Think about your passions, and what intrinsically motivates you.
The route to an impactful career begins with introspection.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of employees around the world began asking themselves tough questions about the value of their work. A mass exodus of people leaving careers they found unfulfilling became so hard to ignore that employers literally dubbed it ‘the Great Resignation’. At the same time that this happened, online communities for impact-driven careers began appearing all over the web, with many people opting to pivot into positions they found to be more purposeful and rewarding.
The phenomenon of psychologically unfulfilling jobs is nothing new–in fact, anthropologist David Graeber has written an entire book about it. The reason why many people have difficulty finding meaning in their work is not because of some inherent problem with their attitude or mindset, but because there are far too many jobs that fail to provide employees with the one thing that can make demanding work bearable: a sense of purpose.
Simon Sinek, the influential thought leader, implores all people and organizations to ‘start with why.’ Although it might seem like a simple mantra, the question of ‘why’ is one that many people exert far too much energy trying to evade. Thinking about purpose can be daunting, which it is easy to postpone. Instead of asking ourselves critical questions about what we find intrinsically meaningful, many of us attempt to define our goals extrinsically by emulating the desires of others or focusing excessively on how we hope to be perceived by society. At the same time, the competitive nature of our educational system necessarily generates a prestige culture that thrives on extrinsic motivation, driven by the desire to accumulate achievements, at the expense of individual self-definition.
Philosophers have a word for this kind of effect–the hedonic treadmill. As psychologist Arthur Brooks argues, if we define life as the pursuit of achievements rather than the pursuit of meaning, we will find it impossible to be truly satisfied. And as the Easterlin paradox shows, after a certain point the amount of money a person obtains is no longer correlated with their overall happiness.
Many people begin their careers optimizing for ‘success’ and hope that purpose will come later, which may lead to the dangerous “prestige career” trap. This self-assessment guide begins in the reverse order. We believe that it is much easier, and ultimately more rewarding, to start with purpose and meaning and work towards success. It is better to start with a long-term perspective, and work towards the present.
Consider the purpose of your work.
The most meaningful work occurs whenever passion can be united with purpose.
It is much easier to find the energy to do work when you are passionate and therefore excited about what you are working on. This passion is often easier to find in careers that have a broader social impact, because the intrinsic value of the work, and the difference it makes in the world, can be easier to see.
Thinking about the purpose of your work is challenging, and it is a life-long journey. A purpose is something that is subjective and individually meaningful, and thus will be unique for everyone. Most importantly, a purpose should not be confused with a goal. A purpose should be more than a goal, and broad enough to be larger than any individual job, company, project, or position. While goals can fail, a purpose can serve as the compass for a lifetime of meaningful action.
Happiness research shows that what ultimately makes people happy over the course of their lives is not money or success, but rather relationships and connections. In this way, it is not the fulfillment of our individual desires that is the source of meaning in life, but rather how we relate to others, and how their lives become a meaningful part of ours. True happiness is not individual, but relational.
This same principle can be extended to the definition of purpose. In the most inspiring examples, a purposeful life comes from making an impact on the lives of others, being of service, and making a contribution to the world. The greatest meaning in life comes when intrinsic motivation, or passion, can be united with a purpose defined in relation to others.
Armed with this attitude, any career can be an impactful career. It is not necessary to have a career in an explicitly altruistic field to define your purpose in an impactful way. Although this guide is primarily aimed at people looking to work in an impact field, there are lots of ways to have an impact or define a purpose that are outside of work–volunteering, building communities, making art, growing a family, and more. There should not be an expectation that impact occurs exclusively through jobs. We simply want to suggest that you are more likely to feel fulfilled in your work if your job has a positive impact on the world and the people around you.
Moreover, it’s okay for your purpose to change throughout your life. What matters is that you experiment with different opportunities and ideas, make connections and meet new people, and learn more about the world in the process of trying to define a purpose for yourself that will lead to an enriching life.
Reflect on the purpose of your organization.
All organizations in our society, from governments to businesses to charities, exist to solve problems. The dilemma we currently face, in the simplest terms, is that many organizations cause more problems than they solve, while there are collective challenges we face as a society that too few organizations are working appropriately to address. This problem must be reversed.
If you are currently employed, it can be useful to ask yourself about the purpose of your organization. To do this, it is vital to become a systems thinker–someone who views society as a complex system full of overlapping interconnections, in which social and ecological problems affect all people and all organizations. To learn more about systems thinking and how it relates to organizations, see this manual from the Embedding Project.
Thinking about the purpose of your organization, from a systems perspective, can be challenging. Ultimately, it is about asking the right questions, and thinking about the big picture. Some introspective questions include:
- Who is my work ultimately benefiting?
