After teaching high-school physics for eight years, Eric Adler decided to make a change. He enjoyed teaching but had always wanted to build something. So he got an M.B.A. and became a management consultant for Dean & Co., a consultancy in Vienna, Va. He lasted a year at the job.
“A lot of people around me were awfully excited about becoming consultants and they got me awfully excited. But consulting ended up not being my thing,” says Mr. Adler, whose thoughts kept going back to an idea that he’d come up with while teaching.
Mr. Adler noticed that the inner-city students that attended his prep school on scholarship struggled despite having the same access to books, teachers and facilities as peers. He surmised that an urban public boarding school could level the playing field. Boarded students are given a more focused learning environment and are supported with enrichment programs.
A colleague introduced Mr. Adler to Raj Vinnakota, also a consultant, who shared his ideas about educating at-risk children. After discussing the idea over dinner, they both quit their jobs and founded the SEED Foundation, an organization that builds college-preparatory public boarding schools in urban areas.
The success of their first school in Washington, D.C., has since led to the construction of three other schools around the country, with a fourth in the planning stages in Cleveland. The foundation says 92% of SEED graduates have enrolled in college. “When I asked myself what I wanted to do, the answer is that I always wanted to build something of social importance,” says Mr. Adler. “I feel as if I’ve accomplished that.”
Think for Yourself
Employees dissatisfied with their careers may not be entirely to blame for the choices they have made. Many ideas about success are often not our own, say experts. It happens early and often subconsciously. People are influenced by the simple rewards systems learned in high school and college and by what is portrayed as success by the media and in popular culture. There are also strong parental expectations to continue the family business or enter stable, respectable professions.
As a result, people may wake up years later uncertain of why they are dissatisfied, says Richard Shell, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success.” That’s one reason he recommends people take pit stops to evaluate themselves.
“Unfortunately, many Americans think of their careers as a race and feel that if they stop to change a tire in the pit, everybody will pass you by,” says Mr. Shell, who has seen many students discover midway through their M.B.A.s that they want to do something other than finance.
“The Europeans have ritual gap years between high school and college and graduation and jobs. That time allows them to think about their next big step. The virtue of having a pit stop like this is that you might find that you’re in the wrong race.”
The first step is to put success into your own context. Shift your perspective toward what’s important to you, as opposed to something outside yourself, says Mr. Shell. Maybe you’re most fulfilled by doing work that you can directly control, like graphic design. Or by helping people as a teacher or a nonprofit lawyer. It helps to map out a narrative of the decisions that you have made in your career so that you can revisit and overcome any limits that you have imposed on yourself.
Once you’ve gotten over the idea of being the richest or most famous person and have a good sense of what’s truly meaningful, set some long-term goals and start moving in that direction. You may not end up going to that exact place you idealize, but you will at least move toward something that can be more satisfying.
For additional insight, seek the help of colleagues, mentors and even your boss to help you realize where you need to be. Many people can be myopic about their own strengths and weaknesses. You may discover that you’re in the right place and having a greater impact than you realize on your workplace and industry. Or you may just need to make some adjustments to improve your lot at work—like getting out from under a bad boss.
Find Your Passion
No choice is immutable. Many people won’t change because it’s easier to come up with excuses about why they should stay on course, says Larry Smith, adjunct professor of economics at Canada’s University of Waterloo who gave a TED talk on why most people fail to get great careers.
You will never reach your full potential at a job that you’re not passionate about, says Mr. Smith. “A great job is one in which you are profoundly satisfied with what you do,” he says. “It may seem daunting and too far away, but it’s the passion for the work that will drive you to endure whatever hardship is required to make it work.”