A Lesson from Medieval City Centers about How to Gain Career Fulfillment

written by  Ryan Seamons

There’s an important lesson about career fulfillment to learn from the shift over the past millennium in how we build our cities.

“People 1,000 years ago walked among squares with marble sculptures, domes, stone arcades, and past village churches with gardens kept by the clergy that lived there. As a matter of life, some walked through what constituted art on the scale that people today, even very rich people, may never experience.”

“Almost no new cities match the beauty of the few remaining medieval city centers, which themselves are so cherished that people will spend thousands to fly there, just to see them in person for a few days. But tourists fly home, and never think of creating a new place, of creating something that constitutes an artistic endeavor beyond themselves. Rather they will leave building to builders and zoning codes, who will plan the next warehouses for humans, for rarely today can people verbalize their values in any other terms than the economic… though we often know something is wrong or even deeply troubling with the aesthetics of a place or situation, do not even have the vocabulary to dissent”

In Praise of the Gods by Simon Sarris.
Gargoyle landmark building

What we value shows in what we optimize for and surround ourselves with. That’s changed over time for cities and it applies to our careers as well.

Non-economic Value

“Rarely today can people verbalize their values in any other terms than the economic.” Reading this hit me like a ton of bricks.

Knowing what you value and how that matches up with the culture of a new potential company/job is critical to career fulfillment.

Nowhere is this more true than in a career. We instinctively use raw economic terms to consider and compare career options. Concepts like base salary, bonus, health insurance, and other perks come up most often. Why? Because it’s easy. It’s simple to quantify. It’s obvious to compare.

As an occasional career coach and mentor, one consistency I find (especially in younger job seekers) is a fixation about base salary. Much of my coaching centers on helping job seekers consider more possibilities about what matters. This includes not only the economic possibilities they should negotiate for beyond base salary (like benefits, time off, equity, compensation conversations, learning budget, etc.) but also other intangible parts of a job (values like flexibility, respect, trust, adventure, autonomy, and courage). Those intangibles tend to end up having more impact on our happiness than economics.

Knowing what you value and how that matches up with the culture of a new potential company/job is critical to career fulfillment.

Economics still matter, but they are a piece of a much bigger career fulfillment puzzle

Now, economic means aren’t unimportant to your career. But money is a hygiene factor. You notice when it isn’t right, but after a certain level, it is no longer an influential motivator.

It’s why studies show that after $75,000 your happiness doesn’t increase.

One of my career decisions was almost made completely on the basis of money.

I was deciding which MBA program to pick. My plan was to go to one of the prestigious schools on the East coast. I worked hard and got the test score I would need. As I was filling out applications, it was difficult for me to think beyond the raw base salary expectations. One school’s average salary upon graduation was over $50k higher than another school I was considering! I kept coming back to the difference that money could make for my family.

I assumed that the prestige of the school alone was adding more money. As I explored more about the disparity, it ended up that industry and location was the main driver of the difference. Investment bankers in New York make a lot more money than most other MBA graduates.

Some of my friends chose this route. There’s nothing wrong with being an investment banker in New York City. But given that I had 3 young children at the time, working 80 hours a week wasn’t my first desire.

You have to consider the whole package, especially beyond the money.

One of my mentors shared this personal observation—MBA students tend to flock to the large companies right out of school. Large salaries attract them. But after a few years, many come back to small businesses. They have learned that it’s ok to take a lower salary smaller companies can offer in exchange for the autonomy and influence often lacking at large corporations.

This is a broad generalization, but what I like about this perspective is the change that happens for some people.

How you can optimize your career around real values

Instead of only looking at the economics, you should take time to develop your own perspective about what you value at work. Here’s a process I’ve seen help hundreds of people decide what matters and take meaningful action in their career:

1. Carve out time to answer the question, “What matters most in my career?” I’ve found the most important part of this is just taking the time. Put technology down. Journaling can help some people. A card sort is the best mechanism I’ve seen consistently help people sort through potential thoughts.

Another approach that can be helpful is to think about experiences you’ve had in your career. What brought you the most joy and fulfillment. When were you at your best? What boss/job/project/team filled your bucket? Why?

2. Speak with a mentor about why these things matter. A simple framework for a good mentoring session about career is to talk about the past, the future, and the present.

Sit down with someone you trust—a mentor, spouse, friend, or even your boss. You talk about what matters most. It’s a conversation many people say they’ve kind of had, but it’s rare to dedicate time to have it. This approach is aligned with a framework Russ Laraway suggests from his time at Google. He got a 10-point bump in engagement scores on his teams by using this conversation approach!

3. Commit to a plan. Figure out what you’re going to do next, ideally with a prioritized list of career experiments vs a linear plan that is bound to change. Too many people jump head-long into a big career change without actually validating that it’s what they want. Often the path one person told them about is what ends up guiding most of someone’s decisions.

I’m a big fan of one-pagers for product roadmaps. Applying this methodology to careers can give you a simple living document that can give you guidance while being adaptable.

Being able to verbalize your values in non-economic terms is a valuable practice. It’s difficult to make something happen if you can’t talk about it.

If you find yourself nodding along in agreement with this, you’ll love the Career Clarity Toolkit we created. Its proven, step-by-step method uses design thinking, guided reflection, and career experiments to help you gain clarity and confidence to get more of what you want out of your career, even in your current job. We’ve inspired hundreds of people to make changes big and small to find more career fulfillment.

*I came across the original quote from Simon Sarris in Trevor McKendrick’s wonderful newsletter How It Actually Works

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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