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Is Your Career Making A Meaningful Difference?

At one point in my life, my career goal was to earn a PhD in Philosophy and teach at a university. I was a lowly undergraduate student at the time studying at a small liberal arts university in British Columbia. Class sizes were small, professors were engaging and accessible, and the campus community was incredibly hospitable. For me, a university setting seemed like the ideal place to teach.

But something changed when I moved to Ontario to attend graduate school in philosophy. It was a huge wake-up call. This time, the university campus was much bigger and much more independent study was required of us. Restricted office hours made access to professors difficult and a pervasive “silo mentality” in the philosophy department made life as a graduate student frustrating. To top it all off, I worked on campus as a teaching assistant and dealt on a regular basis with university students who simply didn’t care about learning!

Needless to say, I felt disillusioned. My idealistic notions of teaching in a university environment were being smashed as I felt increasingly isolated within an “academic machine.” Something within me broke when I realized that I felt more enjoyment meeting with fellow grad students for coffee to discuss ideas than I did completing thesis research or course work! This was a sign that a career in academic philosophy might not be for me.

Fortunately, my passion for teaching did not die in grad school. One year after defending my thesis, I landed a teaching position at an international study center in Switzerland. This place was different. Instructors were free to conduct independent research that directly benefited students; they were not burdened by the stress of office politics, pressure to publish, or the constraints of large class sizes; there were opportunities to mentor students through one-on-one tutorials and group learning; and I was able to use my philosophical training to help students reach their learning objectives. Admittedly, the Instructor role did not have the prestige of being a University Professor, but that didn’t matter so much. I was able make a direct, personal difference in the lives of students, which is what I had really wanted.

Looking back on my experience as a grad student in Ontario and an Instructor in Switzerland, I can see that I was learning a very important lesson about the meaning of my vocation. For me, meaning comes from using ideas to facilitate personal transformation in the lives of others. Becoming a philosophy professor would not have allowed me to do that, at least not in the way I would have liked, and so I had to let go of that dream. But in hindsight, that dream isn't what I really wanted, deep down. It just took me some time to figure that out.

I believe this life lesson about vocation applies on a general level as well: meaning in one’s work comes from making a difference in the world, but not just any sort of difference. It needs to be the kind of difference that you deeply value, and sometimes our idealistic notions need to be challenged in the process of figuring that out. This process can be painful, but it is often necessary, and always educative!

So let me ask you: is your job making a difference in the world and is it the kind of difference you want it to make?

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