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I think that one of the reasons I am so intrigued by the concept of career fulfillment is that I only recently accepted that it actually exists.

Once as a young man, still not sure what I wanted to do with my life, I was visiting my family for the weekend. My father had had a beer or three to loosen his tongue, and he decided to tell me the story about how he became a pipefitter – a construction worker who put together heating systems in large buildings like schools and skyscrapers. That had been his job for as long as I could remember. It had been his own father’s profession, and when my dad reached adulthood, my grandfather had reminded him several times that, with a word to the pipefitters’ union, he could get my dad a spot doing the same reliable work, for good pay. But when my dad was in high school, he had discovered that he loved to cook. His first jobs out of high school were working in kitchens, big places that serviced hospitals and the like, and he did well enough in them that they soon let him run things.

That part was not a real surprise to me. On holidays or at family gatherings, my dad was always in charge of the kitchen. He planned out the meals – the timing and the ingredients – and he always had the right equipment, no matter how unusual the dish. And whenever one of us kids was involved in a big event – a Cub Scout Blue-and-Gold banquet, say – my dad would volunteer to take care of the meal. He could take charge of a church kitchen and produce a sit-down dinner for 40 families, and anyone could tell he was having fun doing it.

So I had known that my dad loved to cook, but before this conversation, I had never understood that cooking had actually been his first choice of profession. He wasn’t a chef, he explained – just a cook, he hadn’t had a chef’s training; but as he told the story there was a wistfulness that made me realize that he had once had hopes of following that path. But that all changed, he explained, one night when I was a little boy.

Little boys are not cheap, after all, and my father was working long hours, earning some extra cash. I was not quite a year old and my parents were only 21 and 22. One night, my father said, he came home late again and sat down on the living room couch next to me to say hi. I looked at him as if he were a stranger and started crying. My father said that he was so affected by the idea that he was spending so much time at work that his first-born son didn’t seem to recognize him, he called his own father up that night and asked if that union opportunity might still be available. A week later, my father started working as a pipefitter.

That was the job I’d always known him in – a job in which he was both successful, to a point, and frequently unhappy. He got to use enough of his natural gifts – his quick grasp of how things work together, his complementary skills in planning and improvisation – to perform well in the job, even to be promoted to a certain level. But he never got from pipefitting the visceral satisfaction that he got from cooking: the immediacy of creation and the pleasure of watching others enjoy it. He had consigned himself to doing a job he could do but would never love, because he felt that it was necessary for practical reasons.

This was the message I had grown up with: a variation on the old saying, “It’s not supposed to be fun – that’s why they call it work.” The conversation with my father had made it more explicit, but the reality was always in the background: the stress my father brought home with him, and the self-sabotage that kept him from advancing as far as his talents should have taken him. And for years I had incorporated that message into my own career choices: I was drawn to education early on, but then choice to commit myself to law, a profession that used many of my natural gifts without giving me any visceral satisfaction in return.

Sure, I grew up in an age of doing what you love and coloring your parachute, but all of those pop psych messages were no match for the lesson I had learned watching my father suffer as he thought he had to. Only over the past few years, after the stress of constantly trying to be something I am not began to corrode my own family life, did I come to question that. And now, what I really wonder is: on that tipsy night when my father told me his story, was he trying to explain to his uncommitted son the way things should be . . . or trying to warn him about the way they could be?