Fulfilling Work

Why there is no perfect job

… and what you can do about it

Over the past 4–5 years, I have been working in three different jobs, which many people would call perfect. I was a pilot, researcher and freelancer. Here is why none of them was actually perfect and how I learned to find fulfilling work instead.

Since 2018 I worked as a pilot. Leaving all clichés aside, there were many elements I truly enjoyed: The view when you approach an airport at night is nothing but stunning. Studying how the complex systems of an aircraft work and learning how to control them was a great experience I will never forget. And, of course — going to many different countries and spending some time there is a nice extra.

Even though this sounds perfect, there is something that kept bothering me:
I did not sense a meaningful component in my work. Apparently, getting people from A to B is useful, but also very harmful to the environment. I can imagine many jobs, which seem more meaningful than being a pilot, especially with the rising need to tackle climate change.

Before flying, I worked for a research project to make aviation more sustainable. We studied various means to incentivize airlines to use higher shares of sustainable aviation fuels. Here I had the opposite: The world needs sustainable aviation very desperately and I had a sense of doing something meaningful. I love studying new theories deeply and getting to grips with new scientific methods.

However, what I lacked was a sense of connection — most of my work was work on my own. From time to time I got the chance to discuss my progress with my supervisors, but still, it certainly was not a “people job”. After all, I think it was a great job, but certainly not the perfect profession.

Nowadays I am a freelancer. I help young graduates to find fulfilling work. In addition to the common benefits of freelancing, like autonomy and freedom, I have some personal things that make me feel excited: I am doing something meaningful and the feedback I receive from my clients is a great reward. I have been delivering workshops to students for more than four years by now — so I see a way how I can utilize the skills I have learned there.

But — there is a “but” again. And I suppose you had seen it coming.

Now I am missing security. In financial as well as future terms. In contrast to a regular working contract, the income and retirement provisions are pretty “variable”. To put it in a nice way.

At this point, I realized that no job is perfect for me. And I started wondering: 

Am I the only one who cannot find a perfect job? 
Am I being over-ambitious or do I set unrealistic expectations?

I did some research. I talked with friends. I read books. Here are the two insights I found most revealing:

Suferring is inevitable”

One of the noble truths in Buddhism. There is no way to completely avoid negatice emotions. At some point in life, we all will suffer, often to a minor extent, sometimes to a greater. What I learned over the years is to accept negative emotions as an essential part of life – they turn my life into an exciting roller-coaster ride.

Frustration is one of the driving forces in our lives”

What sounds contradictory at first, made sense to me in the following way: As soon as we are unsatisfied about something, we feel an urge to act. Thus, there is a good point of being frustrated. It creates momentum. This momentum can lead to action. Ideally, this action changes things for the better.

Unfortunately, this does not always follow such a linear fashion. E.g. when we drink or eat excessively to cope with stress. Hence, it’s not easy to make proper use of your frustrations.

But still, I do believe that there is a good reason for frustration to exist: It keeps you going.

How is that related to the search for a perfect job?

Both of these statements illustrate that a perfect job simply does not exist. At some point, no matter in which profession, you will have to face frustration or any other kind of negative emotion. I do not see any valid reason to keep dreaming about a perfect job, except for occasional daydreaming.

That is the reason why I have decided to let go of this dream. Instead, I want to change the work I do into fulfilling work.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) helped me to find fulfilment in work. This psychological theory describes different kinds and causes of motivation. Most likely you already know the distinction between autonomous and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation stems from an internal drive, such as the fulfillment of our individual needs or alignment with our values. In contrast, controlled motivation is enhanced by external factors such as rewards or punishments.

Studies have found that autonomous motivation tends to yield greater psychological health and more effective performance. There are three aspects, which will foster autonomous motivation:

  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Connection

The degree of Autonomy is determined by your influence on the choice of, how to solve and the result of solving a particular task. Competence refers to the matching of your skills and the skills required to solve the task at hand. The third factor, Connection, is related to each individual’s degree of interaction with other people.

Since I have become aware of these three, I question my work under the light of SDT. For example, while freelancing I do have a high degree of autonomy and connection. I can use a lot of my competences, such as active listening, expressing myself and curiosity to learn. Seeing this made me aware of how satisfied I am with my current work, although it is not as safe as other jobs.

On the other hand, I have some competencies, which are not utilized: My passion for aviation and my skills for flying planes are unused. This is a bit frustrating.

Seeing frustration as a driving force I see a way to match both: Freelancing and flying. However, this is a hope for the future. For now, I will focus on enjoying the fulfilling work I do have and will close with an idea for your career:

See if you can develop the level of autonomy, competence or connection in your current position. Alternatively, check if there is another position, which will bring you a higher degree of autonomous motivation. I’d like to encourage you not to stop at the first one or two thoughts. Very often, the best idea is one you haven’t thought of before. Therefore, take some time for brainstorming and see if you can find at least three unusual ideas to raise your individual level of autonomy, competence or connection.

I am certain, this will be more helpful than dreaming about a perfect profession, which does not exist anyway.