7 Career Theories to Help You Find Fulfilling Work

How should you live your life?

It’s the fundamental question at the heart of a fulfilling and happy career. However, many people overlook the importance of keeping true to themselves throughout their working lives. We are all constantly confronted with contradictory ideals; we think we want one thing but then start to want another. We’re always trying to weigh up what really matters, which often creates major dilemmas.

Do these sound familiar?

  • Day job (usually offering security and money) vs. dream job (usually offering freedom and creativity)
  • Helping others vs. helping my bank balance vs. the security of the 9-5 job
  • Narrow career vs. portfolio career
  • Technical expertise vs. leadership and management
  • Pure challenges vs. lifestyle career
  • Money vs. your life  (especially for long-hour, stressful jobs)
  • “Work should be hard and challenging” vs. “work should be fun”
  • Work-life compartmentalisation vs. work-life integration
  • Career on your own terms vs. caged career by peer, family and societal pressure needing you to be eg. the “perfect mother”, “high  flyer”, “successful professional” etc.
  • Stressful, starter years learning the job vs. job coasting in what you already know

The first thing to remember is that none of us are blank canvases; we all come with pre-existing, in-built opinions about what success really means. Our career dilemmas are unique; as are the solutions, which make it difficult to make sense of what we should be doing. Here are some ideas to assist you in understanding where you’re at and how to move forward:

Career theories to help you find direction

Around 2000 years ago, Aristotle advised us “where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” Not a bad start, right? For those of you that don’t have the time to study philosophers from Aristotle to Kierkegaard, and everyone in between, here’s what’s happened since.

Theory 1

‘Do what people you know are doing, usually your friends or family.’

The medieval attitude – you probably agree it’s a bit outdated, yet it’s still rife.

Theory 2

‘Find the things you think you are good at, find a job that needs these (and ideally pays as much as possible) and then do it. Simple.’

Holland’s Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments. A bit like Aristotle said, still widely popular yet oversimplifies the complex and changing labour market.

Theory 3

‘Know your aptitudes, interests and personality, then match it to the labour market.’

For many Frank Parson’s is seen as the father of careers guidance. His Factor Theory of Occupational Choice provides a great foundation with the introduction of personality traits, yet overlooks that so often we don’t know what we want until we’ve tried it out.

Theory 4

‘Get real – circumstances determine career success.’

Ken Roberts’ opportunity structure theory certainly highlights the social conditions, consequences and limitations of careers guidance and how we focus too much on the high flyers and not the rest. A welcome reality check.

Theory 5

‘Play to your strengths, what you’re good at and enjoy –  activities that energise you.’

Martin Seligman,  father of positive psychology, focuses attention on out strengths, too often overlooked in the nuts and bolts competency-based recruitment paradigm. Unfortunately, it’s been oversimplified by the wave of ‘do what you love’ and ‘find your passion’ advice in the last twenty years.

Theory 6

‘You can’t plan your career. You never know what’s around the corner.’

Inspired by chaos theory, John Krumboltz’s planned happenstance theory beckons us to stay curious, open-minded and opportunistic.

Theory 7

‘I have to extract and make meaning in my life making rational decisions based on my values.’

Existential career theory gives all of us hope that a thorough assessment of our values, attitudes and beliefs will result in a career and life of purpose.

You’re the only expert on you

All too often we hear that making change happen means you quit your job, live off your savings and feel the fear. But what if there were a different way? What if you could go for broke without going broke? What if you could start today?

Your life matters. Your career decisions matter. The difficulty is no one else can tell you how to live your life or navigate the choices.

It’s time to ask yourself the right questions to define success on your own terms.

About the author: Martin Underwood is Head of Career at Life Productions, helping professionals find fulfilling careers, inside or outside of their current jobs. His Career Fulfilment Score test helps people identify what they should be doing with their careers. 

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