Short Summary: Finding fulfilling work isn’t obvious, but it’s not rocket science either. In part 1 of this 3-part guide, we’ll examine the big-picture factors that make any career feel worthwhile. (This is a summary of the research that 80,000hours.org compiled. They are another great resource)
You chose SLP for a reason.
Maybe you had a loved one who stuttered, or suffered a stroke. For me, I loved communication and psychology and helping people 1-1.
The decent salary and flexibility to work across the lifespan gave my wandering heart the optionality I crave.
But yet here we are, on a site about finding a new path.
So what went wrong?
It’s easy to find what’s wrong with your current role when you’re in it. But the last thing I want is for you to jump ship and face burnout all over again in a new role—out of the frying pan and into the fryer.
So in part 1 of this 3 part guide, Let’s dive into what makes a satisfying career.
Careers are like snowflakes; no two are alike. But good careers—across all fields— have a lot in common.
By reading this guide, you’ll know where to start, so you can avoid mistakes that lead to future burnout.
What makes a good career?
You can find well-meaning career advice anywhere you look. From your parents, your culture, and even shaky personality tests.
We’re notoriously bad at judging what will make us happy.
It doesn’t help that the world of work is changing exponentially. Traditional advice is often outdated, based on models of what worked for in the past.
Meanwhile, the idea of “finding your passion” gained poplarity around the 90s.
I could (and probably will) write a whole article on the problem with “following your passion.”
But if you’re like me, you’ve been led to believe that we’ll find passion, money, and meaning hiding somewhere under a rock.
But we’re a scientifically literate crowd. So let’s look at what the evidence says.
In part 1 of this guide, we’ll look at:
- Where we can go wrong seeking career satisfaction
- What actually leads to fulfilling work (based on science).
Myths about what makes a satisfying career:
1) Myth 1: A good career is low stress.
Stress is neither good nor bad; it’s just a reaction in your body. That may sound like woo woo psycho-babble, but it’s true!
Rock climbing is stressful, but I love it because it’s engaging on a physical and mental level. I feel stressed as hell while climbing a hard route, but I find meaning and accomplishment in leveling up my skills.
The problem with most modern work-stress is it’s chronic. A low-level hum of anxiety in the background at all times.
So clearly, not all stress is created equally.
To understand stress, we need to break it down:
- Where is the stress coming from and how often?
- Is it stress that I can solve with my skills, or out of my control?
I find that SLP stress is a special blend: Being spread too thin, feeling stuck in a system that values paperwork and productivity over actual impact.
So, this is how I’d answer those two questions:
- The stress comes from admin, parents, clients, and “the system.” (wait, it comes from everywhere?…)
- I have the skills to treat my clients. BUT not with a huge caseload, planning and paperwork demands, AND little ASHA and admin support.
Just reading that may’ve given you PTSD.
And your first impulse may be to find a job with little responsibility and demands. don’t end up with the opposite problem: boredom and lack of meaning.
As appealing as sipping margaritas on the beach for the rest of your days—(or simply stocking shelves at Trader Joe’s with no care plans and IEPs) —sounds….
Low stress for the sake of low stress isn’t all that engaging…
For example, when you optimize for low-stress and high-pay, you get an Actuary.
But I don’t know anyone who really feels energized being an Actuary, do you?
Enter: The goldilocks stress zone
So you don’t want zero demands— you want a job that is demanding, but you have the ability to meet those demands. AKA a sense of agency to meet challenges that feel meaningful.
This goldilocks zone of demands/stress vs skill/ability is where flow happens.
Too little demands and you’re falling asleep and mind-wandering.
Too many and you’re biting your nails and feel overwhelmed.
Flow is where your skills meet the demand, and you lose track of time. The over-analyzing part of your brain turns down. You get in the zone.
You’re not constantly smiling, but you’re feeling engaged and accomplished at the end of a work day.
This is where long-term satisfaction lives.
Bottom line: Aim for stress that engages your skills so you feel in-control and in flow.
2) Myth 2: More money will make you happier
Money dramatically buys happiness when it meets your basic needs.
In other words, if you’re worried about how to pay the rent and reliably put food on your table, money will ease that chronic stress. But after that (around 70K for most Americans), it only marginally affects happiness.
Money is just a tool to unlock other experiences.
You’ll find more happiness if you use it for positive impact like donating to a charity you love than buying more stuff.
Money can give you the security to try side-projects, and focus on hobbies and relationships, so you don’t have to work at a job you hate.
So in that sense, money buys freedom.
But if the path to gain money is super stressful or boring in a way that saps your energy, sense of agency, and meaning, well then… what’s the cost?
Ok, so now we know that money and zero stress won’t solve our existential dread. So what will?
The “big 3” Correlates of Highly Satisfying Work (here’s what really matters):
1) Work you’re good at
They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. But you don’t need to be at the top .1% of your career to feel satisfied. You just need to feel that you have some basic competency, and the potential to keep improving.
That way, you’re starting from a solid foundation, and work feels like an infinite game of leveling-up.
One issue with SLP work is that our skills aren’t directly tied to outcomes. There’s a lot of gray area.
We’re dealing with humans after all. So even if you are a super CEU nerd with the best lesson plans, your client might make sluggish progress.
Sadly, our human brains aren’t great at feeling satisfied from super-delayed feedback loops.
That’s why athletes and programmers probably feel more flow, because they can see the exact correlation between their input and output.
Some days I felt competent and unstoppable as an SLP. But factors outside my control overshadow the happy confident feelings. Maybe you can relate?
2) Work that helps others
Hey, we’re pretty good at this! I’ve always been an empath who loved making people feel good. And I didn’t understand the point of working just to make a profit.
As a child, I remember looking out the window as we drove by soulless gray corporate buildings.
I asked my mom, “what are those?”
“Oh people work there, honey.”
“What kind of work?”
“uhh, filing reports and selling things?”
As SLPs, we know the joy that comes from connecting with someone to unlock communication.
We’re wired to feel joy from this 1-1 empathic impact. That gooey oxytocin and dopamine hit that’s released when we help others feels wonderful.
But there are ways to have a much bigger impact outside of clinical work, which I’ll cover in a future article.
Bottom Line: Helping others gives our work lives meaning.
But number three may be the hardest one for SLPs to find…
3) Supportive Conditions
This feels obvious, but if your work conditions are shit, then you’re gonna have a bad time. You feel better with:
- Adequate office space (SLP closets anyone?!)
- Access to supplies and continued education/learning
- Supportive colleagues and managers that value your skills and presence
- Social support and shared values (not having to cry in your car alone)
- A feeling of autonomy
In fact, just having a good friend at work can dramatically boost happiness.
But “supportive conditions” go beyond your work-life.
If you commute 90 minutes to work, and bring home so much paperwork and planning that you don’t have a life outside of work…
You’re gonna resent your work.
A remote worker, on the other hand, will likely feel a lot of autonomy to create their work environment, but they may lack social support.
In part 2 of this guide, we’ll look at examples of careers and how they compare on these parameters.
For now, let’s summarize.
To find fulfilling work, look for:
- Work you’re good at,
- Work that helps others,
- Supportive conditions: engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow; supportive colleagues; lack of major negatives like unfair pay; and work that fits your personal life.
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