition of Now What? 90 Days to A New Life Direction, debuting March 3rd. www.nowwhatcoaching.com