Let’s start with the bad news: most people go to jobs every day that have very little to do with their dreams and hopes and talents.
The Gallup Organization does an annual survey and the number of people who say by their own admission that they get to do what they do best every day is a steady 20%. What that means is 80% of people are employed EVERY DAY doing something that’s not in their area of strength.
So, are you one of the 80 or one of the 20?
You might be discouraged about current job opportunities. You may even have started you own small business but find it is not as rewarding as you thought it might be. Or you may just be gearing up to start looking again after taking some time out of the market. While you are still thinking about it you might spend time thinking about your criteria for a great day’s work. I suggest one that is not often on the list that career counselors suggest. It will increase your chances of greater happiness and fulfillment in your next job—whether working for someone else or for yourself. The criteria is “aliveness.” How alive to you feel when you go to work or at the end of a day, week, or year?
Dawn, a computer software tech, was laid off from Microsoft at the beginning of 2009. She looked for a job for nine months unsuccessfully. She worked a few contract jobs but finally, out of desperation, started her own computer services company that helped homeschooled children learn to do simple programming. She liked the freedom and even many parts of working with bright kids. But she began feeling the call to go back to a full time job for the benefits and social ambiance. She was also pretty sure the pay would be better, or at least steady. I suggested that she do the “aliveness” exercise before filling out even one application, attending a job fair or agreeing to an interview. Dawn’s pre-job search homework:
- I asked Dawn to name three jobs or work roles where she felt really engaged and committed. Even if it was during college or a part time job. Probably she had even pushed herself hard in that role, because it was challenging and felt like meaningful work.
- Reflecting on those experiences we searched together for what was common across the experiences. Not in terms of activities or tasks, but rather in what part of her got to be involved and grow. What made it worth being challenged and learning new skills?
In all three enlivening jobs or roles, Dawn had unique challenges every day with every task. She never had routines or procedures proscribing her work. She had to invent something new each time with her small and mid-size business clients. She also noticed she loved pulling in co-workers and getting them excited about the challenges and drawing out of them what they could contribute. People loved being asked by Dawn to help because they got to team with someone who really brought out the best in them. Customers tended also to be really happy about what she did for them. The customer brought in a gnarly problem and they walked out feeling like they could now go back to work on what mattered to them. These were the patterns that Dawn saw in the work, which made her feel most alive.
- Next, the final phase, we converted these patterns to ones that could be used in searching for, evaluating, and accepting new positions. Dawn’s guidelines were:
- Have independence to work with customer’s directly where she “had to” invent an answer uniquely for each situation. She needed a role and company that did not structure for a lot of delegation and assignments, nor one that gave procedures on how to proceed on each task.
- Secondly, she wanted a company that designed flexibility into working with others whenever it was needed and freedom to stick with it until they got a workable answer.
- She also deduced from her reflection that the role had to have lots of room for self-initiating and ability to change the role and how it was carried out. With these new guidelines in hand, she screened out quickly those positions that might even fit with her strengths and skills but did not make possible her unique contribution. Without this reflective exercise, she might have taken a job where sooner or later she would feel “dead” at the end of the day and week, and feel the job was deadening her spirit, not enlivening it.
People often think that job happiness is about being with a good company, having a great boss or even a title. These factors help us avoid some downsides but they are not the real criteria to ensure a great job. What really produces a great job is one where “a person does work, that gives them fulfillment every day because they see the outcomes they contribute to appreciated, have meaning because others benefit deeply from their work, and they get to bring in something unique about themselves, which makes them feel alive.”
Dawn, although she had great strengths in her technical and customer service skills, changed directions and took a job in a start up for social media which she knew well enough. She was able to really sell the startup on her “fit” because she understood herself now. She knew that her excitement about the new job was about the structure of the role and how the company supported interdependence for its workers. She would not have considered the social media start up before her personal homework. The new role required working with people who were just learning to help their companies build a brand with social media and it was all being figured out in “real time”. It was not her knowledge but her inventiveness and ability to draw out the best in others that not only got her the job, but also had her promoted quickly. But she refused to take on roles that took her away from her unique criteria of finding “aliveness” at work.
Originally published at cnbc.com on April 15, 2011.