How to Choose a Career That Fulfills You—While Keeping Your 9–5

These steps helped me—and others I’ve coached—find the right career and a great job

Emily Smith
Nov 13 · 14 min read
Woman holding a mug that says ‘like a boss’
Woman holding a mug that says ‘like a boss’
Image by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

I’ve had many ideas of what I thought would make a good career for me that turned out to be completely false.

What I did choose (a career in account management) was not something I felt aligned with. After a few experiences of being in the wrong job, and seeing how it negatively impacted my health, my energy, and my relationships, I knew I had to find something that was fulfilling for me. I realized this in 2016, and it wasn’t until 2020 that I created a career that involves everything I love.

After starting my side business and offering freelance writing and marketing services, plus eight months of searching for a job, I found a fulfilling full-time role. It took some soul searching and investigative research.

Common Approaches That DIDN’T Work

Before I share the steps to finding a career that’s truly fulfilling for you, here are some common mindset traps I first encountered, and that you may be caught up in yourself.

Choosing a career based only on financial gain

When I was in university, I started idolizing what a life with a career in corporate finance would be like—not because I had any interest in the actual work, but because of the financial opportunity available. There was money to be made, and by only considering that, finance seemed like the best option.

I was surrounded by others that did love it, so I thought it would also work for me. But since my goal was paying off student loans as quickly as possible, not finding a career that I enjoyed, I was only looking at one aspect of a role.

Did I look at the culture of these types of companies, the career paths, the work-life balance, the type of day-to-day tasks, the personality type needed? No! By the way, these happen to be the most important factors in choosing the most fulfilling career for you. It would take me a little while longer to figure it out.

I took the job that suited me most at the time of graduation, as an account executive, but then I never looked at it again too deeply, until I’d grown out of it. It wasn’t until five years later where I realized my priorities were different and I hadn’t stopped to ask myself what I really want out of a career other than the salary.

Thinking you can only have your perfect career as an entrepreneur

What came to mind next as a fulfilling career option was entrepreneurship. I was disillusioned from my past experiences, and this seemed like the perfect escape. Yes, that’s definitely one way, but entrepreneurship full-time isn’t for everyone. We’ve been sold this narrative that 9–5 can only be soul-sucking, which is not true.

For me, I would realize I wanted a balance of entrepreneurship as my side business while still having a full-time job. You can have both. And you can find everything you find fulfilling in a full-time job without needing to quit to start your own business.

Not looking deep enough into yourself before job searching

Finally, being in an authentic career not only benefits you but everyone in your life and everyone you work with. When you care about your work, you show up more fully in all areas of your life. We are integrative beings.

Jumping into a job based on just a few factors without doing the work of looking inside myself was a mistake—even though it is something we often do out of financial need (I’ve been there). In the long run, you’ll have to look within.

In my experience, you need to spend as much time as needed selecting the right career to target before starting the actual job search. For me and for my clients, this typically takes around three months.

I have been in too many jobs that weren’t right (perhaps you can relate) and all it did was cause interpersonal issues and lack of performance. All of this due to lack of research and lack of looking within myself before job hunting. I’ve learned that it doesn’t benefit anyone to choose a career that’s not fulfilling to you.

How to Find Your Authentic Career

Finding the most fulfilling career involves knowing yourself and also knowing you’re worthy of the most aligned career for you. It’s equal parts mindset and strategy.

This year, in the midst of a pandemic, after over two years of searching for a career that’s most aligned for me, I have found it. As Einstein said, “In the midst of every great crisis, lies great opportunity.”

By finding my authentic career, I’ve been able to help my 1:1 guidance clients do the same.

Here are the exact steps to take when choosing a career that’s fulfilling and aligned with your personality, your strengths, and what you enjoy.

Learn about yourself

When you know yourself, you make better decisions. As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” First, take a look at what makes you happy in your current role, or a past role or project, and what doesn’t make you happy in your current or past roles. This can be done while you’re in your current role.

Take note of these aspects as you craft your dream career: What tasks drain you vs. what tasks give you energy?

Next, you will want to learn more about your personality. I happen to be a personality test junkie, and while not all of them give an accurate picture, they do provide helpful insight into the picture of you and how you interact with others when used together.

The 16 Personalities Test is most commonly used in professional workplaces, and I find this is a solid test to take. I also find that your type can change based on what mood you’re in when you take the test. I happen to switch between an ENFP and INFP. This gives you an idea of the way you think, work with others, and use your energy.

Another comprehensive tool that I personally like is Human Design. Basically an astrology typing, it recommends ways to manage your energy based on your type and profile number, which you find by inputting your birthdate, birthplace, and birth time. Once I found out I was a Reflector, it changed everything about how I work. I learned I work best in a team, not fully on my own as a solo entrepreneur. You can create your chart here.

My Genius Test is another assessment tool that classifies personalities as four genius types. This system pulls in imagery from the four seasons and four frequencies found in ancient Chinese and Indian thought (similar to traits Aristotle and Plato identified, too.)

