Finding a job you love doesn’t always come as easy as you’d hope. But you probably know that. Most Americans link their identity to their jobs, yet so many of us hate what we do. Or, at the very least, simply put up with it because we feel obligated to stay.

To find meaningful work, it’s vital to dig deep into the roots of who you are and what you value. There are two parts to this journey. The first part involves getting to know yourself… understanding your strengths, exploring your values and knowing your interests. You begin to suss out how much your work influences your overall sense of fulfillment.

Once you have a better idea of who you are and how much meaning you get from work, you’re ready for the second part: figuring out that specific job. How does someone even begin to nail down a career that might make them feel motivated and happy long-term?

Two lanes to meaningful work
To answer this, it’s helpful to imagine meaningful work as a two-lane road. Which lane you’re in depends on your attitude about work. Do you see work as purposeful, or practical?

If you’re in lane one, you would say your work is highly purpose-driven. In your ideal job, you get a lot of meaning from it. You might even say you feel called to it. You’re excited to go to work, you feel engaged and interested... things are clicking. You walk into your workplace grateful to be there. This is how people in lane one describe their work.

You still have things outside of work that are meaningful. But your day-to-day work life also needs to provide you with a sense of purpose.

Now, if you’re in lane two, you don’t feel the need to have as strong of a connection to your work, even in your best-case-scenario work life. You see your work as more practical. It drives the other meaningful things in your life, like family, volunteering, community service. You like your job, but you wouldn’t say it drives your sense of purpose.

If you’re in this lane, then you have lots of great things happening outside of work. You get a lot of meaning from those things, and you’re glad that your work allows you to do them.

With roads come some detours
So those are the two main lanes. But you might say, “Hold on, I’m not in either of them!”

If that’s you, I totally get it. I’ve been there before. The thing is, getting into these two lanes isn’t always easy. Sometimes, we get lost and find ourselves on detours, on roads that are unfamiliar, and we can’t find our way back.

Here’s the first detour: You’re at a job that was meaningful to you in the beginning, but lately, you’ve lost that connection. You’re ready to reevaluate your work but not sure how. You feel like you’re spinning your wheels, not really going anywhere. How do you know what job is right for you?

The second detour is for people who haven’t encountered meaningful work, yet. If you’re here, you’ve been working a practical job for a while, but you know this job isn’t aligned with your sense of purpose. You want to apply to other jobs, but you’re not really sure what kind of work counts as meaningful. Does that mean working at a non-profit? Taking a pay cut? Going back to school? The real question for you is: How do you align your sense of purpose with a job you enjoy?

Here’s how to tell if you’re a lane-one person
If you’re still uncertain about which lane is right for you, it might be easier to identify with someone who is like you. That’s why I’m sharing couple of stories that illustrate the differences in the two lanes.

Story one is about me. I am all the way lane one. When I look back at my career, every job I’ve had has been a lane-one job. They’ve all been in line with my strengths and my values. Even my very first job out of college, when I was teaching preschool, I worked at a school that was inclusive of children with special needs. I felt a huge sense of purpose serving those kids.

When I switched out of that job and went into corporate America, I found a job that was a good fit for me at the time. And, the company also had a huge benevolent factor to its work, which I really valued. Lane one is for you if you can’t imagine spending most of your time not working
toward your purpose.

And here’s how you’ll know if you’re a lane-two person
The second story is about my client, Brandon.* Brandon was working in human resources when he considered making a career change. He loved working with middle schoolers, so he thought about becoming a teacher. As he went through my course on meaningful work and learned more about his strengths and values, Brandon realized that his job in HR was actually a really great fit for him. It allowed him to do work he was good at, while enabling him to work with middle schoolers outside of his job.

Does this align more with your story? You’re probably a lane-two kind of person. You’re happy spending some time each week pursuing your purpose, but you don’t need it to be the main thing you do.

So, what really drives your work life contentment?
It’s helpful to think of this “lane and detour” metaphor as a framework to help you find your version of meaningful work. Spend some time on this. Consider your drivers and what makes your soul light on fire. I created an exercise (see below) with some questions to help you figure out where you are on the spectrum and identify the next steps to a career you love.

Remember: Meaningful work is not about getting a specific job. It’s about finding alignment between who you are and the work you do.

Meaningful work reflection exercise
Once you determine which path you’re on, take a few moments to consider the questions below. Try writing down your answers, and see if that creates a sense of direction or inspiration for your career.

If you resonated more with purposeful work…

  • What does purposeful work look like for you?

  • What hesitations do you have about finding purposeful work?

  • If you don’t have purposeful work, but want to have it, what’s holding you back?

If you resonated more with practical work…

  • When you think about your work, what do you enjoy about it the most?

  • In what ways does your job enable you to do meaningful things outside of work?

  • What could you pursue outside of work to add a sense of meaning and purpose to your life?

If you resonated with one of the detours…

  • Which detour seems to describe your situation best: you’ve lost the connection to a job that was once meaningful or you haven’t tried a purposeful job? Why?

  • What hesitations come to mind when you think about changing jobs or careers?

  • What have you tried that worked? What have you tried that didn’t work? Why do you think they did or didn’t?

I’d love to hear from you. If this exercise or path-and-detour theory sparked a new energy within your job search, hit me with an email or comment to share what you’ve learned from your work experience and where you’re at now.

*Name changed to protect privacy.