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You Don't Have To Find Your Life Purpose Through Work

I used to look down on people who had regular 9-5 jobs and pursued their hobbies on the side. I thought the dream was to find what you love and never work a day in your life. But over the past 7 years, I've changed my mind, and here's why.

Tam Pham
Tam Pham
7 min read
You Don't Have To Find Your Life Purpose Through Work

I used to look down on people who had regular 9-5 jobs and pursued their hobbies on the side.

I thought that these people weren't ambitious enough to go after the jobs they really wanted. I assumed that they were too scared, not capable enough, or they gave up and settled.

Now that I've gone through 7 years of my short career, I've changed my mind, and here's why.

The "Hustle" Life

In my first job in San Francisco working at a small startup called, The Hustle, I took pride in being the first one to be in the office and the last to leave. I had just dropped out of college to pursue a "real-world education" so why not give every learning experience everything I've got?

Where I slept for the 4 months. Say hi to Sid! 

I slept on Sam Parr's (co-founder of The Hustle) tiny couch where my legs couldn't even extend all the way. I made enough money just to scrape by but this was a perfect start to my life in startups.

I learned how to start and run their famous ambassador program. I learned how to write a story. I participated in meetings for the first time. I built relationships with everyone on the team. I even had a heart-to-heart conversation with the founders who taught me how to be more confident in my ideas and myself.

During all this, I met like-minded people through events or Twitter. They pursued interesting opportunities and were deeply engaged in their work. At this moment, I seriously questioned why my old friends would ever be ok taking a normal job they only kind of liked.

You spend 8+ hours a day at work. You should love the grind and be excited about your projects. Your career should give you purpose, freedom, and happiness. Why settle for anything less!?

This was what I thought until I saw the bigger picture.

What I realized after achieving my dream job

When I was a bushy-eyed teen, my dream was to work with my favorite authors and be their "right hand man."

After 5 years of mastering digital marketing, building community, and connecting with the right people, I actually achieved this goal! It felt INCREDIBLE to see the contract come in for me to sign from my entrepreneur hero.

But as I was doing the work, I realized a few things:

  1. This is still a job. I'm still doing the exact same work with this client just like I was doing at The Hustle or anyone else I had worked with.
  2. I don't actually care about this milestone as much as I had originally thought. I imagined working with my "hero" would change everything. But in reality, I worked mostly with their team, not this famous author himself. And even if I did work with him directly, I didn't care how popular he was or how he might open doors for me in the future. I was surprisingly content where I was and didn't feel like I needed to "add" to my resume.
  3. My values changed. At this point, I've spent a lot of time solo traveling, reading books, and exploring new hobbies. During this time, I had less identity towards what I did for work. I preferred to spend more time with my friends and family, improving my physical and mental health, and trying new experiences. For the first time in my life, I didn't have the desire to "hustle" as I did earlier in life.

So while I was at the "peak" of my career with new opportunities coming left and right, my gut told me that this is not what I actually wanted, and I knew I needed to change course.

The problem with finding your life's purpose through work

I spent my early 20s believing the quote, "If you love your work, you'd do it every day even if no one paid you."

I later discovered that finding your life's purpose in work wasn't even a thing until the 1970s when managers discovered money was no longer the most important factor to motivate their team.

Since then, everyone was expected to love work. The quote, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” popped up all over the place in the 1980s and 1990s, along with unpaid internships, the busting of unions, and campaigns to cut taxes on capital gains.

I also discovered that this workaholic culture makes us (North America) the weird ones, not everyone else. In the book, Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner, he explores the happiest places in the world and distills key takeaways from those cities.

Not surprisingly, the countries that rank at the top of the list don't overwork and burn themselves out. People in Costa Rica prioritize social interaction, and they will almost never work extra hours if it means they have to forego a good party. The Danes work 37 hours a week, belong to clubs, and are able to pursue their passions and use their strengths. And so on.