A variety of personality types helps to make a high performing team. Once I found out I was a Blaze genius, I realized that my genius is in working with people. I would need a role where I’m connecting with lots of people, making a difference, and not being stuck in an office. I need fun and variety, and I’m not numbers focused. I lead through communication.

Now I have all my clients and team leaders find out their Human Design and My Genius Test to learn how we can draw on each other's strengths and be aware of our weaknesses. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses helps you work better with others too!

If you’re a fan of more esoteric insights, learn what your Life Path Number is. This gives you insight into your life purpose. I’m a life path seven, which is a seeker. I’m always reading and researching, and I like a role where this is built-in.

Personality tests offer ways to think about what makes you unique—whether or not you believe their underlying premise or even the results. What these tests all do is give you a starting point to consider your natural strengths and the purpose you serve in humanity, from an objective standpoint. You’re naturally talented!

What’s your preferred work style?

Next, you’ll want to look at the way you like to work. Do you prefer structure, or do you prefer lots of blank space without much guidance? Do you like to work closely with others or do you prefer autonomy? Do you need a lot of variety, or do you prefer working on one thing only?

For example, I thought I would prefer working remotely only, but after trying this out on a few trips and in this pandemic, I realized I needed some time to work in the office connecting in person (my Blaze genius!) and the flexibility to work remotely when needed. So I switched the focus of my job search to roles that offered this. Decide what aspects you’re not willing to compromise on and which ones you are.

Find what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what pays well, what’s needed in the world

Reflect on and make a list of all the things you’re good at and that you enjoy doing. This is part of the process I work through with my clients, and there’s no holding back. Throw out any and every idea that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t make sense or you don’t see how it translates to a career.

For example, one of my clients really liked the idea of directing and creating music videos. It had nothing to do with what he was doing in real estate or his background in finance, but it intrigued him. This is part of the process.

Next, do some research into careers and industries that include the things you enjoy doing and are good at. Learn what the industry pay rates are to give you an idea, and make sure that you’re okay with the compensation and the lifestyle it offers.

Then, most important, see if the cause or company is working toward something meaningful and that aligns with what’s needed in the world. I truly believe that in order to enjoy our work we need to feel emotionally aligned to the mission of the work we do. This looks different for everyone.

This exercise can also be explained with the Japanese concept known as Ikigai, and this Medium article by Melody Wilding explains it well.

Research and Try on As Many Career Ideas As Possible

Once you come up with a few ideas of careers that you would feel purposeful and aligned with, begin to try them on for size. Begin to feel into what it would be like to have this career. Make it part of your identity for a little while to envision it. Add it to your LinkedIn title, use it in the way you introduce, and see where it takes you.

Research any beneficial pieces of training to take for your new career. LinkedIn offers many certifications and intro training courses. Here are some career ideas that I narrowed down and explored at first: interior design, graphic design, and copywriting.

I first researched companies that offered interior design opportunities near me and talked with people I connected with on LinkedIn that were interior designers. I quickly learned with this one that I didn’t enjoy the day-to-day responsibilities at all, and this search turned into a bit of a dead-end. Just because you’re passionate about something does not mean it’s a career that’s fulfilling for you.

On to graphic design. I have always loved art and design, and with my marketing background, I thought it would be perfect for me. After telling people this is what I was interested in, I started getting connected with graphic designers in my network, family friends, and friends of friends, and they gave me recommendations for books and courses.

I took some classes in person on Adobe at the American Graphics Institute and General Assembly, and I read books on the theory of graphic design and how to use Adobe InDesign. I even worked on some small freelance assignments through UpWork to get some experience.

After trying on this career option, I realized that I wouldn’t enjoy doing this type of work all day long, and there were many reasons that went into that, such as the technical nature of the work, the clients directing the work I’d do (limiting creative flexibility), and not enough variety. It was also too solitary for me.

But I would have never known this without trying, and you’ll see how later on I was able to incorporate part of my love for graphic design in my current role.

Next, I explored copywriting. I wrote freelance articles on the side, which was a great way to build a writing portfolio, make some money, and see if I would like to do this as my career. I got certified by taking free content marketing and copywriting courses on HubSpot. I then dove deep into researching copywriting career paths by joining copywriting groups on LinkedIn and watching YouTube videos.

Again, as fate would have it, I came into contact with copywriters in my daily life and got to learn if it’d be a career for me. Just like interior design and graphic design, I learned from talking with copywriters that there were certain aspects of copywriting that I found I wouldn’t want to be doing every day. The biggest concerns I had were the amount of client work and the many hours to work with not enough financial compensation in most roles.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was gathering the aspects of what I would like in my next career. I knew I wanted to stay in marketing but it would need to be in a different way. I took what I didn’t like in my last role as an account executive and removed it.

I didn’t like the demand of client work all the time, the lack of creativity, or the lifestyle of working at an agency, so after trying on these careers, I realized I would need to work for a company’s internal marketing group.

See how you have to look at it from all angles? Your career spans the company, the people you’ll work with, the type of work environment and lifestyle, and the daily tasks. Getting as clear on every aspect of the role is the goal. You’ll be able to determine this from reflecting on your experience, knowing yourself, and trying on these careers.

