The Successful vs Fulfilling Career Choice


One of the greatest conundrums that confront the sincerely naive millennial graduate is the apparent trade-off between ‘successful’ and ‘fulfilling’ careers. After years of discussing big ideas and debating solutions the world’s most intractable problems, we enter a murky world of endless applications to faceless corporate giants and confront the reality that we must begin to think about money, earning a livelihood and social prestige. I will make an inevitably ill-fated attempt at discussing the key difficulties confronting all those who try to reconcile the two aims.

Most people don’t actually have much of a choice as providing for themselves is a more pressing concern. But for those of us that have the luxury of choice, what do we do?

(In case you’re worried I’m being too harsh with my millennial stereotypes – I assure you I am mocking myself as much as my fellow dreamers.)

Are they Mutually Exclusive?

Fulfillment as a term can often be used in a rather half-baked way; it takes more forms than only dedicating your life to altruism, charity and social care. Whilst those are without doubt the most noble of pursuits – it is quite self-evident that even providing for one’s family, saving in order to better educate one’s children, being diligent with your responsibilities and by doing so being a role model to others, are universally fulfilling. These fulfillments can be present in virtually any ‘normal’ occupation that doesn’t actively undermine human welfare – which is most.

In that sense, fulfillment and success can probably coincide. Perhaps those of us growing up fortunate enough not to worry about these things – i.e. taking it as a given we will be able to provide for our future families and children – undervalue these aspects of ‘normal’ work.

You might contend that the definition of ‘success’ is hotly contested, but arguably our society has settled on quite an established view of success. Whilst this may vary slightly from culture to culture, when you attend a good university and have a solid educational foundation, success is pursuing a career that is well paid, socially respected and involves advancement and promotion. Despite my millennial objections, this is how the world sees ‘success’. Alternative definitions are, perhaps unfortunately, murmurs of discontent from the fringes of mainstream society. It takes a brave soul to defy the social expectations of ‘success’ and pursue their own vision of personal ‘success’.

The World Needs our Talent

There are those who make reasonable arguments about the good people can do from within mainstream occupations – both by being proactive on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) front at work, but also by engaging with good causes in their personal time outside of work. This is probably fair, although I would be interested to figure out how many people who work the 60+ hour-weeks most in London do actually feel this to be the case.

However, there is a potent counter-argument. In an era of great challenges, from the persistence of poverty to the rise of inequality, the unassailable acceleration of climate change and resurgence of war, civil strife and nationalism, the world needs at least some of its most talented to turn their attention to these problems. If all the best graduates go into well-paid professions that, whilst hardly wrong, aren’t actively contributing to solving these problems, the likelihood we can tackle them is surely low.
In my mind, this argument is potent. Unfortunately, however, it seems that far too often more fulfilling career routes are beset with uncertain entry routes, persistent lack of stability and financial security and a myriad of discontent blog-posts from disillusioned people (often fellow millennials) within the sector.

University is Expensive–

What is the ‘Return’?

A part of me constantly returns to the pragmatic financial concerns surrounding further education. University is expensive – £9,000 in the UK, and often even more in the US. Is it not a reasonable expectation for that sizeable financial investment in our skills (‘human capital’) to bring a positive and proportionate ‘return’?

I mean – is a £27,000 investment worth it if our lifetime earnings are barely improved, and low compared to others? I don’t know – it’s a crude point but if I’m honest with myself, the crippling cost of university does point us in this direction.
I would like to think the ‘returns’ of education go far beyond income. Surely, they do? Perhaps if we content ourselves with the idea that the benefit we bring to humanity, in whatever form that takes, constitutes the highest form of return, then this concern is allayed.


So, for those of us desperately trying to convince ourselves our concern for the state of the world is genuine… I don’t really have any answers. Do you?