How to find satisfying work

Today is the first hay baling day of the summer. The farmer is used to making huge, round bales, with big, loud machines. This time, though, he did smaller, square bales, and he found a way to include our son. And the dog.

I spend part of each day counseling people who don’t know how to find work that is satisfying. It’s one of the hardest things to learn to do. Here is how to do it well, at any age:

1. Get yourself accustomed to trying new things.
To find work you love, you have to try working at lots of different jobs, maybe 50, maybe 100. You are limited only by the ideas you have for what to try.

To instill this spirit for experimentation in my son, I have helped him do things like sell rhubarb at a farmer’s market, decorate containers to market eggs, and raise animals to sell.

Each job involved different skills, and he will have to learn which skills feel best to use. Knowing that is essential because, as the Harvard Business Review shows, satisfying work is the intersection of what what you like to do, what you are good at, and what an organization values.

For many people, knowing the intersection of these three circles is the hardest part of adult life.

2. Don’t think you’re above caring about prestige.
We would each like to think that we are above choosing careers based on how people think of us. But studies show that the prestige of a career matters more than the money earned from that career. This makes sense to me because when I tell people I’m a writer, they are impressed, and when I tell people I’m a blogger, they think I’m unemployed. So I usually say I’m a writer.

A lot of people in rural communities can’t wait to get their kids off the farms. They think of it as low-level labor. In fact, though, farm work is technical, requires tons of planning, and is entrepreneurial, if you think of it that way. We stress those aspects of farm work with my son so that he feels important when he’s doing hard labor.


3. Seek to understand your impact.
I have read a ton of psychology research about how the most important things we need for job satisfaction are meaningful work, responsibility, and knowledge of the outcome.

Melissa baled with the Farmer because the square bales are too heavy for the kids. But I asked the Farmer to save the end work, gathering the loose hay, for my son. My son is depending on the hay to feed his goats all winter, so he should do some work for that.

At the end of baling, Melissa and the Farmer picked up my son and me at the house, and I rode on the back of the trailer while the farmer drove and Melissa took photos and my son jumped on and off the truck picking up the loose hay. I picked up loose hay, too—if nothing else, work is more satisfying in the context of a collectivist culture, but I was there mostly to make sure my son did the work. I didn’t have to do much though, besides stay out of his way and keep the dog from getting run over.

Because once he realized he was doing important work for the farm and for our family, it was amazing to see his body language transform. He looked stronger and more authoritative, because the work made him feel important. (You’ll notice that also, he has claimed Cullen’s boots as his own.)

I loved feeling like I was on a joyride hayride, and I loved watching my son grow into his job, and I love when the Farmer lifted the brim of my hat to kiss me.

58 replies
    • Sadya
      Sadya says:

      Lisa, I just cudnt resist asking- boyfriend for whom? You or Your daughter. If its your daughter I don’t she needs a blogpost from Penelope, a little space & distance should do the trick.

  1. JMK
    JMK says:

    Fantastic article. Based on the research articles you cite, I have found satisfying work. But there’s one thing missing for me, I hate standing still. I have to know what’s next and be working toward something. How can I learn to be satisfied where I am now?

    • Neon Tango
      Neon Tango says:

      RE “I think trying 50-100 jobs is a sign that the person has no idea what they are doing, and should stop and think for a second instead of searching for job number 101.”

      Oh, not necessarily! It could mean you’re an entrepreneur who meets the diverse needs of specially selected and cultivated clients. It could also mean you prefer to travel and see the world, but not being independently wealthy, you work your way around the globe. That’s me. I love what I do, I do what I love, and I define myself as a happy careerist. My only wasted years were the ones spent trying to fit myself up to the corporate world.


  2. Sasana
    Sasana says:

    I think trying 50-100 jobs is a sign that the person has no idea what they are doing, and should stop and think for a second instead of searching for job number 101.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I didn’t mean to take 100 jobs. I mean to try 100 things. It can be a day, an hour, a year. This is about taking lots of action with an open mind.


      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        Can you edit it, then? Or maybe expand on what you mean? Because you did say “jobs,” not “actions.”

        I would also say that every job had taught me something–even if it was how not to approach a task or responsibility. For example, I learned a lot about how not to manage people in my first full-time job. Efforts at sales have taught me that I don’t like sales–but trying that helped me be more comfortable talking to people, which is why I have no real problem with public speaking.

    • Anna
      Anna says:

      I second that! (although I know it is not what Penelope meant to say). I’ve had heaps of (short) jobs, and that is frankly because I had know idea what I wanted to do. I still don’t know… Now I just know that I’d prefer not to do those jobs for a living in the long run, although they all had interesting aspects and it was interesting to experience very different environments.

