My first job was when I was 11. I was out with my parents, shopping for a Christmas tree on a November evening when a conversation with the owner of a Christmas tree lot led to a job offer.
I was offered $5 an hour under the table to sell, cut and load Christmas trees for the next month. I couldn’t have been more proud of my entry into adulthood and sudden bounty of disposable income.
I enjoyed the work, too, and was good at it. I liked helping people, they enjoyed having an innocent and enthusiastic child helping them. The bosses saw my competence and mostly retreated to their heated cars, allowing me run of the lot.
I was hooked on working at that point and continued to do so from then on. In my teenage years, I umpired baseball and softball matches.
I worked in a fast-food restaurant at age 15, slinging burgers and shakes, coated in grease and constantly burned. I learned there that I did not want to work in food service any more, and that I needed to get a college degree in something much more civilised.
I had a great time working in retail, as well as working as a receptionist in an office. Each job taught me important lessons, allowed me to have enough money to get what I needed and wanted.
As an adult, I’ve continued this pattern, even expanding on it. I’ve taught for 16 years now in classrooms all over the world. I’ve also worked various side hustles, from writing this column to starting a photography business, playing in bands and tutoring.
Basically, I’m no stranger to work in all its forms, but not every job was great. Some have been brutal slogs, some so bad they gave me panic attacks before going into work. This variety of employment made clear one principle of work – that it is a spectrum, and you want to be on one side much more than the other.
Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” is a common psychological principle stating that in order to reach our highest purpose, self-actualisation, where we are fulfilled and happy, we have to get through various stages.
It starts at physical needs such as food, shelter and clothing, without which we would die. Then it goes on to safety, social and several other steps until you get to the top.
Work is also like this. Sometimes we work jobs we hate simply because without them, we would not be able to clothe and feed our family.
The highest form of work, though, is self-actualising work. This is work where you know you are doing good to the world and doing it in a way that matches your purpose in life.
For me, that is teaching and being a positive force for children to help them learn and grow.
When I’m lucky, I’m at a great school where I’m allowed to do that at my highest level, and am supported by a culture that helps me to grow to be more effective or try new things.
This is where the principle of Ikigai comes into play. This is a popular Japanese idea that says to achieve the best life, you must find a career that helps the world, makes you happy and fulfilled and get paid for it.
I agree with this idea. When I feel most fulfilled, all three of these conditions are met. I feel like my life is going in a positive direction; that I have a purpose.
It's one of the reasons I started my blog, The Happiest Teacher, because teaching makes me truly happy.
In order to find your Ikigai, your self-actualised work, there is only one way that works. You have to try new things. If you don’t feel fulfilled in your current profession, you need to try another career.
You can do this with side hustles, by dipping your toes into new fields in your off hours, so that you can still fall back on your job until you can confirm you can replace your primary income with your new passion.
You can do this by having family support. But you also need to believe in your ability to learn new skills, make new contacts and create value for the world that they will pay for.
Don’t get stuck in jobs on the low end of the spectrum, where you’re working simply for survival. Find your self-actualised career, find your Ikigai.
Schoolteacher Zach Holz (@HappiestTeach) documents his journey towards financial independence on his personal finance blog The Happiest Teacher