- What are the social, political, and ecological effects of my organization? Do my firm’s actions come at the expense of human and ecological wellbeing?
- Is my firm behaving ethically as an organization, in a way that I am proud of?
- Above all, do I derive meaningful value from my work? Do I feel a sense of purpose to what I do?
At a systems-level, it is clear that there is an imbalance of purposes. Far too many organizations work on problems that don’t really exist (i.e. helping increase the wealth of people who are already very privileged), while professions like care work are extremely undervalued, public services are underfunded or face budget cuts, among other disparities. In the light of the shared challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, all organizations have a responsibility to consider how their work strategically contributes to making the world a better place.
Educate yourself about social and environmental issues.
Aspiring to work in an impactful career can be overwhelming at the beginning because there is no shortage of problems to consider. Issues like climate change, inequality, extreme poverty, gender inequity, and biodiversity loss are complex systemic challenges that will not be solved with simple silver bullet or ‘moonshot’ technological interventions. They require deep subject matter knowledge, and that demands a committed learning process.
In framing your impact career, reflect on what interests you most. What kind of problems do you like solving? What do you want to learn more about? Are you more interested in environmental or social issues, or the intersection of both? What kind of people do you want to work with? What geographies do you want to work in, and for what kind of organization? Ultimately, what kind of contribution do you want to make?
Before you can answer these questions, it is necessary to learn more about humanity’s most pressing challenges and figure out what issue area most excites you. To do this, we have compiled several resources to aid you in learning more, including our Manifesto which includes 20 statements reflecting on global issues ranging from climate justice to inequality to corporate accountability. For an in-depth discussion of these collective challenges, and what organizations should be doing about them, see our company transition toolkit. For a list of organizations working on key impact areas, check out our job board.
It is also helpful to review the most thorough international frameworks for tackling our shared challenges. The UN Sustainable Development Goals include a list of 17 high-level goals related to human development in the 21st century, with sub-targets and recommended actions associated with each. To learn more about how Canada is measuring progress on the SDGs, see Canada’s plan to advance the 2030 Agenda. The SDG Compass provides a way for private sector organizations to learn more about the SDGs and how they can be implemented. Another key framework is Doughnut Economics, developed by Oxford professor Kate Raworth, which defines the global ‘doughnut’ as the living space circumscribed by the outer ‘planetary boundaries’ which regulate the health of life on Earth that we cannot surpass, and the inner ‘social foundation’ needed to provide every human being with the basic ingredients for individual wellbeing and life satisfaction.
There is no limit to the ecological challenges that our world faces–this list from the European Environment Agency counts no less than 56. The root cause of ecological disruption is the unsustainable extraction of natural resources driven by a crisis of overconsumption, creating a system that drives climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, land degradation, ocean acidification, and a range of other impacts. Earth system scientists have defined nine planetary boundaries which regulate the health of the global biosphere, and humanity has already crossed at least four of these. However, there is also a litany of potential solutions to these crises, if we find the political will to make them happen. For a comprehensive list of detailed solutions to the issue of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, see Project Drawdown. Paul Hawken has also released another project, Regeneration, which outlines a pathway to revitalize ecosystems and use nature-based solutions as a key lever in the fight against climate destabilization. To learn more about environmental problems, and how we got to where we are now, we recommend reading these five books:
- The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells
- The Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert
- Merchants of Doubt – Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes
- A Planet to Win – Daniel Aldana Cohen, Alyssa Battistoni, Thea Riofrancos, Kate Aronoff
- The Green New Deal – Jeremy Rifkin
The challenge of creating a global society that respects the rights of all people and works to achieve a decent livelihood for everyone is no less complicated. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has erased decades of progress on human development goals, with extreme poverty on the rise for the first time in 20 years. The World Poverty Clock allows you to explore poverty statistics around the world and sort data by demographic group. To learn more about the contemporary status of human rights and labour rights around the world, see these reports by Human Rights Watch and the International Labour Organization. Ending systemic discrimination is another priority for human rights, and the UN has developed programs to promote gender equity and dismantle systemic racism. To learn about corporate abuses of human rights, see CorpWatch or the Corporate Crimes Hub. To discover more about human rights, poverty, systemic discrimination, and other issues, we recommend getting started with these five books:
- The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
- Evicted – Matthew Desmond
- 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act – Bob Joseph
- The Moment of Lift – Melinda Gates
- King Leopold’s Ghost – Adam Hochschild
