Looking for meaning in your career? Try a pay-it-forward plan

Written by: Alaina G. Levine
Published on: Sep 30, 2021

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Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by Oksanita/iStock

No matter where you are in your career, you didn't get there without help. Someone opened a door, gave you advice, shared a bit of info about a path or a profession. And when you pass that kindness on to others, you often get more benefits than you could have realized.

That's why I suggest instituting a pay-it-forward plan in your career—a commitment to take every kindness you receive and convert it to a kindness for another person. It empowers you to pass on support, help, and recognition to those around you. And with every action, you are also building and buoying self-confidence by seeing that you are making an impact and you have meaning in your career.

What does "meaning" mean to you?

Early in my career, I thought it could only be achieved through big, highly visible returns or global endeavors. I recall feeling envious of someone I read about who was on an international team that secured the 2008 Summer Olympics for China. They were making an impact on a grand scale. I, on the other hand, was organizing a freshman orientation for physics majors. I felt empty.

But that began to change when one of the incoming students told me about the trouble he was having getting into university housing. I set out to solve the problem, calling on a university administrator to step in, and my efforts paid off: He got into that dorm. It was a small gesture perhaps, but it was meaningful to him—and to me. Suddenly I grasped that the meaning I craved is there when I aid others on their own roads.

Years later, that student emailed me to thank me for helping him when he was especially vulnerable. I consider that one of my happiest and most important career moments.

Knowing that I was having an impact ignited my creativity and allowed me to take scary leaps in my professional path and embrace new roles and responsibilities. Over time, I formalized my pay-it-forward plan. Here is a structure you can apply to create your own plan.

Develop the mindset

I think about my plan in terms of inputs and outputs. The inputs are the mechanisms for experiencing kindness and support, and the outputs are the channels for passing on that kindness. The processor, turning those inputs into outputs, is me!

We're always receiving inputs—yet we don't always pay attention to them. So, step one of enacting a pay-it-forward plan is to make a point to notice and catalog what others do to support us. Ask yourself: "What are five ways people have helped me in the last month?" Be granular about what they did to assist you, from supporting you as you gave a Zoom presentation to giving you extra time to finish your project to asking how you are managing during the pandemic.

Next, consider what these kindnesses meant to you. How were you helped? When your former labmate emailed you, how did you feel? Note the kindness does not have to lead to a tangible benefit for you. Rather, it can simply alter your mood for the better. We can build mental muscles to illuminate how kindness affects us, and in turn to recognize our power to help others.

Finally, strategize: "How can I transfer this kindness to others?" Brainstorm five ways you can serve your community. A pay-it-forward plan does not have to have grand gestures and it doesn't have to have a global impact goal. It includes simple minute-to-minute actions: thanking someone for doing a great job, posting a congratulations on social media when they win an award, suggesting a catch-up call, asking someone in your network how they are doing and whether there is anything you can do to assist them.

If you're not sure what actions to take, you can go back to your skill and strengths inventory and review the evidence of the types of problems you can solve and the skills you use to do so. Once you know your value, you'll see that you can leverage these abilities to support the people around you. For example, let's say you have identified that you have strong project management skills from obtaining your Ph.D. You could harness this expertise to help your teammate solve a problem in the lab, or to develop a schedule for promoting your peers' work on social media. Other things you can share include relevant information, advice, strategies, and tactics; access and introductions to opportunities, organizations, individuals, networks, and career paths; active mentorship and sponsorship; recommendations for opportunities, including nominations for awards; commendations and recognitions, including simple notes; and gratitude—always.

Finally, by keeping track of the inputs and outputs, you can begin to implement your pay-it-forward plan with proposed goals—for example, aiming to recognize two people each week on Twitter for their contributions to the field. Fold it into your daily routine. For example, I often start my day with these types of actions in part because they put me in a happy mood, which ignites my productivity.

Reap the benefits

A realistic pay-it-forward plan, with steps you can take on a regular basis, becomes self-sustaining when you see that the positive feelings you engender in others are often magnified in yourself. This leads to great reward—including clarity of purpose, confidence, and fortitude—which in turn begets creativity, innovation, and the motivation to take on more complex and higher-stakes challenges. When I started to be mindful of my pay-it-forward plan, I noticed that I also began to pursue career opportunities for which I previously would not have thought I was ready or qualified. It has become a cycle of mutual benefit that constantly feeds back on itself.

A pay-it-forward plan supports emotional well-being and stimulates career growth for all. It costs you very little to design and implement. But to both you and the people on the other side, it means so much.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author's previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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Alaina G. Levine is a STEM careers consultant, a professional speaker, and the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015).