For choosing a career that's fulfilling, we focus on the "why" (the purpose, our contribution) and the "what" (the tasks we perform). The "how, the circumstances of our work often come as an afterthought, if at all. That's especially the case for people who are highly passionate about their careers. The way we work may not necessarily be something we deliberately consider but rather something that sometimes fits if we're lucky.
I'll argue that the "how" is vitally important to find satisfaction in our work and, therefore, should be taken as seriously. Unfortunately, that's often not what happens. We chase after jobs where we believe we can make a difference. We try to discover what tasks make us happy and have us blissfully work away in a flow state. But, ultimately, it's often the "how" that determines whether we're happy with our professional life.
Take the example of Ben, a caregiver, who has chosen his profession based on his desire to be of service and make a difference in other people's life. His decision has been strongly driven by his purpose. I don't think there's anything wrong with this per se. Maybe working as a nurse allows him to fulfil his purpose, and that's wonderful. But when Ben gets caught up in an unsustainably stressful environment that turns the pursuit of his purpose into an ordeal, he won't be able to achieve a lasting sense of fulfilment and contentment. You've probably come across people who found themselves in a situation like Ben's. They say things like: "I don't know what's wrong with me. I have found my dream job where I can truly make a difference, but I dread going to work every day."
To add a second example, take Sheila, who's had a passion for writing since she strung together her first letters in kindergarten. The simple act of weaving words into a story gives her joy, so she became a copywriter. And, true, working as a copywriter at a communications agency means Sheila spends most of her time writing. But now, she's writing against tight deadlines. She writes the same thing in ten ways, and still, people will pluck it apart. Sheila's got the "what" part of the equation right, but her circumstances, the "how", mean that even the thing she thought she loves doing most can't bring her happiness.
When I read books and articles or listen to podcasts and TED talks, I sometimes get the impression that the "why" stands above everything else. The one factor to rule them all. Just focus on your purpose and the rest will follow. And I agree having the opportunity to do meaningful work is a wonderful thing. Yet, sometimes, it also can become a curse. When pursuing a profession that's tightly intertwined with your purpose, there's a chance you tend to ignore other aspects. You're fulfilling your purpose but feel miserable and burned out in the process. The same can happen if you turn the thing you love doing most into your job. "I'm doing exactly what I always wanted to do and I still feel miserable."
Is the solution to find work that ticks all three boxes: Meaningful work with a purpose, tasks you love doing and let you experience flow plus circumstances - colleagues, working hours, freedom to design your own schedule, stress levels, etc. - that will allow you to flourish and be happy? That would be a rare combination and may be downright impossible in many cases. So, it becomes about making deliberate choices and prioritising the aspects that matter most to you in a job. For some people, this may be their purpose, and they're happy to make sacrifices in other areas to create impact through their paid work. But if you come to realise that how you work is most important, that's fine, too. My point is: Be wary of people who will tell you that focusing on your purpose will be a surefire way - and the only way - to find happiness in your job. You may also find and live your purpose in other areas of your life once you have the "how" dialled in.
What's most important to you about your work? The "why", the "what", or the "how"? And where are you most willing to compromise?