Let’s play a game.

You walk into a room of strangers. You must strike up a conversation with someone within two minutes. You choose your target. You approach them. You introduce yourself and ask his or her name. But what’s the next question you ask?

If you’re like more than 90 percent of the population, you ask something like, “What do you do?”

Here’s where the game gets competitive…

As the person starts to answer, what do you do? Most likely, you listen. And then, using whatever limited knowledge you have of the person’s profession, you start to judge. You assess. You discriminate. You label. Finally, you determine just how much respect you feel you should have for the person and whether or not you want to develop the conversation further. Game over.

Who Taught Us to Have Career Bias?

Almost everyone is guilty of career bias. Especially in America, where personal identity is tied very tightly to what we do for work. Career success, usually of the financial kind, is often viewed as personal success, even it if costs people their marriage, friends, health, sanity, etc. Admit it. Job titles affect our perception of people. After all, what someone chooses to do for a living says something about him or her as a person, right? And if their current career situation wasn’t their choice (e.g., laid-off, under-employed, hate their job, etc.), that says something, too. They must have done something wrong to deserve the outcome.

OUCH! That’s a pretty tough game we’re playing with each other.

More importantly…

It’s not a very fair game we’re playing, either. In reality, it's an ugly career game millions of people use every day against one another--and it’s hurting our ability to find career satisfaction. Here’s why…

No. 1 Career Mistake We Make = Trying to Impress Others

I’ve worked with literally thousands of people on the subject of career satisfaction. Being internally motivated to work is the single biggest predictor of happiness with your career. If you’re doing the work because it matters to you, then you don’t mind making the effort. More importantly, you don’t care what anyone else thinks. Impressing yourself is the key to career satisfaction. However, that’s not what we’re taught. Instead, society pushes us to get college degrees and seek “good jobs” as a way to earn approval from others. Sadly, the harder people try to build careers that impress others, the unhappier they become.

Want Greater Career Satisfaction? Get Rid of “Golden Handcuffs”

To find real career happiness, you have to break free of the “golden handcuffs” of traditional employment by changing your mindset. Working “for” companies implies they’re in charge and you are being held hostage by the pay and benefits. Instead, you must see yourself as a business-of-one who wants to partner “with” employers to create a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship.

5 Steps to Greater Professional Happiness

Finding greater career satisfaction requires some major accountability, so you must:

1. Stop blaming your current/past employers. You’re a business-of-one. It’s up to you to find and partner with the right companies. If you don’t like your situation, it’s up to you to change it.

2. Get clear on your strengths and specialties. Want to be paid your worth? Then stop claiming you’re a jack-of-all-trades. Employers pay top dollar for specialists who can prove they will save or make them enough money to justify their expense.

3. Identify a problem (bigger than you!) that you wish to solve. Passion for work is the intersection of a problem you wish to solve AND where you get to use your strengths and specialties to solve it. Find the thing you wish to fix--and then seek the employers in the business of fixing it.

4. Develop a personal brand that focuses on your value. You need proper marketing materials for your business-of-one. The messaging needs to be consistent, clear, and compelling on things like your résumé, LinkedIn profile, and other tools. As they say, “People hear what they see.”

5. Build your professional "net worth." When it comes to advancing your career, the saying “your network is your net worth” rings true. The more people you establish relationships with, the better. In this new economy, EVERY job is temporary. You need to stay in contact with a larger group of individuals beyond your current assignment because you just never know when you’ll need to tap into the network for help. The best way to build the network? Serve your network. By offering to help others, you are building your social currency.

Taking Ownership Frees You From Playing the Career Game

One of the best benefits of taking ownership of your business-of-one and pursuing a career path that impresses you is you’ll no longer judge people based on what they do for work. You’ll realize that the people who deserve your respect are the ones who, like you, are brave enough to ignore the pressures of society and pursue professional happiness on their own terms. That’s why so many successful entrepreneurs are A) happy, and B) try so hard to help other entrepreneurs be successful, too. They know and appreciate what it takes to be free of the golden handcuffs!

Published on: Sep 16, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.