If you’re not thrilled with your current job, the answer isn’t necessarily to look for a new job. It might be to find another way to share your values—and find your meaning.
Consider this example: A library may consider increasing circulation to be its mission, so gathering statistics to heighten that arbitrary success is a goal for that library. Across the street is a library whose mission is to enhance the lives of its patrons. That library’s success will be achieved by actions that affect others—offering a larger and more widely circulated collection or programs on job searching and civic responsibility. Imagine the motivation to achieve, sense of accomplishment, and joy that comes from the latter’s, rather than the former’s, success.
Define your mission
If the word “mission” makes this renewal concept sound like a strategic plan, that’s not too far from the truth. A big-picture look at what you really hope to do with your life can help create a future that will matter both at work and at home. Start by thinking about who you really are and how you want to matter through your most significant values. That’s your strategic plan. Next consider what you need to do to achieve that strategy. That’s your mission. And you can achieve it by looking first at what you’ve done, then at what you’re doing now, and finally at what you can do.
Values are important too, because they represent your passion. There’s a direct correlation between your passion and what you should be doing with your life. Finding this intersection will make your mission evident and suggest what to do next in your career and life.
What did you do?
When asked to describe ourselves, most of us answer with facts, figures, titles, and generalities. For example, I am a middle-aged former librarian with a husband, children, grandchildren, and friends. I love to teach and write. Descriptions like these can shape our lives. They are our experiences, histories, roles, relationships, and skills. Some of them are choices. Some are compromises. Some are accidents. None of them are our identities. A better list, which could help form a mission statement for the future, would include what we do with energy and joy—things we love to do.
Start at the beginning: Make a list of every job you’ve ever had. Don’t worry about formal titles or organization names; just list what you’ve done and be as complete as possible. My list would look something like this: babysitter, ice-cream vendor at the beach, drugstore clerk, fiberglass punch press operator, waitress, newspaper delivery person, waitress, librarian, library administrator, teacher, public speaker, event planner, and writer.
What about you? What did you do?
Next, it’s time to get not just nostalgic but a bit more reflective. Look at your list. Of all the things you’ve done, what did you love to do? As a further example, my reflection would include: I loved writing, anywhere for any purpose. I loved to teach because it helped others to grow and succeed. I loved to organize and lead events and to create and develop new ideas.
Of everything that you’ve done, what have you loved?
What do you do now?
Fast-forward to today. Are you doing anything that you love? If so, what? And if not, why? Through this examination of how you are currently spending your energy, talent, and days, it will be easier to recognize what to focus on and what to discard as you move forward. In the course of an average week, list everything you do both inside and outside of your job.
Now comes the hard part. Of everything on that list, what parts do you love? Can you look at that list of jobs and pick ones that matter the most? According to Marcus Buckingham, coauthor of Now, Discover Your Strengths (Gallup Press, 2001), we can use the following questions to look for honest answers. Look at each task or activity and ask yourself:
- Do I look forward to doing it?
- When I’m doing it, does time stand still?
- After I’m finished, do I feel great?
Based on your answers, what do you love to do? Now think about your dreams, hopes, and future plans. You will use all of these things to chart a new course that truly matters.
It’s easier to fall backward than forward
Be careful as you begin your journey. Sometimes reality can get in the way of your dreams, and it’s easy to return to comfortable, recognized patterns—even if they’re in uncomfortable and uninspiring surroundings. It’s common to find people stuck in jobs that make them physically sick because that option is easier than searching, reaching, and changing to try something new. Put very simply: It’s easier to fall backward than forward.
But “easy” isn’t renewal; “easy” is often a rut. When you think about your life in terms of your now-clarified values and mission, you can see there’s room for excitement and challenge. You can even grow right where you are. This is because it’s not where you are but where you’ve been and where you’re going that signify success. In other words, it’s not the standing still but the constant growth that helps our lives continually develop and unfold.
Stay in motion
In today’s job market, you often have to reinvent yourself to stay competitive. Instead of starting all over again, you can start by building on what you already know.
In a workshop I teach about motivation and career directions, I ask attendees to list 10 responses to the question, “Why do you work?” Then I ask them, “Why do you work hard?” The difference in motivators is amazing.
