Work and Career Are Not Synonyms (And Only One Matters)


How much time have you spent trying to find your career? How much time have you spent trying to find your work? If you think I'm asking the same question twice, think again.

Not only should these questions yield distinct answers, the ratio between them may deeply affect the quality - and length - of your life.

What is "Career?"

"Career" is the buzzword everyone wanders around searching for. It's where networking and resumes and cover letters and all those cut-and-dry, formulaic elements come into play.

"Career" is positively entangled with extrinsic rewards, most notably money and status.

Notably, career isn't defined by what happens within a person. It's defined by what happens around him.

What is "Work?"

Work has a million connotations, not all of them positive. Regardless of formulation, though, work implies a concentrated effort on some task.

"Work" encompasses far more human experiences than "career:"

  1. "Work" moves beyond a focus on pay. Think of the full-time parents or the retired guy making birdhouses in his basement to give to neighbors and community organizations. Would we call their activities "careers?" Highly unlikely. But are they "working?" Absolutely.
  2. Our circumstances don't affect our ability to work, while they may affect our ability to pursue a career. We can work when chronic illness keeps us shut in our houses. We can work when our children need us so heavily that having outside commitments is laughable. We can work when we're imprisoned, as Victor Frankl did, spurring him to recognize work as one of the three sources of meaning in life.
  3. "Work" moves beyond the obsession with full-time status that gets hooked to "career." For instance, it may be hard to make a career of waitressing, but you certainly are working when you're doing it.
  4. Our relationships with others can fall under the category of "work." We "work" on our friendships, don't we? (Or at least we do if we want to keep them...)

The Work vs. Career Search Ratio

My contention is that we spend far too much time looking for a career and far too little time looking for work.

I honestly couldn't care less what career you end up with. And I'm frankly sick of my college seniors bumrushing my office to inquire about career options.

What do you want to DO? That's the question I want you to figure out how to answer.

What do you want to BE? That's irrelevant.

This can be freeing because career is somewhat out of your control in your twenties, especially in a tight job market. You'll end up being something-or-other, at least for the next five to ten years. But you can DO anything.

You get to pick your work.

The Question That Matters

Of course work doesn't necessarily add value to our lives. There's a lot of meaningless work out there.

That said, since work is internally defined, it naturally lends itself to some other wonderful internally-defined attributes. Such as feeling meaningful and purposeful.

This is important since having meaning and purpose in life are tightly linked to quality of life and happiness. Even more remarkable, having a sense of purpose is associated with a lower mortality rate in late adulthood.

The lead researcher of the purpose-mortality study, Patricia Boyle, said when explaining her findings:

The take-home message is that people need to be thoughtful about their lives, because having that sense of meaning or purpose will make a huge difference.

So from now to the end of your life the important question is:  are you doing work that matters to  you?

If this work is unpaid, so be it. If this work is something you only engage in during the wee hours of the morning or the still, haunting moments at the end of the day, so be it. If "the world" doesn't recognize this work as a "profession" - or worse, actively criticizes it - so be it. If this work is solely centered on your relationships with others, so be it.

All that matters is that you're regularly engaging in work that gives you meaning and purpose. Then you'll have hit the jackpot of life.

Your career is beside the point.

Turning Meaningful Work Into a Meaningful Career

You might be thinking, "But I want to find meaning and purpose in the thing I make money doing."

Fair enough. Our ideal goal may indeed be to have a career full of meaningful work. It's nice to not have to worry about paying the bills with AND making time for meaningful unpaid work.

It's also true that having a misery-inducing career is sure to detract from one's meaningful work.

Assuming a level of "good-enough-ness" to one's career, though, sometimes turning meaningful work into a career isn't the goal. There are situations in which doing so kills the meaning (e.g., turning an enjoyable hobby into a hard-driving, profit-driven business.) And sometimes it's downright impossible to make meaningful work into a career (e.g., in the case of parenting.)

Even if a career filled with meaningful work is your goal - as it has long been for me - to get to that meaningful career, you almost always have to first do meaningful work that isn't part of your career. For instance, by volunteering, engaging in a hobby, taking on part-time jobs, starting a side hustle that makes $0 for years on end.

So how should you spend your time?

Identifying the work that genuinely matters to you and engaging in it regularly. 

Not chasing your next hot career.