Real Leaders

How to Have a Career That Matters

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Are you whispering or are you singing at the top of your lungs? When I was doing research for Save the World and Still be Home for Diner, I interviewed scores of people who wanted to matter. Not in the look-at-me way. Not in the I-want-to-be-famous-on-YouTube way. They just wanted to bloom where they were planted. To sing their song. To make their difference. I talked to them and watched them work. As I listened to their stories about how they discovered their calling and turned it in to a career, I discovered something I never suspected.

Their success came because they were pushed by the current of two fast flowing rivers that converged in one glorious torrent.

River One is the river of ‘Inspired Desire.’ They really wanted to make the world better. Although some were now rich and famous, that was not their goal. Never. Making their difference was.

Research reveals at least six big challenges for humanity.

If you want the world to get better…becoming great at addressing one of these six challenges is pretty damn important. Here are the challenges:

  1. Human rights/oppression: equality, equal justice, dignity, women’s and children’s rights, tolerance, freedom of speech, worship, assembly, etc.
  2. Health/disease: wellness, sports, entertainment, disease prevention, education, research, children’s and women’s health, access, affordability, cancer, AIDS, heart disease, stress, care-giving, etc.
  3. Peace/violence: respect, diplomacy, communication, negotiation, ending war, terrorism, nuclear prolifereation, genocide, abuse, etc.
  4. Education/ignorance: literacy, graduation rates, arts education, science and math, girls and women, computer/digital early childhood, gifted special needs, etc.
  5. Sustainability/environmental collapse: pollution, water shortages, resource depletion, conservation, park development, cleanup, climate change, energy research, etc.
  6. Wealth/poverty: access to capital, food, housing, budgeting, entrepreneurship, career development, job creation, skill training, economic literacy, trade homelessness, etc.

There are many additional ways to help individual human beings and humanity. This is just a list to get you started thinking… Most of us will spend 100,000 hours of our lives working. Most of our waking hours. So why not do something that makes the world a better place to live?

With all the needs humanity has, it seems a shame to invest your gifts doing something trivial. 

What I discovered from the difference-makers I studied was that you can turn virtually any career into something that benefits humanity. You just need to hold that intention and the infinite numbers of ways you can make a difference show up every day. So, I am not suggesting that each one of us has to become Gandhi or Lincoln or Einstein…remember a humble janitor prevents the spread of disease by just doing their job well. I just wonder what kind of world we’d have if all of our mission statements for Me Inc. arose from turning our values into value. I am not suggesting that you take a vow of poverty, but rather a vow of purpose.

I suggest that because the happiest, most creative people I know work that way. 

And, it’s not that hard. That’s where the second river flows in. My interviews and observations of ordinary people with extraordinary careers helped me see it clearly. For these people, River Two is the river of their own Design. They are highly self-aware. They know what they are best at and what brings them joy ‘in the doing.’ They’ve come to understand how their talent and skills work together to create a measure of unique greatness. Most important, they know how to learn what they need to learn in order to do what they really desire to do.

Their stories taught me that sometimes learning is difficult. Painful. Exhausting. Yet necessary to unleash the power of their talents and passions. 

So that’s it. When you harness the river of your Desires in the river of your Design, your career begins to flow so fast it carves its own path to the canyons of life. Let me make this practical. I teach lots of career workshops for corporations for University of California at San Diego. And one thing I found is that people want fast, practical tools to convert these fancy-schmancy principles into immediate action. So here you go.

First, get clear on where you are in your career. You can do that by answering these questions about your work.

  1. What do you do? (What is the essence of your work?)
  2. Who do you do it for? (Who pays you?)
  3. What is the human and economic impact of it? (Why do you get paid?)

Some real examples:

  1. “I do computer programming.”
  2. “For an e-commerce company.”
  3. “To quickly change product offers to customers so my company grow.”

Here’s another:

  1. “I am the Chief Executive Officer that determines strategy and allocates resources.”
  2. “For a sports shoe and athletic apparel company.”
  3. “To ensure the company grows by designing and selling best-in-the-world products.”

One more:

  1. “I do project management.”
  2. “For a technology company.”
  3. “To eliminate waste and shorten delivery time.”

Okay, that’s pretty simple. Now, let’s paddle down the river you’re floating on. This time, do the same exercise except…imagine how you might answer those question two years from now if all your most inspiring career development plans paid off. And add one question.

How’s the world better off for you doing your job?

Here are some answers that are follow-ups to the examples above. The programmer:

  1. “I do artificial intelligence programming.”
  2. “For a progressive video games studio.”
  3. “To create wildly popular products.”
  4. “That teaches players real history and the consequences of making good or bad decisions.” (pretty cool)

The CEO:

  1. “I align our business strategy with a bigger purpose of using our resources to create a better world.”
  2. “For sports shoe/apparel company.”
  3. “To increase our customers worldwide in order to grown, prosper and…”
  4. “Promote the value of sports in developing self-discipline, skill, health and camaraderie.” (just plain amazing)

The project manager:

  1. “I design lean development processes.”
  2. “For the biotech industry.”
  3. “To help speed development time.”
  4. “To get life-saving medicines and therapies to people faster.” (so much more exciting than being a project manager)

See how easy that was? It all begins with your mindset.

Once you become clear on your deepest desires and understand how you are best designed to succeed, you will know what skills you need to master to do something extraordinary. 

You’ll naturally tell the world what you’re up to. You’ll find people who are interested in the same things you are. And you will see opportunities that were previously invisible. Maybe even in the job you have right now. The amazing people I interviewed didn’t have any special intelligence and often had major disadvantages compared to their peers.

What they had was clarity. 

And a willingness to invest in  their future self. They got started by taking the daily steps that got them moving in the direction that was most fulfilling. Anyone of us can do the same. My conviction is that non of us are extra. We are all different for a reason. We all have a difference only we can make. Just start.


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