Are Fulfillment and Happiness the Same Thing?

Love what you do


Some things in my life have always been a given and needed little questioning. Among those givens is the understanding that I would one day pursue a career that gives me fulfillment and satisfaction. It’s not that I necessarily want a job that makes me feel like I’m saving the world on a daily basis, but I never really questioned that I would do something that makes me feel genuinely good about the work I do. Safe to say, working in investment banking was never really something I considered, but working as a curator in a museum was certainly something I imagined doing. Studying and researching art and is something that truly fulfills me and makes me feel a bit more complete. (I also happen to think that museums give to the community a cheap, if not free, source of worldly education, enjoyment, and entertainment.)

But the other night I was meeting up with a friend from college who hasn’t yet graduated. Joking that he sold his soul, he told me he just signed on to be an analyst at a major bank and would start work in January. I asked him why he would accept that job if he knew it wouldn’t make him happy, and he told me that I was being a naïve idealist who would one day realize that I cannot, in fact, change the world.

I can only imagine what my face looked like at that moment, and it probably looked something like one of those Kristen Wiig SNL characters where she looks like she just smelled the most repulsive spoiled meat in the deli. Seriously, what did my friend know at all about working?! Not that I know all that much, I’m pretty fresh on the professional scene, but I at least know enough to know that you darn well better like your job, or life may start to look bad pretty quickly.

In my most argumentative, albeit a little self-righteous, voice, I told him that he, in fact, was the naïve one. When the majority of your life will be split between hours sleeping and hours at work, I think it’s pretty (read: insanely) important that you have a fulfilling job, and if that for you means working to better the world, then why not! And if that for you means working to build new computer software, then that’s great too! Just do something that makes you feel good.

But he raised something interesting. He asked me if I think it’s important to like your work, or does it just have to be “fulfilling.” At first I didn’t really understand the difference, but as I think about it more, it begins to make sense. There are many things in life that don’t make me happy in the moment- running on the treadmill, walking my dog in the rain, or fasting on Yom Kippur, to name a few. But in the long run, they certainly do make me feel some sense of fulfillment. Though I hate taking Lady out to pee when it’s raining, the love she gives me in return makes it beyond worth it. Same goes for running and even for (gasp!) fasting.

And then there are things I really like doing but give me no fulfillment. Among these activities are watching Bravo TV, buying new shoes, and eating cookies. But in the moment, doing these things feels really great (especially eating cookies).

So what my friend was trying to ask me was, do I think it’s more important to have a job that I like in the moment, or a job that I like at the end of the day? To that end, I don’t have an answer. That’s a personal choice. But then I wonder how I would feel at the end of the week. How about at the end of the year? At the end of five years? How would I feel if I looked back on that last five years and saw only the money I earned in that time, but couldn’t see what I really did with my time?

I answered my friend with a question: Since when is it a choice between liking what you do and being fulfilled by what you do?

Not every job will give you both, but I think there are plenty out there that will. But this is just my philosophy. I hope he has lots of fun (and fulfillment) when he starts work at the bank.

1 comment
  1. Waaaaaiidaminute! I take SERIOUS exception to this post. Not the premise that one should seek engagement in activities one finds meaningful. Not that one shouldn’t laserfocus on ensuring that we use our precious time in such a way that we can justify our consumption of resources (including cookies). Not that we mustn’t try to leave this world just a tiny bit better than we found it. All that stuff is good, even essential, in my book. I’m rattled by the presumption -yes! presumption – that working in an investment bank can’t be counted among those things. There’re SO MANY arguments mitigating against such a thing! In no particular order: 1) what if you’re REALLY magnificent at understanding the power of numbers, the weight of economic principles and policies, and the use of those tools to effect change that needs to made? Working in a field one enjoys is a GiGANTIC boost to doing good things with one’s days. 2) what if, as you’re learning how to be more expert in your numberdriven field, you’re getting a sense of how you can apply those ideas to advance efforts for people who are – oh let’s say, running Habitat for Humanity? They need to buy huge amounts of raw materials, rent machinery and expertise for all their building sites. Having a competent, not to mention even clever, individual who applies manufacturing theories and financial models to space out purchases and expenses and tax incentives and building requirements can make the difference between solvency and insolvency. Or the difference between completing one job and then having to start all over again, or having the resources to get going right away on the next job while being able to harness and save and plan for yet the next job.

    Do you want a job you like in the moment or do you want a job that you’ll like at the end of the day? Well, think about this: what about a job you don’t like at all now, and you will have detested at the end of the day, but will have enormously expanded your understanding of that line of work, that type of worker, that way of life? I worked for one week solid in the turkey pens when I was on kibbutz in 1982. The work was SHEER HELL. (Should I use a bigger font to convey the depth of my feeling?) It was – did you hear that? – SHEER HELL. Yes, there are worse things – but short of the cruelties man visits upon man, it was horrible. I consider myself fortunate for that experience – it opened my eyes to the straits of migrant workers (when I submitted a report to the federal government on their status). It helped me evaluate the role of community health centers (when Anne Arundel County was weighing new health care initiatives).

    What about work you like, you enjoy, but doesn’t advance you, push you, challenge you? When does it stop being an excuse for a paycheck and start being an excuse to coast merely to feed oneself?

    This is the nut: very very few things end up being a waste of one’s time. Very very few things fail to teach us something of value if we keep ourselves open to learning. If you have a passion, and you’re willing to push yourself, there is nothing on this abundant planet that can prevent you from finding a way to use it to advance humanity. You like slobbery mammals that go woof and eat up every damn piece of furniture in the house, along with the stray child (and is named Chloe)? You find her an old age home for Basset Hounds in Palm Springs California and make sure to support it and its ilk for eternity because dogs enhance human life. And you gain a profound respect for the outsize magnitude of devotion, creativity, energy and sheer will of a niece who works to better life for mammals that go woof. (This is not selfaggrandizing. It’s Sarahaggrandizing. She’s got some dint.)

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