It is no secret that the global economy is organized unfairly. What is less commonly remarked upon is the fact that many of the problems we see around the world today–rising inequality, political polarization, unequal development–are all partially attributable to the rise of an economic philosophy known as neoliberalism which has become the status quo. Neoliberalism is an ideology which professes that the only goal of markets is to increase shareholder value, that self-regulating markets should be able to solve most of society’s problems, and that governments are inherently inefficient. This theory of the economy, also known as ‘trickle-down economics’, is the now debunked theory that a combination of privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and trade liberalization would inevitably increase overall prosperity. To the contrary, since the 1980s economic growth in North America has actually decreased (relative to the previous post-WWII period), innovation has tapered off, and inequality is sky-high while wages have stagnated. The neoliberal restructuring of industrialized economies has also allowed for the exploitation of offshore tax havens, the creation of monopolies, the dismantling of public sector institutions, the capture of government by special interests, financialization at the expense of real economic growth, corporate raiding, the hollowing out of middle management, and many other trends. To learn more about this process, and how neoliberal ideas continue to shape our economic reality, we recommend starting with the following five books:
- The System – Robert Reich
- Dark Money – Jane Mayer
- Makers and Takers – Rana Foroohar
- Treasure Islands – Nicholas Shaxson
- The Road from Mont Pèlerin – Philip Mirowski
It is also clear that the global economy is unfairly structured to privilege the interests of countries in the Global North over those in the Global South. Patterns of unequal exchange work to perpetuate power imbalances by permitting the net transfer of wealth away from low-income nations to the West. The rise of free trade agreements designed to give power to multinational corporations over governments, coupled with structural adjustment policies designed to enforce neoliberal reforms on heavily indebted governments, continue to obstruct development for many poorer nations. Additionally, the fact that the compounding effects of environmental devastation disproportionately affect vulnerable or low-income communities, particularly in the Global South, has led many to consider climate change yet another form of colonialism. To learn more about the history of colonization and North-South relations, and how these disparities continue to structure the global economy today, we recommend checking out the following books:
- Late Victorian Holocausts – Mike Davis
- Globalization and Its Discontents – Joseph Stiglitz
- Africa’s Odious Debts – James Boyce
- The White Man’s Burden – William Easterly
- Development as Freedom – Amartya Sen
There are also many news sources which heavily feature environmental and social problems and their solutions. Ones we recommend include:
Consider what type of organization you want to work for.
Once you’ve thought about what kind of issue or issues you are interested in working on, you will want to think about what type of institution is best suited to your skills and interests. There are many ways to go about doing this; you can work to advance social or environmental issues in your current role, as an advocate and change agent from within an existing organization, or you can find another position which allows you to work directly on this issue from an impact-driven organization.
There are three basic categories of organization in our society, in three basic sectors: the private sector, public sector, and social sector. Given the intersecting nature of sustainability and development challenges, many impact leaders will spend portions of their career working in all three sectors. Tri-sector leadership is a necessary skill for anyone hoping to work in addressing social or environmental problems. No single sector will solve society’s shared challenges working on its own. Rather, it is the collaboration between all three groups–markets, government, and civil society–that will enable transformational change.
Each of the three main sectors will play a vital role in the sustainability transition. In our current economy, many people automatically constrain themselves to looking for opportunities in the private sector without thinking about public sector or social sector roles. The private sector is where considerable amounts of capital are deployed for innovation and scaling solutions, and where most of the jobs will be created. However, the public sector can also be a source of dynamism and innovation, as the work of economist Mariana Mazzucato has shown. Governments have a higher risk appetite than private sector organizations, and many basic inventions over the last century would not have been possible without government funding of basic research (including the invention of the Internet). In this way, governments have the ability to create markets and ‘crowd in’ private sector investment–a function which will be especially vital for the clean energy transition. Additionally, social sector organizations (comprised of non-governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations and charities, advocacy groups, think tanks, and others) play an outsized role as convenors, connectors, advocates, and watchdogs helping to shape the direction of public policy and investment. It is important to consider the key roles that the public and social sectors play to ensure that the private sector does not displace their roles. There are limits to what markets can achieve on their own, and only tri-sector leadership will be able to catalyze a true transition.
Choose an impact area that most interests and inspires you.
There is an astounding variety of possible fields that one can enter in order to have an impactful career. Equal to the range of social and environmental problems we face, there is also no shortage of inspired, passionate people working on innovative solutions they truly believe in. In reality, there are many more ways to contribute and build a career than most people ever consider.
Additionally, these days non-linear career paths are increasingly acceptable or even encouraged. As the nature of work changes, particularly in times of severe disruption, the ability to balance multiple skills and perspectives, work across disciplinary or sectoral boundaries, and build a career with a diversity of experiences, is now seen as an asset rather than a liability. As you can see in our career path interviews, there are many ways to have an impact and chart your own path. In some cases, people even create opportunities for themselves where none existed before. When passion and purpose coincide, many more pathways tend to appear beyond what is conventional.
