About five years ago, I was considering making a major career shift. I’d been working at a job I liked for several years, but the industry I was in did not excite me the way my volunteer work in animal rescue did. I’ve loved animals since I was a kid; the volunteer work filled me with a sense of purpose, and seeing the immediate outcome of my work (deserving animals going to good homes) made me feel deeply satisfied. It seemed obvious I should try to get paid to do it. I began looking for jobs at shelters and humane societies, but the more I applied and interviewed—even to the point of being offered a job—the less enthusiastic I became about making the change. I’d wanted this forever. Why was I hesitating?
As I went through the application process and pictured what my days would consist of, I felt immensely stressed; it wasn’t the normal anxiety and uncertainty that goes along with a new transition, it was the slow realization that my dream job might not actually be a good fit for my personality. I’d mistaken my passion for the cause with satisfaction in the day-to-day job responsibilities.
I’m emotionally porous; the situations of the animals and the people I was working with are what made the job meaningful to me, but they were hard to shake off at the end of the day. I am also introverted, and much of the daily work required spending time with large groups of people, mostly strangers, at adoption events or in a shelter facility. I already knew how depleting that was for me from my time at occasional volunteer events on weekends. The thought of doing it five days a week didn’t thrill or excite me. It made me want to run away.
I was satisfied as a volunteer, in part because it meant that I could contribute to something important to me while working largely independently from my calm, quiet home. It wasn’t that I disliked interacting with potential adopters—on the contrary, I came to feel very connected with some of them, and the satisfaction of making a great placement was immense. But I was spending maybe 10 hours a week doing that, and 40 hours or more would be a totally different story. Reluctantly, and with some amount of shame because I had expended so much energy pursuing and talking about this shift, I decided to stop.
This experience was painful at times, but unexpectedly gave me a different perspective on my actual job, the one I’d been thinking about leaving. While I had always believed generally in the cause I was working for, it didn’t speak to a deep part of my identity. The day to day tasks, however, did excite me. I liked the variety, the creativity, the people I worked with, and the latitude I had in my role. I recognized that I had a lot more control and flexibility around my responsibilities than I had previously thought. I also loved my work environment, which included wonderful colleagues, a predictable schedule, and natural light. Ultimately, I realized that these elements were far more influential to my overall satisfaction and emotional health than working for a cause I’d believed in since I was a kid, but whose day-to-day responsibilities were a poor fit for my personality.
There are some people whose personality and job interests align wonderfully with an industry for which they also have an abiding passion. My husband Tim, who is a video game designer, is one of these people: In addition to having a personal and intellectual love of games, he also deeply enjoys the daily tasks of designing and programming. For most of us, though, I think that the search for job satisfaction often necessitates prioritizing one or the other to some degree. The specifics of that equation—what amount of compromise you can tolerate on either the organization’s mission or the specifics of your role—is different for everyone.
Sometimes, you can bring both pieces closer together by letting your passion follow you. As I refocused myself on the job and field I actually worked in, rather than indulging in fantasies about a different path that I now knew wasn’t right for me, I put more effort into my projects and my professional development. My work began to occupy a small part of my identity (in a good way) that it hadn’t before as my responsibilities changed and expanded. As I became more experienced and more knowledgeable, I also came to believe deeply in the mission I was working toward.
“The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.
Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.