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What is important to you in a career? This is probably a question most of us don’t think about because we are too busy working.  The reason why so many of us are unhappy at work is because we are preoccupied with the daily tasks of our jobs as opposed to understanding what we value in a career.

The Difference Between a Job and a Career

A job and a career are two very different things.  A job is the place we go to most days that pays the bills.  A career is, or should be, a reflection of your values and passion in life.  One of the most important tasks is to discover what you value and what you find rewarding.  Is it money and status? What about helping people, or affirmation from someone (like a boss) that you are doing a good job?

You can look at the concepts of our values and what provides a reward from a few different perspectives.  Simply put, make a list of what you value and what makes you happy.  That is a very simple way to determine the direction you might take in your career.

The Concept of Reward and Finding Value in a Career

We can also look at what provides a reward by thinking about it from a more abstract, behavioral perspective.  Do you work in sales and remember what it felt like the first time you closed on a really big account? That surge of pure raw emotion? The positive reinforcement we receive from a reward, such as money, is the result of dopamine (although the process is a bit more complicated than that)! The reward circuits in our brains are controlled by the neurotransmitter dopamine and a structure called the basal ganglia.  You may ask, but why do I care? I’m not rat pushing a lever.

I think you should stop and think about this because if you can figure out what makes YOU tick, you can find the key to what is rewarding to you.  My first job right out of graduate school was in a transitional housing program providing case management to homeless veterans.  Every time I drove into the VA campus and saw all of the American flags, I could feel a surge of emotion.  It was in fact, the same feeling I got in college while strolling through Columbia’s campus at night.  The glow from the library, all lit up in the dark sent chills cursing through me.

Putting the Pieces Together to Find Fulfillment and Not Just Another Job

What does all of this mean? For me, helping others and personal achievement after years of hard work are both values of mine AND rewarding. For me to find career success, I need to find a career that fulfills both of those values.  The company I have created fulfills both of those values.  For you, it might be money, approval of family, the ability to change levels within a company, or selling a particular product.  It is not for anyone to tell you what is important to you or to judge what you should value and what you find rewarding.

You need to stop overthinking and pay attention to how your various work achievements make you feel.  You can use this simple tool to help you make decisions about what direction to take in your career.  Once you recognize what career achievements provide you a sense of reward, you can move forward to make decisions that will provide you with the most fulfilling career path.

Jackie graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2002 with a B.A. in Psychology.