Don’t worry about how this looks on the outside because you may feel like you’re jumping from one thing to the other. And you are! You have to be willing to let go of what other people think in order to test these theories out and find your fulfilling career.

Talk to As Many People As Possible

You’ll want to start connecting with people that are in your desired job or who have the type of business or lifestyle you want. LinkedIn is a great place for that. I’ve connected with hundreds of people this way and you’d be surprised by how many are willing to help out!

By setting up 20-minute calls with questions prepared, you start to get a good feel of learning the good and bad parts of the career you’re researching: What you’re willing to live with as well as what you're not. You can really learn a lot from talking with people about what they like and don’t like in their careers to see if that applies to you.

You never know who will refer you to your next role. You may come across a few people that aren’t able to help you like you might have thought, and in this case, you’ll want to ask for a referral to a connection in their network that they think could help. Tell your friends and family what you’re looking for, and they can connect you to people in the same career.

I spent three months searching for the right career path by using the steps above and informally interviewing people before committing to it in the job search. I tried jumping into the job search in an unfocused way, without laying the groundwork, and it never ended well. There really is no shortcut to hard, smart work.

At the same time, know that the perfect company or job doesn’t exist for the same reason that perfect humans don’t exist. What it will come down to is your values: What you’re willing to live with and what you're not willing to live with. There will always be aspects of a career that you don’t love, and that’s perfectly normal.

Another Example of How This Process Works

I’ve repeated these same steps with my clients and helped them navigate career transitions from completely different industries in times of uncertainty. One of my clients this year transitioned from the commercial real estate investment industry, which completed crumbled at the start of the pandemic (71% drop in activity per Bloomberg LP due to COVID-19).

He took this as an opportunity to find a career that was better suited for him and dedicated himself to researching and using the guidance above. Like me, he wanted to work remotely full-time at first but realized he enjoys being connected in person with his team, as he is also a Blaze genius.

With our work together, he was able to learn what role is best for his personality (an ENFP), what he is good at, what he enjoys, and what he can get paid well for, which turned out to be strategic marketing.

Before realizing that, we explored careers in video marketing, performance, entertainment marketing, and looked at what he previously liked in his social media side business he used to have. Even though some of these ideas didn’t make sense at first, it planted the seeds in what he would find fulfilling in his next role.

Because he had a background in finance, he was able to apply that knowledge to a performance marketing role in a financial investment company. With his knowledge of helping businesses grow through social media, he was able to quickly pick up managing Facebook ads in his new role.

You’ll start to see how your previous experiences are actually leading you to the role that encompasses the best aspects of what you enjoy.

When I Found My Fulfilling Career

Finding a career you truly enjoy, feel fulfilled by, and can be paid well for is completely possible. This year I found my fulfilling role as a digital marketing manager at a female-founded company that supports employee health initiatives in the life science industry.

This role combined all the aspects of the careers I had tried on and kept the very best parts of roles I’d held in the past. A big part of my day-to-day role involves creating social media designs with Canva and basic Adobe, which satisfied my love for graphic design without making it everything I do.

I write all of the social media captions, email campaigns, website updates, and sometimes blogs for my company. This satisfies my love for writing and my need for variety. Part of my role also supports employer branding, which gets me into contact with all the employees in the company, making the most use of my Blaze genius.

I get equal amounts of time connecting with others and working introspectively on content, and I realize I would be missing that if I only worked on marketing. I also don’t work on client management anymore, which is what I decided was not for me from previous roles, but in the times I do have to interact with clients I feel comfortable doing so.

I chose a company that has been around almost 30 years after a negative experience at a startup that wasn’t off the ground yet with not enough structure and too much overlap in role responsibilities.

Since I chose to work in a smaller company’s internal marketing department, I get to see the impact I’m making right away, something I missed when I worked in a large corporation. I also feel emotionally aligned with the mission of the company, which supports safety for scientists that are creating cures for diseases and cancers.

While it took me eight months dedicated to this discovery process and job searching to get here, I‘m able to help my clients do this in half the time because I’ve gone through this myself. Remember, I spent years trying to get here without this formal process, just dreaming of a career that fulfills me and taking the freelance jobs I liked in every moment. No matter how long it takes, it will be entirely worth it. In many cases, the longer the wait, the greater the reward.

Finding a fulfilling career involves knowing yourself, finding what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what pays well, what’s needed in the world, knowing what you’re not willing to settle for, researching, talking with as many people as possible, and trying on careers.

We need more people in work that is fulfilling because when you enjoy the work you do, you contribute to something larger than yourself by giving your best and are more likely to feel fulfilled in other areas of your life. You experience better health, financial abundance, increased energy, and fulfilling relationships.

Know that it’s completely possible to find fulfillment in your 9–5, and outside of it, by using these steps to choose your most fulfilling and authentic career.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Emily Smith

Written by

Emily Smith | Integrative coach & writer | Life & leadership wisdom for the spiritual seeker | // IG: @guidetowholeness

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Emily Smith

Written by

Emily Smith | Integrative coach & writer | Life & leadership wisdom for the spiritual seeker | // IG: @guidetowholeness

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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