Find your passion? Finding meaning and purpose in your work & life.

 In careers, for grad students, for postdocs, PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness

“Find your passion. Do what makes you happy.”

We hear this advice all the time and think, yeah, it would be great to find a career one is passionate about, that makes one happy, pays one well, and fits one’s skill set and interests. But is it reasonable to expect this out of one, single job? Maybe, but we Americans are, too often, allowing our careers to define us (termed “workism” in this recent The Atlantic piece and see also this piece by the New York Times), which can be problematic.

In this second-to-last blog post, I will talk about some of the key aspects of work we find fulfilling. According to the book Drive by Daniel Pink, and based on research by Edward Deci in the 1970s, we perform best when we are intrinsically motivated. The three key factors that determine intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I will break down those three concepts in terms of work satisfaction (I will use my new job as an example), but other activities can also fill these human needs.


By autonomy, I mean feeling in control of your situation in life, work, etc. Autonomy in terms of work means not feeling micromanaged in your job, having the ability to prioritize your schedule, and choosing to do things in an order and manner that work for you.

I can say in my current position that I have a lot of autonomy: I decide how to prioritize and order my day, the tasks I need to accomplish, and my larger goals for the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at North Carolina State University. This is great and a huge plus for my current role.

Now, it isn’t like I have complete autonomy and one shouldn’t expect such autonomy, unless you are your self-employed and, thus, your own boss. In my current role, there are still somewhat mundane tasks that I have to do.

For me, that is human resources-related tasks associated with the postdoctoral appointment and hiring processes at NC State. Would I say completing human resource actions in the multi-layered systems at NC State is my passion and makes me happy? No. Is it an essential component of my job? Yes.

I take the approach of framing these human resource tasks as critical to the purpose of my job – to improve the postdoctoral experience. This is important because it ties to another key factor of intrinsic motivation–purpose. I need to review these hire actions to be sure the institution (and the PIs) are treating postdocs in an appropriate way that both follows our institutional policies but also ensures the postdoc’s best interests are considered.

Life is a matter of perspective and having the right mindset of WHY what your doing is important/necessary can get you through some mundane tasks.


People want to feel like they are making progress in their lives; that they are improving and getting better. Humans seek mastery in their work.

As a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you have spent years mastering your experimental, analytical, and communication skills to produce a dissertation, publications, and conference presentations. It feels good to know you are making progress and, as a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you are keenly aware of how frustrating it feels to not make noticeable progress. A career is also filled with both sides of the mastery coin: moving forward and spinning one’s wheels. Sometimes it is very clear you are progressing toward mastery in a key task/component of your job or nearing completion of some large project or deliverable. Sometimes, though, you feel like you are not progressing. That is life and sometimes measuring progress is tricky.

So, while a sense of mastery and self-improvement is important for fulfillment, you can define what that means to you. If you feel like you have learned a little more than the day before, that you are a little more comfortable in your role than the day before, then you are making progress. It is often dangerous to put too much stock in measurable progress as it doesn’t usually capture subtle aspects of one’s job. As anyone in the sciences knows, the number of papers one publishes does not, in and of itself, denote the degree of mastery or accomplishment one has achieved in your training. I have only been in my new role a little over a month, but I feel like I am making progress in understanding the key responsibilities of my position, including learning how to best interface with key people at NC State and how to interact effectively with our postdoctoral community.

Please define mastery and self-improvement in a way that makes you appreciate the slow, incremental progress that accompanies much of work.      


Working toward a larger purpose can help one persevere when times are tough. It allows you to keep in perspective the reason you do the work. Ideally, your career fills your need to be doing work that has a purpose. In my case, I focus on improving the postdoctoral experience at NC State University. I know firsthand that the postdoctoral years can be challenging and filled with uncertainty, and I hope that I can help current postdocs identify the unique skills they can bring to the workforce and match that to a career that fits them. I will know if I am successful if I see our postdocs moving on to satisfying careers of their own.

All work does not have a higher purpose, though. Sometimes you are in a bull*hit job or, as others have labeled them, a rent-seeking job—jobs that don’t produce tangible products or results. These jobs are plentiful and involve processing transactions, moving money around, lobbying, etc. While it could be argued they produce something, their value to society is debated. I won’t get into economic theory, but the point here is that it is difficult to find purpose or feel like one is making the world a better place in some careers. That is OK because you aren’t just your career.

Don’t Let Your Career Alone Define You

Too often in America, we allow our careers to define us. I am as guilty as the next person; I often ask at social functions, “So, what do you do?”. This question doesn’t specifically ask about someone’s job function, but often that is how individuals interpret the question.

Perhaps even worse than that question is the awkward response, “well, I am between jobs right now.” A paying job doesn’t have to define what we do with our lives. You can volunteer for an organization you are passionate about, you can stay at home spending quality time with your kids, or you can take time off to travel the country with your loved one(s), making memories along the way.

I took my new job to be closer to the people who mean so much to me. I plan to frequently visit my aging parents who live on the coast of North Carolina (a 2.5-hour drive from my new job), I will reconnect with old friends from Furman University and UNC-Chapel Hill who live in the area, and I want to see more of my sister who lives a couple of hours away. I also am plan to take the time to visit my other sister in Memphis, TN, from time to time. The flexibility of my new role gives me all these opportunities and I am thankful for that. Furthermore, there is data suggesting recent graduates who value time over money report greater well being (and more intrinsically motivated activity pursuits—pursuing work that they find meaningful in itself versus work they seek for financial/status reasons).

If you allow work to define you, then when work isn’t going well you won’t feel well.

It is essential to have activities outside of work that give one’s life meaning. What those are will vary from person to person, but you should seek out activities that fill the key component of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

If you can’t find purpose in your job, you could volunteer for an organization whose mission statement aligns with your interests: tutoring, helping the homeless, advocating to Congress regarding some issue, etc.

If you don’t feel like your job allows you to achieve mastery, take up a new hobby and learn how to knit, build a chair, speak a new language, etc.

If you don’t feel like your job gives you autonomy, take control of some other aspect of your life. Maybe you decide to take up a new exercise routine or re-connect with an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Do something that gives you a sense of control and brings with it self-fulfillment.

Final Thoughts

In closing, be careful in your search for the elusive “dream job.” Finding a job that fills the needs of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, plus pays you well and fits your interest and skillset is a tough, perhaps an impossible order. The good news is that your job doesn’t have to define you as a person nor should it be your only sense of self-worth or fulfillment. Even the best job has its tough moments, and that is when you need to have other activities (volunteering, hobbies) and roles (sibling, parent, son/daughter, friend) that give your life meaning and purpose. You are more than your job, and you can define what a successful, fulfilling, and meaningful life looks like for you.

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