The Only Career Advice You’ll Ever Need

“When we are stuck on a hard problem, it usually isn’t because we can’t find the answer; it’s that we don’t even know the right question. Imagine that you are trying to figure out how fast food can make you healthier: You are overlooking the right first question—which is whether fast food can do this. That is precisely the problem with agonizing over finding the right job and career.

“What am I supposed to do to find a career that makes me happy?” is not the right first question. The right first question is “Who am I?” Only after we answer that can we understand our needs and desires. And only that understanding can allow us to get on with the serious business of what we are supposed to do with our life.

According to legend, the dictum “Know Thyself” was carved into the stone of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, in ancient Greece. At around the same time, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “Knowing the self is enlightenment.” What these thinkers of the ancient world meant was that all knowledge must start with self-knowledge. Yet, again and again, social scientists find that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. Studies based on survey data show that we don’t always accurately perceive the impression we make on others, nor does our self-perception consistently match how others see us. And we are not great at assessing our own abilities.

Part of this ignorance of ourselves derives from cognitive biases and a defensive need to place ourselves in the best possible light. So we remember things we did well but forget what we did poorly. We also tend to overestimate our skills—especially when, in fact, we’re incompetent—and think we’re smarter than we are.

Knowing ourselves demands effort that goes beyond simply observing our behaviors and tastes, or even listening to what others tell us about ourselves. It requires a process of discernment, of looking for deeper meaning. The ancient Greek word for this is sunesis; the Buddhists call it prajna. When turned inward, it is a mystical journey into the nature of the self.

This metaphysical inquiry can lead to unexpected answers. For example, the Buddhist answer to the question of the self is that it is an illusion—not that you don’t exist, but that you don’t exist in the absence of others. A famous Zen Buddhist koan asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” One solution to this riddle is that any sound would be an illusion—it would become real only if you added your other hand to make the clap. It’s a metaphor for the self without others. Your individual existence, in isolation, is empty; it is made full only by the presence of other people.

From this proposition naturally follows an answer to the question “What am I supposed to do if I want to be happier?” Love others. This is the only way to experience compassion and harmony with oneself.

My own Catholic tradition goes about answering the self question differently, but it comes to a similar conclusion. A direct response to “Who am I?” occurs in the Book of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.’” So who is God? In the New Testament, the Apostle John answers, “God is love.” The natural follow-up question is “What is love?”—for which Saint Thomas Aquinas provides the most compelling resolution in his Summa Theologiae: “To love is to will the good of the other.”

Tying this all together, you might say that God is pure will to love the other. So what am I created to do? Love others.

Contrary to modern thinking, neither Aquinas nor the Buddhists suggest in any way that love involves feelings. It is a matter of will, which, according to most religions and philosophies, is also a matter of free will. From this, it also follows that although we are created to love others, we don’t always live up to this natural design. I fail at this myself, I know, because some people are hard for me to love. That’s why love is a commitment, not a feeling.

As you set out to earn your daily bread, what does it mean to exist to love others? Are you supposed to renounce all worldly goods? I don’t think so. Consider these words by the early-20th-century Lebanese American writer Kahlil Gibran, from his poem “On Work”:

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil” …

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

What I take from Gibran is this: You are made to love, and your work—no matter what it is—should be the way you express your love. That might sound as if being ambitious or hardworking doesn’t matter so long as we have a heart full of love. But that’s not the implication. To love others through our work involves bringing our very best effort every day; to be completely, uncompromisingly dedicated to excellence in what we do. Whether we work in a bank, or put roofs on houses, or take care of our children full-time, true love means not cutting corners.

Excellence is not separate from love, not a modern, free-market addendum to the will of the divine. Back in Genesis, after creating man and woman in his image, what did God say? He said it was very good. Self, love, and excellence—all brought together.

This takes us full circle, to the natural anxiety about finding a job that meets your passion. What should you do? Again, that’s the wrong first question. Ask yourself instead how you can go about doing with love and excellence whatever work comes your way. Take opportunities as they arise, recognizing that the job you are in is simply the available means to love and be excellent. And if you cannot achieve excellence in that job or do it with love, then—if you can—leave it quickly.

If finding the perfect job is not important, why does everyone worry about it so much? We can blame our parents, or our culture, or our economy. But the true answer is a short circuit in our reasoning.

We start with a very plausible set of assumptions: When I find my unique sense of purpose in my work, then I will be successful at what I do. And when I am successful, I will be happy. This seems entirely rational, but it commits a crucial error: It assumes that worldly success brings happiness. That is simply not true. Any amount of research shows that pursuing success—whether you count that in money, power, or prestige—usually leads to less happiness, especially when the pursuit crowds out human relationships. It lowers satisfaction by putting you on the hedonic treadmill of never having enough. It makes you a success addict.

This doesn’t mean you have to choose between success and happiness; it means you need to have the right goal. What social scientists find is that people who pursue their happiness also become more successful. So shoot for happiness first at work, and success will follow.

How to find happiness at work? It so happens that a very good strategy for finding happiness in work is … to strive for excellence and love. Excellence at work is sometimes called “earned success,” a mixture of effort and accomplishment that in turn enhances your job satisfaction and commitment to a career.

Love here takes the form of serving others, which again underpins the deep fulfillment that work can bring. Whom we serve varies; it might be our customers, our colleagues, or the public. But dedicating your work to the good of others can make what might have been the most imperfect job into a perfect moral mission.

You need only two pieces of navigational equipment on that mission: the love in your heart and the will to be excellent. If you have those, you will find the answer to the question “Who am I?” You will find satisfaction. And you will make our world a better place.”

Arthur C Brooks, Commencement speech at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.The Atlantic, 2023.5.13