by Laura Gassner Otting
You’ve checked all the boxes. You’ve graduated from the right college, held the right internship, flourished in the right graduate program, and landed the right job at the right company. You’ve followed the path that everyone else told you would be the one to lead to success — to your dream job — only to find that your dream job doesn’t feel so dreamy after all.
The good news is that you aren’t alone. Across each generation, the realization that success hasn’t brought with it the expected happiness has created a zeitgeist moment where conversations about purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction reign supreme. In fact, a 2015 study by Gallup showed that only one-third of the American workforce feels actively engaged in their work.
Each generation is experiencing its own work identity crisis, trying to determine why their work isn’t working for them. Millennials — social media natives who have never lived separate lives at work and at home — don’t look for work-life balance, but rather work-life alignment, where they can be the same person, with the same values, at home and in the office. Boomers are turning the standard retirement age of 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day, but are not ready to put their hard-earned toolboxes on the shelf to gather dust. One-third of Americans over the age of fifty —nearly 34 million people — stated that they were seeking to fill their time with some professional (paid or unpaid) purpose beyond just the self. GenXers, finding themselves caught between raising children and nursing aging parents, are looking for work that contributes to managing these demands rather than working against them.
While these generations may differ in terms of what’s most meaningful to them, across each generation, meaning matters.
What Makes a Good Job Good?
Stories regularly appear in major national publications about what makes a good job good. Many focus on the same old ideas handed to us by school and career counselors, including things like mission, leadership, scope, impact, prestige, and money. These “scorecards” are meant to determine the value of the job, but they leave out the most important part of the equation: the value of the job to you.
If you’ve determined that your dream job is not really all that dreamy, it may be that you have done all the right things along everyone else’s path to everyone else’s definition of success, only to realize when you’ve moved into a new age or life stage that the great life you built was meant for someone else. You don’t have consonance — the sense of friction less belonging, of momentous stride, of core relevance. It is a guiding force that reveals how your work contributes to your overall life’s plan. It connects your daily activities to the success of those around you, and gives you clarity about why you — specifically you, in that seat, in that office, in that box on the organizational chart — matter. Consonance is not just purpose writ large (and lofty). It’s your purpose, freely and clearly defined by you, and put into action through awareness of and alignment with your life’s plan.
Employers are always searching for the next bright shiny object to recruit staff in a competitive environment. Free dry cleaning, ping-pong tables, and kombucha on tap all look good on a recruiting prospectus, but they do nothing to help keep those employees engaged. Happiness recruits, but consonance retains.
Consonance is when what you do matches who you are (or who you want to be). You achieve consonance when your work has purpose and meaning for you. Over the course of two decades studying, interviewing, and stewarding leaders from the corporate, nonprofit, and public sectors through major career change, I saw over and over again the damage caused by a lack of consonance, by the disconnect between purpose, action, and that external view of success. And I saw that true success comes from a combination of four particular elements that allow individuals to carve their own paths, do their best work, and live their best lives. The elements of consonance are calling, connection, contribution, and control:
Calling is a gravitational pull towards a goal larger than yourself — a business you want to build, a leader who inspires you, a societal ill you wish to remedy, a cause you wish to serve.
Connection gives you sight lines into how your everyday work serves that calling by solving the problem at hand, growing the company’s bottom line, or reaching that goal.Contribution means that you understand how this job, this brand, this paycheck contributes to the community to which you want to belong, the person you want to be, or the lifestyle you’d like to live.
Control reflects how you are able to influence your connection to that calling in order to have some say in the assignment of projects, deadlines, colleagues, and clients; to offer input into shared goals; and to do work that contributes to your career trajectory and earnings.
Consonance looks different for everyone. It’s ever-changing, evolving as we age and pass through life’s various stages and adjust our priorities. Yours will be unique to you. The four elements that make up your consonance, however, are fixed. Before you leave your less-than-dreamy job, consider assessing how these elements add up in their own unique way for you, so that you may truly find the right next job that offers value to you.