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  • Katie Barker

The career challenge

Updated: Jun 30, 2022


Our careers present us with one of the biggest challenges we face – to find an external expression for our deepest interests and talents, in a form that will be useful to others.

This is not always easy to accomplish:

  • Firstly, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of career paths on offer.

  • Secondly, it’s very difficult for most of us to locate our true interests. The generic advice to ‘follow your passion’ isn’t all that helpful when you have no idea what you’re passionate about!

  • And finally, it’s hard to know what a useful job looks like, particularly at the beginning of your career. A job may be hugely beneficial to the world, but we don’t feel the impact if an organisation is too large.

So what steps can we take to make sure we rise to this challenge and have a fulfilling, high impact career?

1. At the beginning, experiment – and say ‘yes’ to every opportunity

Despite what we might like to think, we are all pretty bad predictors of what makes us happy.

So at the beginning of your career, experiment. Say yes to every opportunity, and live where opportunities can easily find you. The Civil Service Fast Stream is one way to experiment in a variety of roles in departments across government. It will help you better understand both the work you enjoy and what you can become good at.

As you experiment, pay close attention to what excites you and what drains you.

And since most jobs have bad beginnings, it’s just as important to assess what the work looks like for people a few years ahead of you.

The earlier you learn these lessons, the better. As one modern day writer on careers puts it, “it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

2. Define what good work means to you

Once you’ve done enough experimenting, start to define very specifically what you want from your working life.

Be highly selective – what components are non-negotiable for you?

Once you have defined what good work means to you, you’ll have a much better chance of finding it.

Impactful Government Careers offers one-to-one career coaching sessions for civil servants to help you decide where to focus your career and what impact means to you.

3. Early on, focus on career capital over impact

It’s hard to help others without being good at your job. Besides, being good at your job is really important for a happy and fulfilling career.

So before you worry too much about having a big impact, build your career capital – the skills, networks and experience you will need to succeed.

Examples of transferable, future-proof career capital include contacts, speaking, writing, psychology, design, conversation, a second language, persuasion, programming and focus. Civil Service Learning offers lots of learning and development opportunities, helping equip you with the right skills to move your career forward.

Focus on the learning process, not the result. Pick projects which, even if they fail to achieve your desired result, will equip you with skills and networks that will benefit you in the future.

You don’t need to obtain mastery in any one field. A rare combination of skill sets and experiences is probably more useful in the long run, and often easier to achieve.

Once you feel the learning curve slowing in any particular job, move on. Boredom is failure!

4. Later on, focus on impact over career capital

Later in your career, you will hopefully have the career capital required to do a great deal of good in the world.

You can now use this hard-earned career capital to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

5. Towards the end of your career, only

say ‘yes’ to the very best opportunities

By this point in your career, you can afford to be much more selective than when you were experimenting. If an opportunity doesn’t really excite you, and doesn’t provide massive scope for impact, you should feel free to say ‘no’ to it.

Apply the ‘hell yes or no!’ test. Either an opportunity should make you think ‘hell yes!’, or you say ‘no’.

When you say ‘no’ to most things you leave room in your career, and in your life, to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that really excites you.

Further reading

On Career Crises, Alain de Botton

Effective Altruism, TedX Talk from Beth Barnes

Summary of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport

(This post was originally published on the HIPE website in 2019)

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