Again and again throughout your career you will be called to answer the question, “What is trying to emerge for me right now, what next step will lead to a greater opportunity for making my unique contribution?”
We all can point to those times when work was the most exciting place to be in our lives, and to times when it was not. There are many factors that come together to imbue our work with a sense of energy and meaning. Some of these factors are environmental and beyond our control, as those graduating during the last global financial crisis can attest. Others are within your power to assess and change.
Big life transitions, such as approaching graduation from the Harvard Business School, require you to deepen your awareness of all the forces at play that affect your sense of well being as you consider alternatives for your next step in life. This is a time when just calling out those forces and naming them can, by itself, begin to develop clarity and focus. This process, and the issues and forces that emerge, are unique for each of us. Here, I want to draw your attention to two issues that I see come up in different ways with the students that I counsel. They are just two among many, but two that I believe have consequences for happiness at work: work role and comparisons.
Simply put, work role refers to what you do every day. It does not refer to industry or title. If you tell me that you want to work at an Investment Bank, I might respond, “Oh really? Doing What? Shouting orders on a trading floor? Spending hours doing the deep analytics involved in designing a new derivative product or bond portfolio allocation strategy? Developing and delivering the perfect “pitch deck” for a new security road show? Thinking through the financing needs of a small city in Ohio? Do you want to lead a team every day or be a highly sought after guru individual contributor?” Different people will find meaning in some of these roles, but not others.
Work role satisfaction is highly related to deeply embedded life interests and in finding roles that allow us to express these interests every day. Your deepest interests are measureable and have a great deal of stability over time. If you are going to get this right, however, you need to do more than read interpretations of your test scores. You must do the harder work of looking at what roles have brought energy for you thus far, and which have not. You need to look at your role models, not through the lens of “I want the power she has” or “I want the status and money he has” but rather, “I want to be able to do what she does every day.” When you get up on Monday morning, what do want to actually do before you get home that night?
My second thought about work and happiness concerns that all too human tendency to rely on social comparisons for a sense of wellbeing. There is an old adage that says, “comparisons are odious” and there are a number of psychological studies that indicate that when we head down the path of making comparisons, particularly with those that we see as “doing better” than us, we set ourselves up for trouble. For example, psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and Lee Ross have shown that unhappy people are more affected than happy people by comparisons with those perceived as doing better. There are also a number of studies that show that individuals with a higher internal locus of control are happier. What would it mean to rely less on comparison for a sense of “where I am” and more on movement toward a life that has more meaning for you? Do you have a sense of what your own metrics of accomplishment are? To what extent do they include your actual day-to-day wellbeing and that of your family? Do they extend to the actual well being of your communities? How do you measure these things? How do you know you are being honest?
Comparison certainly has its place in business. You want to know how your product or service stacks up against the competition and you want to do what you need to do in order that the customer’s comparison comes out in your favor. But comparison in the realm of meaning is, well, meaningless. Does this person have a better life? Have they made a bigger difference to the people around them? Are they happier? It is important to ask yourself what criteria you are using, consciously or unconsciously, to answer these questions. Better yet, you should ask yourself why you are asking them in the first place, and what truly matters.
Careers, like life itself, are intricate and determined by a complex interaction of events, circumstances and contexts. But you also have a hand in moving more and more toward meaning and satisfaction, rather than away from it. Time spent articulating the work roles that are essentially more exciting and making the effort to catch yourself when you are trying to steer and measure by comparisons with others will both help to keep you on course. That way, when you return to HBS at your reunion, you may be more confident that the story you are telling is your own.