Explore These Distinctions for Building a Career With Meaning


As many are apt to do on the eve of a new year, you may be reflecting on ways you can build your career in a more meaningful way. Revisit one of our favorite posts from 2015: 

Building a meaningful career can be challenging, and not just the part where you have to find appropriate job vacancies. Before you start job hunting, it’s a good idea to know how you define “meaningful.”

In her Harvard Business Review article, How to Build a Meaningful Career, contributing editor Amy Gallo mentions four categories to keep in mind when considering your own answer to the question, “What does ‘meaningful work’ mean to me?” These four distinctions, identified by Nathaniel Koloc, former CEO of Rework, are ones to explore when seeking meaningful work that also leads to satisfaction: legacy, mastery, freedom, and alignment. Let’s explore these together:


It may seem funny to think about what you leave behind when you’re just getting started on your search, but what you envision as your “legacy” is important to finding work that will not only have significance to you but also be gratifying. Your legacy is that which lives on even after you leave a particular organization or field.

Take some time to think about what you want to accomplish and key improvements for which you want to be known and remembered. Ask yourself:

  • What improvements or accomplishments do I want attributed to me?
  • For whom is my legacy? For the world at large, a cause, a particular community, myself, my family’s future?
  • Do I want my legacy to live within a particular organization or be widely and publicly recognized?
  • Will its impact be long- or short-term? Will it last for generations to come?
  • How will my legacy honor my talents and interests?


Think about the skills and competencies you want to improve. These are the ones to include in the “mastery” category. To help you identify these, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which skills do friends and colleagues have that I admire? Why are they important to me?
  • What strengths seem rewarding to me and why?
  • Why do I want to master these skills- for others’ approval, to make a difference, personal or professional development, etc What would I enjoy being good at? (This question goes beyond, “What am I good at?”)
  • What will I be able to accomplish with my new mastery?
  • How do the skills I want to master relate to my legacy?


Freedom is defined by Merriam-Webster as the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action. What would your career look like if you were to truly feel free? For example, rather than looking at salary and benefits for the status you might receive from them or the monetary amount of your paycheck, think about them from the perspective of how much- and what kind of- freedom they afford you. The salary is more than a numerical amount. When assessing the offer that was made to you, look at whether it matches what you need for the life you want.

Think about what having freedom would look like to you. Then ask yourself:

  • What do I need in my life to feel free?
  • What paths can I take in order to gain those things?
  • Who do I know who seems to have freedom in their lives? What do they do to nurture that freedom?
  • Do I give myself permission to feel free in my life? If not, what holds me back?


Koloc shares that mission and alignment are actually not synonyms. Alignment refers to the degree to which the values of an organization match your  own. When you are looking at organizations that have jobs you want to pursue, remember that its mission may allude to or directly state the organization’s values, but they are not one in the same. To determine the strength of the alignment, ask yourself:

  • What values have been prevalent at organizations where I’ve previously worked, and of those, which have most resonated with me?
  • When I think of the values of the organization, how do I feel: committed, proud, authentic, or motivated? Uncomfortable, uneasy, frustrated, or demotivated?
  • If I wasn’t interested in working (or already working) at this organization, what would be my relationship to it? Would I volunteer or donate money, refer consumers to its services, broadcast its petitions to my social networks?
  • Do I genuinely care about the people served by this organization?
  • Are they served in a way that matches my own values?
  • Do I feel like I can “be myself” in my role?

Now that you’ve responded to the questions, create a 1-3 sentence statement that clearly defines work that you will find meaningful and gives you a sense of satisfaction.  You can make up your own or use one of these templates as a guide:

  • In order to promote a sense of freedom in my life, my career should provide ____________________, and the values of the organization in which I work make me feel ___________, _________, and ________.
  • To promote my legacy of __________________, I will pursue a career in which I will master _____________________ at an organization with the values of _________, __________, and _______.

What did you find most surprising about your answers? Share in the comments below!

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About Author

I became acquainted with Idealist in late 2000 while working in the career development office at a private liberal arts college in NYC. I used it almost daily to help students and alumni find meaningful careers. After a 12-year stint in higher education, I worked as a career coach for professionals in various industries (and still used Idealist). During one of those many searches, a listing really caught my eye- the one for the newly-created position, Careers Program Coordinator. So... I jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I took on the role of Manager of Career Content for Idealist Careers, creating career content for job seekers, leaders, and other nonprofit professionals. Understanding the roles that a positive outlook and holistic self-care play in career success, I've shared with our readers time-honored methods for improving confidence and productivity. Now, as Manager of College and Professional Development, my focus is on lifting the advice from Idealist Careers "off the page". Drawing from my experience in career development, I propel job seekers and career changers towards taking control of their searches with confidence and removing fear, uncertainty, and other blocks to success via in-person workshops and seminars, webinars, and conference programming. My great loves are cooking (preferably without a recipe, otherwise I doctor it up), dancing, live cultural performances, identifying the tasting notes in a good cup of coffee, exploring neighborhoods for hidden gems, and anything else that sparks the senses and allows me to experience all the beauty, dynamism, and intrigue that vivaciously living in a remarkable world offers.


  1. I especially love your comment under Alignment. Being willing to donate money, volunteer, or refer others to an organization (even if you’re not getting a paycheck from it) is an honest indicator of a person’s alignment to it.

    Thank you for this article. : )

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  3. Ian Boreham on

    Great post. I think the concept of alignment is key to career success. Alignment can be to a few things; values is one of those. I recently wrote about this on my blog; how the concept of alignment in careers dates back to over 100 years ago.

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