How to Create a Fulfilling Career?

August 3, 2023


Dr Sven Hansen

Could this be life’s most important question? Today, the quest for a fulfilling career is open to almost everyone. This was not so in the past. Whilst there is some science and logic to this question, it is also an art. Sometimes it takes years of agonising pursuit and course correction. Sometimes we are just lucky.

In this article

  • Importance of creating a fulfilling career and its accessibility today.
  • Connection between purpose, flow, and fulfillment in a career.
  • The ultimate fulfillment through the experience of "flow."
  • Practical drills to build a fulfilling career.

This morning I talked to a civil engineer who had battled through large industrial projects. By luck, he discovered that certain people in an area desired large underground cellars and bunkers. Within months he found himself in a niche that has given him challenge, fulfilment and reward. There has been lots of hard work, but this discovery is one of luck and good timing.

Fulfilment—to be happy, engaged and fulfilled—has consistently scored as one of the key factors that defines people with the highest resilience. In 2022, it was the single most important factor. Purpose, focus and sleep are also high on the list.

Current research leans towards purpose being a better contributor to happiness, health and longevity. We wrestle with the question: should I chase purpose or fulfilment? Our team believes the two are inseparable. Your career—or what you decide to do—binds them.

Defining a fulfilling career

We are free to seek what is important—massive, quick wealth; a safe, relaxed career meeting basic needs; to change the world; to keep a parent or spouse happy; to be the best in a field, to travel, to surf, and many more.

In our experience with thousands of successful people, the most fulfilling careers integrate purpose, flow and fulfilment. Purpose (clear and meaningful) is the input that defines the scope of your career. Fulfilment (engaged and happy) is the output when you get it right.

To bind them, we must find flow. Flow is a state that emerges from skilful activity, which secures your purpose. It happens when we match our skills with a meaningful challenge. We become focused, fully engaged and deeply connected with the execution of our skills. Flow is defined as your optimal performance state. You can be as much as five times more effective when in the flow state.

The experience of flow is the ultimate fulfilment. Sure, a great wine, an ice cream or a love story can give you a surge of happiness. However, despite the promises of consumer products, happiness quickly fades to be replaced by regret, more craving and sometimes tragic results. To experience the lasting fulfilment of flow, we must define, explore and train the skills required.

To understand the flow, search your own experience. Perhaps it was mastering a dance, creating art, a sporting achievement, completing a challenging project, or solving a complex problem with colleagues. You will notice that your mind was quiet, you lost track of time, and there was effortlessness or grace in the activity.

How do you map your progress?

Building Your Fulfilling Career

A lucky few may bump into a meaningful purpose and discover the skills to achieve it in flow. We often think of the musical genius (Mozart), gifted athlete (Alcaraz) or young entrepreneur (Zuckerberg) as being blessed with an instant solution. However, those who diligently research these talented people find a massive amount of focused work went into it. In addition, they have brilliant teachers, mentors or colleagues who push them forward.

Getting the proper matching of purpose, flow, and fulfilment requires deliberate discipline over long periods of time. We may need to modify, retrain and even change careers to get it right. The most significant risks are complacency, entitlement and rigidity. Don’t expect the dream career to land in your lap or that you are entitled to it in some way. Hunt and fight for the right opportunities. When a choice is not working out, stay alert and flexible. Sometimes we must double down, but at times, we need to change and start again.

Below are eight practical drills to help you craft your journey and a potential trap in each.

1. Apply your life experience

Examine your own life first. What inspired you? What things have you been good at? Where have you found flow? What has given you deep fulfilment? Can you identify the domains in which you can excel—sport, music, art, crafts, mathematics, language, science, etc? Test out how many combinations of purpose and flow you can imagine.

Trap: unrealistic comparisons with experts.

2. Learn from those you admire

Study those who have succeeded in your opinion. Research their early life experience. How did they discover their journey? Who helped them? How did they practice and develop their skills? Those who become real experts almost always have coaches. As you explore your own journey, reach out to those with experience. Gather a few mentors. Consider getting a coach.

Trap: the narcissistic impulse to believe you can do it alone.

3. Shape your purpose

There are many worthy challenges. Start with your own passion. What really matters to you? How can you contribute to a meaningful outcome over your career? Make sure that your purpose is more than a short-term goal. How will you measure your achievement as you progress in your career? Look for interactions and combinations that may contribute to accelerating your purpose.

Trap: seeing purpose only from your perspective (ask what the world needs).

4. Define the flow that will help you achieve the purpose

The purpose is broken down into achievable goals or challenges. Success requires skills to match the challenge. It can take years to perfect the skills necessary. Consider how you will educate and train yourself to master the skills you need. My daughter aims to be a great lawyer. She has debated for a decade, accumulating various debating flow experiences from school debates to international competitions. When she arrives in court for a major case, she will have a deep reserve of debating expertise to draw upon.

Trap: leaving the development of your flow experiences too late.

5. Focus on clear, challenging goals

Your goals are the milestones that mark the progress of your journey. Be very focused on the most crucial goal to progress to the next milestone. Work in focused bursts where you give 100% of your attention to securing the goal. The more focused you can be, the more flow leverage you will secure and progress faster.

Trap: wasting energy and time on what you cannot influence now.

6. Practice and fine-tune the skills required

Each goal requires a set of well-practised skills. This is where a coach can be very helpful. The tennis player drills movement on each surface, backhands, forehands, serves and net. The debater drills how to read and understand the opposition’s perspectives, interests and arguments while maintaining calm, focused attention on responding and engaging the judge. The professional masters the different components of their discipline to serve their clients with confident expertise.

Trap: failing to drill the finer points of your skill set.

7. Embrace failure and setbacks

Every setback is an opportunity to analyse your skills and look for adaptation. Take time for an after-action review. Engage others and, ideally, a coach in deep analysis, problem-solving and practising the set of skills to succeed. We can learn from sports teams. They analyse video feedback to define the exact sequence of physical, emotional and mental steps that delivered success or failure. Together they problem-solve and then get out on the pitch and practice the adjustments and new sequences.

Trap: push your failures under the carpet.

8. Celebrate your successes

Meeting your goal and being in flow both bring a rush of fulfilment. Take time to enjoy your success. Tell the story. Reward yourself. Take time for recovery and relaxation. Savour the preparation, training, focused application, learning and recovery rhythm. You are making progress. You are experiencing a meaningful life. You are advancing a fulfilling career.

Trap: rushing back into the grind too quickly.

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