      I have recorded sound for video productions, minded grower pigs and free range sows, milked dairy cows, packed eggs, driven tractor and bobcat for machinery stations, skinned mink, picked fruit, bartended, cared for aged people, multiple sclerosis patients and autistic kids, cleaned in companies at night, tested DVD players in an electronics factory, cooked in a restaurant, provided customer support for an Internet supermarket, demonstrated software products in a shop, transcribed research interviews, set up an online shop, tried to start a graphic design business together with a graphic designer, done website copy writing, research and translation, and co-ordinated export logistics and documentation. The list is not even exhaustive.

      Those jobs are all part of my history and I like to think of the experiences as different worlds each with its own stories and series of events. Actually I just realised that it is in fact an extreme variety of work environments; quite unusual and kind of cool. However, I wouldn’t put most on my CV, partly because they were menial jobs, but most because I’d look like a randomly zig-zagging person who doesn’t know what direction to take.

      So I guess I should stop and think before I take on job no. 101.

  3. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I think I have found meaningful work. I think this because on Tuesday we sat in a conference room all day and hashed out rough ideas, which I like, and then we all went out that evening and got a bartender to mix us various alcoholic concoctions, which I also like.

    But I’m still watching flights to Africa. How do I know that I’m not good with elephants if I don’t try?

  4. .Bryan
    .Bryan says:

    Finally! One of your posts I can sink my mind into again….THIS is why I subscribe! And I’m hoping tons more stuff like this are in your books! Anxiously awaiting them….
    P.S. This blog will be saved and reread….I will eagerly outline those points I want to burn into my mind……and keep them on my fridge!!!!

  5. James
    James says:

    This is a bit pedantic and not really to do with your post but here goes. You refer to yourself and the farmer and then “our son”. Isn’t this a bit disrespectful to your ex-husband? Granted your marriage may not have worked out, but your references to him seemed to imply he was an involved father to your children, someone who took ownership of his fatherhood.

    It’s also implied the farmer is great with your sons – if that’s the case, how wonderful – but (as a divorced father) yourr summary erasure of their biological father with that choice of words struck a nerve with me (granted, probably a nerve you didn’t intend to strike).


    • Tacy
      Tacy says:

      Instead of “our son”, what should she have written? “My son” would not have been right and would have hurt the farmer. The farmer is the one who is there everyday helping to raise the boy. The boy is definitely “their son.” Note that this does not mean that the biological father is no longer the biological father.

    • Laura Brown
      Laura Brown says:

      Hi, James, I also immediately noted Penelope’s use of “our” son. I identify with and appreciate the choice. I am stepmother to two children and my husband is stepdad to one of my stepchildren and to my three biological kids. He’s biological dad to one of my stepchildren. We don’t use the term “step”. (Actually, our family joke is that I am “Vanilla Mom” and my husband is “Chocolate Dad”.)

      All five kids are “our” sons and daughters. They are all dearly loved by their other biological parents. Our claiming each child as our own in no way erases their other parents’ roles.

      Incidentally, we committed to parenting each other’s children prior to our legal marriage and used “our” and “my” before we married. My stepdaughter is my ex-husband’s biological daughter. She’s my daughter and I am her mom. Her biological mom is her mom, too.

    • Brigid
      Brigid says:

      Also came in to say: yay for “our” son! Yay for the farmer and you, makes me happy to see y’all clicking along together.

  6. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    I was going to comment about the job theme but I kept returning to your third sentence, the one where you wrote, “our son.” And that made me happy. So I kept reading and then I scanned your last sentence, which said, “I love when the Farmer lifted the brim of my hat to kiss me.” And that made me happier.

    Why am I being so romantic? I’m a guy!


  7. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    I am almost 50 and am *still* looking for that damn intersection. I think it keeps moving. I thought I had it for awhile and then kids came along and distracted me for a few years. When I went to try to find it again, it wasn’t where I thought it should be. One of my problems is that I *have* tried lots of different things and find enough of them interesting that it is very hard for me to focus on just one. And most employers don’t want to hire a generalist/jill-of-all-trades, they want an expert in just one or two.

  8. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    Glad you brought this up, the farm work. I have been trying to hire a worker on my ranch for a couyple of years. The milleniums keel over after one day. Boys are not taught to be men and do physical labor. Its what they should be doing to bleed off some of that testosterone which is wasted on violent video games and bar fights. I now have a girl working for me. We got about a quarter mile of fence done in 3 days,including clearing brush. Shes 22 and gorgeous but outworks all the guys I’ve had out here. Shes smart, cooperative and great company. I pay her good and hope she stays with me for a while. I suggest the x,y and millenium kids go out and do an honest days work for a while and maybe get an ethic or two so they have something to offer besides the ability to do social media and whine.