For inspiration, here is the full list of impactful sectors that we will be producing guides on:
- Public Policy & Government
- Social Enterprise & Solidarity Economy
- Impact Investing
- Clean Energy & Just Transition
- Clean Technology
- Responsible & Sustainable Finance
- Sustainability & Social Impact Consulting
- Regenerative Food Systems
- Civil Society & Advocacy
- Philanthropy & Wealth Redistribution
- Tech for Good
- Impact Measurement & Accounting
- Ecosystem Restoration & Nature-Based Solutions
- Indigenous Economy & Economic Reconciliation
- Circular Economy & Supply Chains
- Real Estate & New Urbanism
- Sustainable Mobility & Public Transit
- Environmental and Social Impact Law
- Purpose Marketing
- Responsible Heavy Industry
- Education & Research
- Press & Media
As a disclaimer, this is not an exhaustive list. There are lots of purposeful jobs and positions that might not be reflected in this list. What this list aims to provide, above all, is an emergent list of areas in which to look for opportunities, network, or learn more.
At this point, you might also want to consider developing your own ‘theory of change’, which is a description of how you hope to have an impact in society. The theory of change concept originates from the social sector, where organizations adopt a theory of change to describe how they hope their interventions will impact and transform society. A personal theory of change can serve as an excellent way to orient your career path, help you plan ahead, and also inform how you hope to influence the world.
Look for an organization and a position, and expand your network.
Once you’ve decided what kind of institution you want to work for, and in what sector, you can start looking for positions and organizations that you might be interested in working for. We have developed a job board with a list of some of Canada’s most impactful employers to assist you in this task, which includes a list of many of the most impactful organizations in the private, public, and social sectors, as well as organizations that are not strictly impact-driven but are working genuinely to improve their overall sustainability practices.
There are many ways to make an impact through your job. You can either choose to work at an impact-driven organization, or work to advance impactful solutions within a traditional institution. Our job board aims to make it easier for you to find jobs that are more likely to be impact-driven.
When thinking about what organization you might want to work for, the scale of the organization is important. Although news headlines are dominated by large corporations, 90% of the Canadian labour force works for small and medium-sized enterprises, making them a hugely important component of the sustainability transition. Many startups, particularly in the clean technology and social enterprise spaces, are working to scale early-stage solutions which could make a big difference in tackling environmental and social challenges.
When looking for impactful positions, networking is one of the most important ways to make connections and expand the number of opportunities that are available to you. One of the benefits of networking in an impact-driven field is that it is easier to act and speak authentically when bonding over genuine mutual interests. Jobs in impactful careers come about from shared passions and genuine curiosity, which can make networking in this space much less transactional. Conversations tend to be more organic or spontaneous, and practitioners are almost always excited to help other people learn more about their field and work. However, it is important to have some level of background knowledge on the issue you are interested in working on, which will allow you to convey your breadth of knowledge and have more insightful conversations with professionals in this space (who may want to help you find a position).
Additionally, don’t be afraid to try to create opportunities for yourself, even if positions aren’t advertised or don’t exist yet. If there is an organization that is doing interesting work, but does not have advertised job positions available, feel free to reach out and ask how you can support their work, or if they know of similar organizations that are hiring. Similarly, don’t dismiss the opportunity to start your own organization or firm. Entrepreneurship is one of the most powerful ways to launch an impactful career.
Get involved and advocate for change.
Finally, once you’ve found a position, the journey doesn’t end. To continue learning and growing in this space, it is vital to join networks and interest-based clubs, volunteer and attend events, or start organizations and initiatives of your own. You can also join one of the civil society and youth organizations listed on our job board. This can be a great way to learn about other people in your field, and gain knowledge about what topics are trending and what new initiatives are developing. This will be a crucial way to build your knowledge and expand your reach. Most importantly, this process is iterative; the more you get involved in the space and meet more people, the more opportunities will present themselves to you.
One of the most powerful ways to continue your learning journey is to become an employee activist. Employee activism is increasing dramatically, and many young employees are looking for ways to push their employers to become more sustainable or ethical. As an activist, you can find ways to build connections with other like-minded people at your organization, reach out to people in similar positions at other organizations, and eventually approach senior managers or directors about your proposals. Feel free to use our company transition toolkit to evaluate your own company, and advocate for change. There are many ways corporations can and should be doing better. Review our employee activism guidelines to learn more about forming teams, becoming a change agent, and advocating for reform.
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