Know Thy Career Value! What About Meaning?

I have been thinking a lot about “value” and “meaning” lately.

Many of us, and most certainly myself, desire a professional life that has a sense of “meaning.” I have been seeking and craving meaning for my entire life.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to know what something really “means” and to connect with and be a part of something that has greater “meaning” than myself. A “meaningful” career or a “valuable” career? The art is in creating both.

Over the past few months, the concept of “value” has taken center stage in my continued exploration of writings on career and professional development. Authors, like Jill Konrath, stress the importance of defining and conveying “your unique value proposition” as you create stellar cover letters and the perfect resume. I realized an important distinction and relationship between “meaning” and “value” that I didn’t fully understand until recently.

I get “meaning.” The word makes me feel all warm and sunny inside. Meaning is usually associated with words like “purpose” and “passion.” In contrast “value” takes me to a more cerebral place of hard facts, numbers, and production.

We are asked to consider questions like:

  • “What value will you bring to this position?”
  • “What value did you provide in your past positions?”
  • “What results did you deliver?”

The subject of meaning feels more connected with my core motivations. The topic of value feels associated with a requirement that I communicate  my “work accomplishments” in order to justify that someone hire me. Did my work yield time savings? Did my work save money? I definitely get the benefit of exercises that help us get clear about the value that I bring or you offer. At the same time, I’ve been somewhat challenged by the notion.

In sales and marketing related professions, tracking metrics about how many clients you’ve converted and what percentage increase in purchases you helped create is normal.  If you’re working on a commission, you’re definitely motivated to keep track of numbers! As a young consultant, working on a project by project basis, I was usually on to another project before any clear results emerged from my work. Did I work hard? Yes. Did I work smart? Definitely yes! However, “working hard” and “working productively and creatively” seem too “touchy feely” for the whole career “value” conversation.

Additionally, once my and other consultants efforts are delivered, we have no ability to guarantee that a client will actually use the work that we provide. In fact, I toiled for a year, giving up nights and weekends regularly, helping develop a corporate-wide information system, that by all accounts was never used! Experiences on that particular project, sent me into a crisis of meaning as I lamented over the question “What am I doing with my life?”

On certain resumes, I include a line like this:

“Independently designed and created over 50 analytical reports for an enterprise-wide corporate data warehouse.”

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it,  does it make a sound? If you create over 50 custom reports that are never used, does that work yield any tangible value?

What exactly was the point of me and my colleagues giving our best efforts, if our work was never used?

Some people say, “Well, at least you got an opportunity to develop some new skills.” Indeed, over 10 years later, I still get regular emails from headhunters. Apparently, one of my old resume postings still exists in cyberspace and references that software application that I used to create those reports.  Several times a year, I get messages from recruiters looking to place someone who has experience with that application. Apparently, businesses  continue to “value” professional skill with that tool. Unfortunately, I haven’t used that application in over 10 years and have limited interest in continued work in that area.

On reflection, I now wish that I could have been career savvy enough to bring “meaning” to that particular value questionable work assignment. However, that project was my very first “job” as a first-generation professional. I wish that I would have known to take the time to talk with other professionals, whom had more years of experience as a consultant. Through that networking and interviewing process, I may have gotten some needed clarity about my professional path.

The firm where I worked, immediately after my undergraduate studies, randomly placed me on a project within the telecommunications industry. Well, it wasn’t really random. Telecommunications represented one of the main industry focus areas for the office where I worked. Did I know that particular point when I accepted that position? Nope. Did I know to ask about an industry focus during my interview process? That would be a negative. What did I know? I wanted to work in the Washington, DC office because I was young and wanted to be in a vibrant city!

I can honestly say that I have absolutely no heart or interest in supporting the telecommunications industry! Don’t get me wrong. I get the “value” and “importance” of telecommunications. I think it’s great that we have phones, internet, and text messaging. However, I don’t get jazzed talking about “voice”, “data”, “internet coverage”, “VPN”, or tracking that type of information. While the word “telecom” may bring smiles of joy to certain professionals’ faces, just thinking about those terms makes my eyes roll back in my head.

Three years of my young professional career was spent working within the telecommunications industry. In effect, I filled my head full of industry speak for which I had no interest. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the awareness that I had no interest. I was assigned to projects. So, I did the work without question for a couple of projects. I wish that I would have interviewed our clients about what made them passionate about their work. I like to think that those discussions would have helped me realize that I simply didn’t feel a sense of meaningful work connection with telecommunications.

Ultimately balancing “value” and “meaning” is essential. However,  I recognize a deeper interest in “professional meaning” than “career value” within myself. I definitely get more enthusiastic about the qualitative (meaning) versus the quantitative (value) aspects of my work. Fortunately, I was exposed to the “mixed method” research approach. Ever heard of it? Mixed methods endeavors to unify the strengths of both quantitative and qualitative approaches.

I’m committed to giving attention to the internal and external aspects of my professional path and the points at which those areas intersect. Meaning can lead to value as value can point toward meaning.

My early professional experiences remain the central motivation from my work within the career and professional development space. This work is meaningful to me and has brought “value” to the lives of others.

The early career mismatch that I experienced inspires me to continue searching for meaning, when value may not always be apparent. I’m committed to providing a listening ear, mentorship, and guidance to young professionals. Happily, I’m celebrating a year of writing on this blog. Yep, it’s been a year already.

Happy 1st birthday, FirstGenerationProfessional.com!

A very special thanks to all of my visitors and readers over this past year. I hope that you’ve discovered some meaning and value through this work!

One thought on “Know Thy Career Value! What About Meaning?

  1. Congrats on the 1 year anniversary!

    Great post, as always! Very well-thought out and tells the story well. I’ve often thought about “value” vs. “meaning”. You and I both know these aren’t the same for me and my career.

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