    The Farmer rocks.

    • Libby
      Libby says:

      @Virginia, where you are at is what people call the “learning curve.” Each person deals with the stress of the learning curve differently. How you deal with it depends upon your experiences. If there is something very new which you want to learn, you need a patient, thorough teacher mentoring you along the way. Learn something new and then practice it, until you feel confident enough to take on another challenge. If you have been severely chastised or criticized in the past for mistakes, that could be a reason you are afraid to fail. I’m in my mid 40’s and have had different types of bosses, some reasonable, some not. Some were good teachers, some failed to teach. It is good to find mentors who care not just about your skills but in developing you as a person. That is not easy. I am new in a field right now and my supervisor has expertise in his field and the teaching skills and patience needed to help me learn how to work with him. He guides others because he cares about the success of others and is not threatened by their success. Finding healthy people to work for and with is important too. You will usually find at least one difficult person to work around wherever you go, but if you can minimize having to be responsible TO one of them, you will learn more and feel more of a sense of accomplishment. Hang in there, maybe look for some mentors who are patient, honest, good people who won’t tear you down. This is so crucial.

  9. Lestamore
    Lestamore says:

    But what about all the anxiety and that falling backwards feeling of not being good enough at things. I don’t have a problem trying new things, in fact I love doing it. But I am highly uncomfortable about competing with experience. I was thinking about bitcoins yesterday and how the best way to get some seems to be an exchange of goods or services. I couldn’t think of ANYTHING I can do that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to ask money for. And I have tried a lot of different things. Most of my jobs have been simple and unskilled like fast food, despite having a degree because I can actually be confident of not accidentally ruining everything for whoever is paying me. :P

    I feel like I am in an employment crisis (having semi-decided not to ever actually have a job at all.)

  10. Marie
    Marie says:

    Love our blog and especially today’s post. I just got back from a permaculture farm in Erongarícuaro, Mexico and out of all my backpacking travels this was the most satisfying. All the chopping, planting, clearing, building I did on the farm beats any day at the office. I know your son will appreciate this someday. You rock as a mom!

    p.s. I love the photography. What make/model camera do you use?

  11. Holly
    Holly says:

    First of all, I love the pictures in this post!

    My dad owns a construction company so I grew up doing manual labor. He taught me how to hydroseed (spray a large area of land with grass seed and straw for insulation), drywall/mud, do basic electrical work, and build decks & boat docks etc.. I hated my job at the time as my friends were all working easy mall jobs and making more money than me. As an adult, though, I really appreciate all the crappy jobs I had to do because nothing will ever be as difficult as a 12 hour 90+ degree day throwing straw bales up into the bed of a truck. That and I can fix nearly everything in my house with minimal trouble. I really think it’s great that your boys are growing up there and learning those skills. Everyone should do at least a summer’s worth of manual labor during their childhood.

  12. Juliette
    Juliette says:

    Only 6 percent of Wyoming ranchers are younger than 35. The average age of a Wyoming rancher in 2007 was 57. I think parents would LOVE for their kids to stay on the land. The ranching families I know really wish their kids would stay on the land. It’s their identity in this life and the legacy they leave for the next generation. What does it mean if their kids don’t want it? I can’t agree that, at least in the rural West, parents don’t want their kids to stay on the land. But they know the land barely supports the old folks today, and hardly could support a family.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is part of the cattle world that blows my mind. If the parents have not figured out a way to support a family on the land, why would they want their kid to join? It would mean that both their family and their kids family would not earn enough to support themselves.

      I think there is a lot of messed up thinking on the topic of family farming and passing land down. I could go on forever — like, if parents don’t give the kid the land when they are an adult then the kid is a kid forever. But parents have their identity tied up in the land and can’t imagine giving it up while they are working it.


  13. Stu Langley
    Stu Langley says:

    So how many hours does the lad have to put in, before you get him a kid sized pitch fork. You can grind off the sharp tips but…
    we cannot ignore progression in tools.
    Hugging hay to one’s body to load it onto a trailer… I am going to have a stroke here.

  14. Kim
    Kim says:

    I’m having a great day because I finally changed my prospective on work, and then I read this post and it totally reaffirms everything.

  15. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Great post. You are on a roll lately. Almost every post in the last few weeks has made me laugh out loud or smile. Love all the pictures, but my favorite has to be the goat in the boots.