The last problem I have with this belief is that the things that you find meaningful may not be aligned with what the market needs.

Playing the ukulele is not that impressive to your next employer. Volunteering at your local non-profit won't pay the bills. Taking care of your disabled child is not going to increase the United State's GDP.

I think it's AMAZING if what you love to do and what you're good at... also makes you a lot of money. My friend, Neville Medhora, is a great example of this being a copywriter turned online teacher.

But for many people, that simply may not be the case.

So if we can find things that feel meaningful to us outside of our career, why do we need to work so much?

The difference between a job and a career

I defaulted to working hard and advancing my career because I thought that was what I should do to be "successful." My formal life coach recommended author Elizabeth Gilbert's framework on careers which gave me a new perspective on work.

First, she defined the important distinction between a job and a career.

Job - You have to have a job. You have to pay the bills because we live in a material world. The great thing about a job is that it does not have to be awesome. It doesn't have to fulfill you. It doesn't have to be joyful. It just has to pay.
Career - A career is a job you are passionate about. You're willing to work extra hours because you believe in the mission of what your career is. If you're in a career that you hate, that's terrible. But if you're in a job that you hate, that's OK. You should love your career or simply not have one.

These definitions gave language to what I was feeling. What once felt like a booming career that I was passionate about, my day-to-day started to feel like a job.  In retrospect, this all makes sense.

  • I no longer care about working with famous entrepreneurs.
  • I'm not excited by digital marketing like I was once used to.
  • I really don't want to work 12-hour days and brag about it.

I used to find a lot of meaning and fulfillment in my career. But as I got older, I've been finding more purpose in areas outside of work like my friends, hobbies, and personal quests.

I used to look down at people who had 9-5 jobs and did their hobbies on the side because I questioned, why aren't they doing their life's work!?

But I feel like I understand my friends better because their "life's work" may not be in the form of a career. They may just want a job they kind of like, decide not to advance in their career, and find fulfillment elsewhere.

Just Find a Job You Kind Of Like

If you hate your career, that sucks, because you don't need to be in that career if you don't want to. If you are able to, you can just get a job you kind of like and find more meaningful things outside of work.

When I was looking for work, I had always expected that my next job should satisfy all my needs for purpose, autonomy, creativity, etc. I've since let go of this belief and found peace knowing that sometimes, a job can simply be a job.

With a job, you can still do good work. Leverage your talents and gifts. Build relationships with your colleagues. Make an impact on the world. Some parts can suck but it's not the end of the world if you don't have a big expectation in your work to fulfill all your needs.

Hosting our annual gathering, Celebrate Toronto, pre-COVID.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have a job that I like. I do business operations for a great company at MMT, a highly curated group of entrepreneurs. I like and respect my team. I like serving the people in the community. I use a lot of my natural strengths and curiosities. I believe the work we do is making a big impact on our members' lives.

This was a dream job that I eagerly moved from San Francisco to Toronto for. But I'd be lying to you that I'd do this work for free.

It's a job, one that I kind of like, that gave me the opportunity to move to Canada. This job gives me the freedom to do a bunch of meaningful things outside of work like write this blog, spend time with friends, and most importantly... pay my bills!

If you like your career and want to keep getting to the "top," continue going for it. I'm writing this piece to show others that this is one way to live, not the only way.

Final thoughts

I know this all might sound very pessimistic and it is not the advice that most young, ambitious people want to hear.

I believe if you want to have a career, decide if you want a gradual or steep growth track, and follow the path that lights you up. If having a career is not important to you right now, consider just finding a job you like, and doing things outside of work that lights you up even more.

Accept that work may not be the missing piece to your life's purpose. Now it's up to you to figure out what is actually meaningful to you and to go pursue that instead.

Thank you Candace Wu and Tayler Jenkins for giving me feedback on early drafts of this essay.

Tam Pham Twitter

I'm a writer and bachata dancer currently bouncing around Latin America. Trying to make the most out of my one wild and precious life.

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