No matter what you do for a living, when you enjoy your work you’re going to do a great job — the best work of your career. Beyond that, you can’t help but bring good energy and inspiration to family, friends, and colleagues. Put simply, this is “success” in a deeper, more sustainable sense than title, power, paycheck or prestige.
Yet most people settle for jobs that fall far short of “happy at work” for too many years. In fact, to some, the notion that we can enjoy our work most days, and have both rewarding and fulfilling (and even fun) careers seems absurd.
That’s where I started. Growing up, I heard repeatedly that only “the lucky ones” get to do work they enjoy, and for everyone else, work isn’t meant to feel good. It set me up for my career, as I dutifully made choices that complied with that assumption.
After 18 years in that mindset, at 41 I realized my heart wasn’t in my work. I sought help to change my mind and my professional course. The decision and changes I made, over 11 years ago, added up to my best career move, one I regard with gratitude. I post this to pay it forward by sharing what I learned, and hope you’ll find something valuable here:
1. How to measure if your heart’s in your work
You may already know whether or not your heart’s in your work. If unsure, it’s always good to reflect on it. Consider these two key questions to measure it, both on a 10-point scale:
a) How happy are you most days at work (1 being not at all, and 10 being quite happy)? As you consider this, note that work and life come with painful challenges, so I don’t recommend we expect to be happy 24/7; “most days” is a reasonable goal.
b) How often are you doing your best work / bringing your “A-game” (1 being hardly ever and 10 being often)?
If your combined score is 16 or higher, that’s really good news, and you’re probably done reading my post. If 15 or lower, it’s worth further efforts on your part until your results improve.
2. Your mindset matters
When it comes to the prospect of making a job and/or career change, it’s important to understand what may keep you from taking steps forward. Your own mindset is often the biggest barrier to change. “I hate it, but at least I know what to expect,” “Change is risky,” “Only the lucky ones get to do work they enjoy,” “What will others think of me?” “Would I be self-indulgent?” “Maybe the grass isn’t truly greener,” “This is all I know,” etc. These mindsets are brick walls until you are conscious of them, and practice recognizing and dismissing them as they crop up. Do that, and they transform from walls to doubts to worries to “ready to make a change.”
3. The mindset of others will impact you: manage accordingly
When I decided to leave a “successful” C-level Financial Services job and study to become an executive coach, I heard a lot of things like, “Gee, you’re brave,” and “Really? What about your reputation? What will people think?” and, “Maybe you should pick something else in financial services…” and even, “You’re crazy.” Friends, families, colleagues, and even strangers on planes reinforce fears and worries, and may think they’re doing us a favor by piling onto our own doubts. Just as important as managing your own mindset, you’ll need to avoid taking to heart fear-based “input” of others when making a major change you think may help you achieve your full potential.
4. Get clear about what energizes, rather than depletes you
Being happy is a form of energy, and like electricity in a battery it can either be charged or depleted. Here’s an exercise to help you mind your charging cycle:
a) Consider your own career experiences you’ve found energizing and look for what factors those experiences had in common. What was it about them that fired you up?
b) Now take a look at your career experiences you’ve found depleting — that left you underwhelmed, anxious, tired, bored, or otherwise less than happy over longer stretches of time. What did those experiences have in common?
c) Consider your ethics, values, and what “being right with my world” means to you, and what types of work experiences would be most in tune with those.
d) Putting a), b), and c) together, what pattern do they make, and what does that pattern tell you about the type of jobs/roles/responsibilities you need to make sure are included to charge you up, rather than deplete you, most days?
5. Set your rules of thumb
Once you understand the patterns of what energizes you (4, above), then it’s important to set some rules of thumb in terms of what needs to be true in this new direction, once achieved. I came up with four rules, and have applied them (for example, immediately below) but you need to come up with your own:
a) The lottery rule: Yes, I would do this type of work even if I win the lottery (although I would probably do it from my lottery-winnings beach house on Kauai…) For the record, this is still pending
b) The energy rule: This work energizes me way more often than it depletes me
c) The gratitude rule: I feel grateful I “get to” do this work, rather than doing work I “have to” do
d) The meaning rule: When I do my work well, it makes the difference in the world I most want to make
6. Be open-minded on outcomes: it’ll be what you want, but probably not what you expected
In making my own changes, and seeing those of others, I’ve noticed we get what aim for, but it doesn’t look like we thought it would look. Why not? What you think you want now is subject to change. Setting your direction, rules of thumb, and managing your mindset to take steps forward, sometimes you’ll say “this is what I want, and here’s what it’s going to look like,” and, as the saying goes, “No plan ever survived its first contact with reality.” It will certainly be different than you thought. Don’t be afraid to adjust course to adapt and respond to changing conditions—both your own, and given how the world is responding to your hard work making the changes you set out to make.
7. The power of patience: Take the long view
In making deeper, more transformative change to find and do work you enjoy most days, it may be quick, slow, or very slow. No matter what, it pays to take the long view and keep at it. When I made my change, people told me, “it’ll take five years for you to hit your stride in your new career,” and I wish that had been true. It actually took more like eight years, and I’ve taken many detours along the way. Your actual results will vary: Just keep in mind that patience in this is truly virtuous.
8. Aim for your own “Quintuple Bottom Line”
Don’t settle for a job you don’t like for any longer than necessary. After all, a minimum of five areas improves drastically when you enjoy your work most days: First, the quality of your work improves because you are more motivated. Second, how you show up for your family and friends (as a happier person) is gratifying to them, and is likely to rub off on them too. Third, you inspire others to find and do their best work. Fourth, your colleagues will be incentivized to raise their games. And fifth, you are more likely to make a positive impact on the world because you will be intentional about doing that.
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Despite being taught “only the lucky ones get to do work they enjoy,” I’ll never forget what Professor Kay Cummings at NYU once told my class — it was the first time I had heard hope around this, and it stuck with me: “The best work is constructive play.” I challenge you to let that notion subvert (in a good way) any crusty old ideas about work being a necessary evil. Find the work you enjoy, and those self-limiting ideas vanish in our rear view mirrors, along with all the jobs we didn’t like but chose to do anyway — once and for all.
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