  16. raj
    raj says:

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  17. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    As good as this post is – and it’s great – I have to say that sometimes the comments are equally rich. Which, of course, again, reflects on you. Also — isn’t it amazing how Melissa has added so much to your life and your blog?? I mean what a great moment she captured – and how brilliant of you to frame it as you did.


    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Amy, I’ll second your opinion of Melissa. I read this post yesterday and came to the same conclusion last night. She’s not in any of the photos in this post but has done many things for Penelope and this blog.

  18. Don Becker
    Don Becker says:

    I like everything about this post. The farmer and you doing good, the son working in the field and the background story of trying different things and how to get a job. Very good information and a joy to read. You sure can write Penelope.

  19. Karen
    Karen says:

    What a wonderful post and you are a wonderful writer! I’ve been following your blog for quite some time and enjoy reading everything you share with us. This post was especially charming.

  20. Dale
    Dale says:

    In my experience, older people (over 40) work for the prestige, younger people work for the money (and job hop alot more). Unless the younger person’s family/referent group think prestige is important.
    Just an observation.

  21. Carl
    Carl says:

    I grew up on a farm, there is always something that needs to be done, hence there is no unemployment on a farm. I worked in corporate human resourcesnfor many years. I could spot the work ethic of those that came from a farm or rural background. That’s not to say that those from an urban background can’t have a good work ethic, it’s just different from rural cultures, IMO.

    How do you teach your son to be safe around farm equipment? That’s important and an aspect of job hunting for those working or seeking work in industrial settings. Even the engineer types need to know how keep from getting injured.

    Melissa’s camera rocks and isn’t for the faint of heart. That’s no point-n-shoot ya got there.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. The writing and variety of topics bring me back, mostly the ones about you, the farmer, Melissa and her sex life, your sex life, you know, all the important topics.

  22. Marc
    Marc says:

    You mentioned money and prestige. Out of the universe of 50 values (or 52 or 56 depending on who’s research you refer to), there are three “selfish” values; money, prestige, and power.

    Like you said – don’t ignore them if they are important to you. When I do a value assessment of someone, I try to avoid letting the subject choose what their parents, pastor, coach (pick influential role model) would have them pick, and strive to pick what is really inside. Because if it IS something you value and you choose not to fulfill it, you won’t be fully satisfied.

    You want to know if one of these are a value of yours? Imagine yourself at a future high school reunion. In walks three former classmate of yours; one is now rich and drives a car / wears the clothes to show it. Another is famous, signing autographs all the way in. The third is powerful, getting big things done with a snap of a finger or making a phone call.

    Which one do you envy the most? Envy can actually be a physical sensation, deep in the pit of your stomach. If you are asking “Why did he/she become XX” then you probably value what they have.

    • Hannah
      Hannah says:

      Also as a follow up–I’m not “Marc” as listed above–I have no idea how I got signed in under that name!


  23. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    These are such valuable lessons to learn about yourself. As I think many people can attest to, your first job is very rarely the job you fall in love with but I think that people can get paralyzed into staying in a job they don’t like for far too long because they don’t know how to find work that they love. Thanks for the great article, and always great advice! Here is an article you may find interesting on switching careers…

    Thanks again!

  24. Lape
    Lape says:

    “This makes sense to me because when I tell people I’m a writer, they are impressed, and when I tell people I’m a blogger”. As a blogger and freelance writer myself, that sentence made me smile.

  25. Wedding Venues Christchurch
    Wedding Venues Christchurch says:

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  26. Patty Gear
    Patty Gear says:

    I guess the only time you could only say that you have found a satisfying work is when you are doing the thing that you really love most & it makes you feel happy & fulfilled at the end of the day.

  27. Mike
    Mike says:

    I was laid up for a few months after I ended up in a hospital for the holidays years ago. I’d been involved with providing SEO services since 1995, real estate funding since 1988, and high tech services since 1973. What did I choose to do while staring at the ceiling in the hospital? hand made cigars manufacturing. The doctors weren’t even slightly perturbed, because many of them smoke hand made cigars! Go figure.

    Anyway – It took months to develop my first custom cigar blend. A year and a half to be exact.

    Bottom line – do what you like and it’ll all work out in the end.

  28. Kamil
    Kamil says:

    Stay open-minded is the best we can do. Take any opportunity you have. Do not hesitate to run your business, if you believe in it. Great article!

    • Audyt Podatkowy
      Audyt Podatkowy says:

      I agree with your opinion about staying open-minded but not completely. I would rather say that you should always make a cold calculation of advantages and disadvantages first to make sure your business will be succesfull.

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