We live in a bit of a career-obsessed culture. You got the degree and have the job, yet you are still not happy. Why?
While this isn’t news to anyone working in America, it is a problem that shouldn’t be ignored. It is an issue because it provides a narrow definition of success that hinges upon our career choices.
Beginning from when we’re kids and everyone asks us what we want to be when we grow up, to when we’re in college and everyone asks us what we’ll major in, to when we’re graduating and everyone asks how we’re going to find work with that major, we never catch a break from the big, fat question: “What do you want to do?”
Once solidified in the working world, the question becomes “What do you do,” which is basically a more polite way of finding out “How much do you make?” and “How high on the corporate ladder will you climb?” To make things even more complicated, the way we receive the question is, “Who are you?” or “Who do you want to be?” Thus we have to deal with the self-judgement and external judgment that comes with all of these loaded meanings.
In short, our careers have become so completely intertwined with our identities that we’ve forgotten that there are factors other than income and status that lead to our happiness and quality of life.
In fact, this warped thinking has become so pervasive that, in our minds, “happiness” has become synonymous with “fiscal success” (and “fiscal success” is equated with corporate and career success). So whenever we reach a certain level of what we deem to be success, we expect contentment and happiness to immediately follow:
“I got the degree. I got the job. So I should be happy now, right? Wait, why am I not happy? What’s wrong with me?”
There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s a problem with the system and the way in which we are measuring our worth and our happiness. We’re trying to measure happiness by looking at factors that may not (and often do not) actually contribute to our personal quality of life.
That’s because we each have our own personal version of fulfillment.
And our way of getting to our personal version of fulfillment is by adding or subtracting certain variables in our life. I like to look at this as an equation. All these variables determine what makes each of us fulfilled and happy. We each require a different proportion of factors in order to reach the same outcome (a dream job, fulfillment, a happy life).
In order to reach that outcome, you have to know which variables matter to you personally – not to your coworker, Jim. Not Susan, your wife. Not Marcus, your judgy neighbor. Just YOU.
The Personal Equation
It’s way too simple to say that career + money = happiness. If that were the case, the world would be a very different place. Instead, we compare ourselves to one another. We all feel like we should be earning more, doing more, especially to be more “successful.” I’ve recruited for $45k jobs and $450k jobs – the same issues around dissatisfaction and fulfillment surface in both.
Let’s take a closer look at the variables in the equation. Salary, title, benefits, type of organization, commute, location, type of company, hours expected to work, physical environment, other team members, mission of organization, product/service offering, responsibilities, growth potential, and perks all factor into how we feel about our daily lives.
The real challenge is figuring out which of these factors are most important to you. Each of us weigh each differently. To some of us, job title matters. Others, it’s salary. For some it’s a short commute and more time at home. To others, it’s having a really awesome team of coworkers to work with or a highly involved boss. Each factor influences our lives, but in varying degrees. If you can identify which of these factors are the most important to you, then you can engineer your career and life around those factors – resulting in increased happiness and fulfillment.
This exercise requires an immense amount of honesty and self-awareness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten off the phone career counseling clients who claim their problem is one thing, when really it’s another.
The Equation in Action
For example, I worked with a man we’ll call Joe. Joe wanted a new a job in a new industry. I found him numerous options, we got through a few rounds of interviews at different places, but he wasn’t satisfied.
In my days as a job recruiter, it was important to me that my candidates were not just placed in any position, but the right position. So I jumped on the phone with Joe and started digging deeper. Clearly, this wasn’t just about the new job. “What do you like about what you do?” “What do you dislike?” “What’s your least favorite part of your day?” “What do you look forward to?” “Tell me about your team, your boss, your work environment.” – Bingo.
Turns out, Joe had a terrible team that was getting in the way of him doing the work he was hired to do. There were office politics and toxic personalities that taxed Joe, and it impacted his day-to-day. Because it was the norm at this particular company, no one questioned it. In this work environment, bad behavior was acceptable – even encouraged – in order to fit in. This was a major insight: it wasn’t the industry or position that was making Joe miserable – it was the people.
This helped me, as his recruiter, find a better place for him. I knew what kind of companies to recommend, what kind of corporate culture Joe would thrive in. And this helped him recognize something critical to his quality of life. Who he worked with mattered to him as much, if not more, than what he was doing in his job.
Culture and personalities were never something Joe thought to consider in his job search. Sure, people talked about it, but he dismissed those as being “touchy feely” and not integral to the bottom line (the bottom line being higher title and higher salary). Turned out that the bottom line didn’t matter to him as much as the people and culture. It mattered on paper, sure, but it didn’t contribute at all to making him happier or more fulfilled.
Going back to our equation analogy – the variables Joe needed to place higher value on were not the ones he was prioritizing. He was prioritizing factors that didn’t impact his bottom line, happiness, or fulfillment.
What makes someone else happy and fulfilled is not what will make you happy and fulfilled. Each of us has our own unique set of priority variables. And it is your job to figure out what those variables are for yourself and your life. Be honest with yourself. Examine which ones you have and which ones you need more of. Then ask yourself, “Why?”
What does that particular variable add to my life? What does it take away? Most importantly – What do I think it adds versus what it REALLY contributes to (or takes away from) my life?
Once you are clear on what you actually value in employment – what actually impacts your bottom line and improves your quality of life – then you can engineer your work life to that end.
For example, search for jobs at companies with the corporate culture you thrive in. Consider sacrificing salary for a sexier title. Negotiate a work-from-home option a few days a week instead of more paid vacation. The point is that you can engineer your life to accommodate your priorities by focusing on the factors that contribute to your success, not everyone else’s version of it.
Giving Yourself Room to Change
Continue examining those variables until you find the ones that most align with your values and sense of fulfillment. Only then can you craft your life and future decisions around achieving that work-life balance. Remember that those variables will change over time. Right now, having a long commute might not bother you, but it might if you have a child. Maybe you need to connect with the mission of a company in order to feel compelled to do good work now, but in a few years you’d rather seek mastery – placing a higher value on getting really good at a skill than working at company you believe in. There is no right or wrong here – only what’s right or wrong for you.
Don’t Forget Your Sense of Self
There’s an old adage that says money doesn’t buy happiness, but perhaps it should also include the phrase, “Professional success doesn’t buy happiness either.”
If you really want to be happy, then you have to find the right balance between fulfillment at work and fulfillment as a human being. While it’s great to do work we love and even to feel that it’s a part of our identity, completely losing yourself – your identity – to your work can be disastrous in the long run. We are all multifaceted; there is more to each of us than our jobs. When we live for our work or paycheck, we are vulnerable to things outside of our control. One layoff, one toxic boss, one unhealthy scenario can be enough to break us. When we balance our lives with what’s important to us personally as well, then we can keep our perspective and bounce back from setbacks.
Imagine if you could go back to that time when you were a child and someone asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Wouldn’t it be great if your answer was, “Exactly who I am now – only better”?