To find and clarify whether you’re in a place that fully supports the future you desire, ask yourself: Am I just working, or am I working hard? A clear sign of dedication to your work is giving 110% to what you do. But how can you tell if that’s really what you’re doing or if you’re just on cruise control? Let’s use some questions from performance strategist Laura Garnett to clarify what working hard might mean to you and to your future.
- No matter where you are, do you feel energized when you think about your work? Garnett says this means you wake up excited, thinking about what you’re doing at work. This is what I’ve always called the Sunday Night Test. I’ve seen people who absolutely hate their jobs and, as a result, they hate Sunday nights. By contrast, some of us wish the weekend would hurry up and end so we can get back to work. How does your job make you feel, even on Sundays?
- Are you a little nervous and challenged by all you have to do? If your to-do list is overwhelming but not terrifying, then you are one of the lucky ones to be motivated by challenges.
- Do you spend more time daydreaming about someone else’s job or what you want to do next? People in this category are always scanning job postings, waiting for the weekend, waiting for their summer vacation, or waiting for retirement. Some people truly hate their job that much. It’s time for that group to move on.
- Does everything just feel right—that you’re doing something valuable and making an impact? In this case, you can actually see that what you are doing matters, and it feels good. My example comes from the years I spent as a reading tutor for two illiterate adults. While I’ve had the privilege of doing a lot of wonderful, meaningful things in my life, absolutely nothing has felt as good as that did.
- Do you feel like you’re no longer on your way, but you’re there? Do you feel successful? You don’t compare yourself with others. Rather, you measure your intent, actions, and impact against your own personal and professional values—and you’re happy with the result.
Garnett summarizes what these five realities can tell us: “While it’s not realistic to spend every waking moment at high-octane performance, it is realistic and possible to tap into your talents and purpose. When you experience the above, you know how exhilarating work and life can be. If you are not, then it may be a wake-up call to know that there is more you could be getting out of your professional life.”
Follow the SIGNs
Considering, studying, contemplating, and finally understanding what energizes or deflates you is critical to your renewal process. To determine how to recognize your strengths and skills, you must follow the SIGNs:
Success: You feel successful when you do certain things. You feel in control and effective, like you have accomplished something good. Which parts of the work you love make you feel that way?
Instinct: We know when we’re about to have fun or be happy. We can just tell. We anticipate the opportunity with excitement. That’s our instinct. Which parts of the work you love make you feel that way?
Growth: When we grow our skills and our energies, we often don’t recognize the passage of time. Which parts of the work you love affect you that way? What do you do at work that, when you notice that the day is almost over, makes you wish it wasn’t?
Needs: Our physical need to take a break and rest comes after we’ve finished something that’s truly fulfilling. What work wipes you out in a good way?
Read your SIGNs carefully and identify a common theme. Consider it in relation to your mission. Now you know who you are, and you have a big-picture idea of what you want to do. So when is the right time to move forward? That’s a hard question to answer.
Knowing when it’s time
Think back to when you made your first life or career decision: Was it the right time to do so? How about the 10th one you made? Here’s the deal: There’s no such thing as the right or wrong time. There’s simply the decision you make. You can weigh the pros and cons for eons. You can miss shining opportunities because you were paralyzed by a fear of making the wrong choice. You can stay exactly where you are forever because you’re afraid of getting it wrong, or you can move forward. When you move forward isn’t half as important as that you move forward. Even on the winding paths that are our careers, we can all reflect on the brass rings we missed or the wrong ones we grabbed, or we can focus on the now—and why today is the right time to try again. Even in failure, we’ve moved forward and grown. Timing isn’t everything. Action is.
Most of us will bounce throughout our lives from one job—chosen for the right or wrong reasons—to the next. That career shuffle should not be disconcerting. We can still move closer to our real purpose by finding ways to stay focused on our values throughout our journey. We’re heading in the right direction if we feel some element of growth and meaning—no matter how small—in everything we do. So every time is the right time. You may have been putting off some work or art or contribution that is truly important to you. Pursue it. Don’t worry about how you’ll fit it in. For now, just commit to putting your dreams and values back on the front burner.