If you are a fairly driven professional (and you probably are if you are on this site), you have likely caught yourself playing a game that I like to call, “…Then I’ll be happy.”
Here’s how it goes: You are working hard in your career, overcoming obstacles, but you are more than a bit frustrated by the amount of hours you are putting in and perhaps less than excited about what you are doing.
What you need at this point, to carry you through these dark hours, is a light at the end of the tunnel. The light comes in the form of a story you tell yourself, which goes something like this:
If I just make it through this…
…I will make associate professor, and then I will be happy.
…I will get promoted, and make enough money to buy that Lexus, and then I will be happy.
…I will be recognized as a valuable professional, and then I will be happy.
Whatever that story is that you are telling yourself, chances are it is fictional. Or perhaps better stated as wishful thinking.
The truth is, we are not very good at predicting how happy we will be in the future. Dan Gilbert’s book “Stumbling Upon Happiness” talks about this phenomenon in detail, as does this study. Gilbert found that we tend to overestimate the impact of positive events and expect feelings to last longer than they do.
One of my favorite studies, outlined in Martin Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness”, is around lottery winners. What they find is that people experience a rush of euphoria when they first win the lottery and then within about a year or two return to their baseline levels of happiness.
In other words, if winning the lottery isn’t going to bring you lasting happiness, then finally breaking the $100k or $250k or $1m income barrier isn’t going to do it for you either.
I bring this up because people tend to make the mistake of thinking of a career as a destination rather than as a journey.
If you are a professor, you think about getting tenure; if you are a lawyer, you think about being partner; if you are an executive, you think about being CEO. Yet achieving these milestones may take decades, and many of us therefore spend a career of “paying the price” only to find that, ultimately, our career ladder was up against the wrong wall.
What’s worse is that we have spent the best decades of our lives doing something we didn’t want to be doing. -And sometimes the brass ring of success isn’t what we expected it to be (see: How to be happier than a billionaire).
As they say, “We work at a job we don’t like, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t care about.”
So what is the solution?
The key is to find careers where we enjoy what we do from day-to-day and has a worthwhile professional goal to achieve. Said differently, we enjoy the journey AND the destination.
Frankly, the number of people doing this is very, very small. These are the people who are energized when you ask them what they do, rather than proud because they have a high-status position or dismissive because they would rather talk about anything else.
So where does that leave you in terms of your next career move? Here are some tips to get you on your way:
In some ways, all of this can be summed up by a conversation I had with a young professional I was mentoring when I was an executive in the financial services industry.
I asked her what would define success in her career. She thought for a moment and told me she wanted to be like Allison*, one of the most influential and senior women at the 3,500+ employee financial services firm we worked at.
When I asked her why, she talked about how respected Allison was, how she was a strong female leader and was well compensated. I asked her a few questions: Had she ever spoken to Allison (using the firm’s mentorship program)? Did she know about the sacrifices Allison had made in her career? Did she know what Allison’s role really entailed?
In truth, she didn’t know the answer to any of these questions. Further, she didn’t really have any particular passion for financial services. In other words, prior to our conversation she was signing up for 20+ years of a journey she wasn’t likely to enjoy to hit a goal that likely wouldn’t make her happy.
Now this career path might have been the perfect one for Allison the executive, but for the woman sitting in my office it was clear this wasn’t the right plan. On the bright side, she realized this early enough to begin evaluating what she really wanted from life… and this is something that far too few people do at such a young age.
*Names have been changed
George Karris is a former corporate executive who coaches professionals on how find opportunities that balance their ambition, purpose and overall happiness. He has a track record of professional success that includes setting strategy for a $4B firm, raising millions for a startup, and leading a team of over 200 people. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and has studied positive psychology with Tal Ben-Shahar, Shawn Achor and Tony Schwartz. Connect with George on Noomii and his website.