I’m at a pretty cool spot in my career. Right now I’m working on creating a “Shop Local” campaign for an association of independent paint retailers, writing blogs for a business that creates software for nonprofits, creating a marketing campaign for a company that helps governments generate revenue through advertising, and finishing a children’s book, among other things.
It’s pretty cool stuff, but it wasn’t always this way. A few years ago I had reached a point in my career where I was miserable, certain that I would soon either lose my job or quit. My wife didn’t work outside of the home at the time, and we had three kids. Needless to say, losing my job or quitting wasn’t ideal.
I remember being parked behind a Burger King in a particularly crappy stretch of town, near tears, and trying to get a grip on my spiraling fears.
Things have gotten a lot better since then. And while not everyday is awesome, more days are awesome than not. Here’s what I’ve learned in that time about finding happiness in your career.
1. Have a realistic expectation of “happiness”.
No one would expect to look back at his or her life and say that there were no unhappy moments. In fact, without the contrast of the unhappy moments, we would never be able to distinguish the happy moments. The same can be said of your career.
Create more happy moments than unhappy moments, and you’ll have a happy career—but don’t expect every day to be happy.
2. Take responsibility for creating your own happiness.
No one is responsible for your happiness except you. If you work in an environment that doesn’t allow for more happy moments, take responsibility for finding an environment that does. We all know people who complain about their environment, but don’t do anything to change it. Despite all of their complaining, they must, deep down, be really happy with their situation.
If you’re unhappy, take action. You might not be able to change your scenario tomorrow, but in the meantime you can change how you perceive it—and work to make yourself attractive to other employers.
3. Take a big picture view of the role you play.
One of the companies we work with creates software that provides nonprofit boards with the technology to conduct paperless meetings. That might seem like an obscure or small thing, but I know how much time nonprofit staffs spend preparing for board meetings. That is time that could be spent helping kids learn to read, finding new homes for abandoned pets, or building houses for low-income families. We might be small, but we are part of a big and important picture.
The world is like one of those pictures that are made up of thousands of tiny pictures. Whatever it is you do, no matter how small it may seem, is one of those tiny pictures.
Getting to a place where you understand the contribution the tiny picture of your work makes to the big picture of life is essential to professional happiness.
4. Try a lot of stuff, and be honest with yourself about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.
I have tried a lot of things, some very unsuccessfully and for very short periods of time (not every crazy scheme I’ve had has made it to the LinkedIn profile). At the time I regretted some of these decisions. But, eventually I’ve learned something from everything I’ve done, even if what I’ve learned is to not do it again.
I’ve also learned that I’m good at some things and not good at others, and I’ve learned to focus on my strengths, and find others who are good at the things I’m not good at. Sometimes you have to do something that you’re really not good at, and that’s just life.
But eventually, seek out opportunities to do the things you’re good at, because life is way too short to spend time hyperventilating behind a Burger King.
(In fact, I’m pretty sure life is too short to spend time doing anything at a Burger King.)
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