Make Your Career a Love Story

Now in my 50’s, I’ve had many chapters in my career, and am totally sure of just one thing: Life’s too short to slog away at work that leaves you less than joyful. When you love your work you’re at your best; settling for less than that is your choice to make, and to unmake.Too many people stay in jobs that fall far short of joyful. They may feel trapped or uncertain about making a change, and I understand that only too well. That’s where I started. For years, I heard “only the lucky ones get to do work they enjoy.” And for everyone else, work wasn’t meant to feel good. “That’s why they call it work.” This mindset haunted me for the first several chapters of my career, from where I started on day one in the mailroom of a bank in Waltham, Massachusetts.18 years later, on the day I was promoted to Chief Operating Officer of the largest division of Charles Schwab, and the youngest member of its senior leadership team, I walked back to my office, sat down, and felt completely empty. There was a loud and hollow clunk of suddenly realizing that at 39, I was doing something that had a shiny surface but no meaning to me, and that lack of joy would surely put me in an early grave.Yet I doubted myself: What was wrong with me?! Schwab was (and remains) a great company, and this was an important and substantial role! Needless to say, I didn’t understand myself at that moment. Then, with help and reflection, I left that career less than a year later. At the time, most of my colleagues told me I was “brave” to walk away to an unknown next chapter. Of course, they meant I was nuts, as stated in a friendly, California way, and I didn’t completely disagree with that assessment. I decided not only to make a change but to change the way I thought about work from then on.First, to avoid ending up in this hollow man situation ever again, I set four new standards for all future chapters of my career—that would keep me on track for my own professional “true north”:

  • Whatever job or career path I chose next, I would wake up on most days and be able to say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this job/work”
  • If I won the lottery, I would keep doing the work
  • I will feel energized, and not depleted, by my work on most days
  • I will work in a situation that values me for being who I am at my best, for my talent and capabilities, rather than one that falls short of this
  • These have changed my life for the better in all meaningful ways and have led to a number of changes to correct my course along the way.Coaching: What should be your standards for the work that will be most meaningful or fulfilling to you? What would it take for you to set or reset your standards for career steps in the year ahead to lead you to a joyful work life?

    Then, I wondered how my mindset was in my own way:

    When it comes to the prospect of making a job and/or career change, it’s important to understand what may keep you from taking steps forward. Your mindset is often the biggest barrier to change: “I am unhappy, but at least I know what to expect,” “Change is risky,” “What will others think of me?” “Would I be self-indulgent?” “Maybe the grass isn’t truly greener,” “This is all I know,” etc. These thoughts are brick walls until you are conscious of them and practice recognizing and dismissing them. Do that, and they dissolve and become just the annoying but distant voices of self-doubt.Coaching: What are you telling yourself about your job or career now that’s holding you in place, or keeping you from making a change for the better? Are those ideas, doubts, or reinforcements for the status quo serving you well? What can you do to catch and correct them?

    I then realized I needed to be careful about other voices I let in:

    When I decided to leave a traditionally “successful” job and study to become an executive coach, I heard a lot of things like, “Gee, you’re brave,” and “Really? What about your reputation? What will people think?” and “Maybe you should pick something else in financial services…” and even, “What on earth are you doing?”Friends, families, colleagues, and even strangers on planes will reinforce your fears and worries and may even think they’re doing you a favor by piling onto our own doubts. But just as important as managing your own mindset, you’ll need to avoid taking to heart fear-based “input” from others.Coaching: When you ask others on your “team” about a potential career change, note that they will likely reinforce one or more of your own doubts. What can you do to consider these points of view without taking them to heart? Can you strip them down to their essence (caring about you)?

    Then, I noticed part of choosing wisely meant looking at my own patterns that energized me:

    Happiness is a form of energy, and like electricity in a battery, it can either be charged or depleted by how I spend my time.Coaching: Here’s an exercise to help you determine your charging cycle:a) Consider your own career experiences you’ve found energizing and look for what factors those experiences had in common. What was it about them that fired you up?b) Now take a look at your career experiences you’ve found depleting—that left you underwhelmed, anxious, tired, bored, or otherwise less than happy over longer stretches of time. What did those experiences have in common?c) Consider your ethics, values, and what “being right with my world” means to you and what types of work experiences would be most in tune with those.d) Putting a), b), and c) together, what pattern do they make? And what does that pattern tell you about the type of responsibilities you need to energize rather than deplete you?

    I discovered I needed to be open-minded on outcomes: “It’ll be what I want but probably not what or how I expected it to be.”

    In making my own changes, and seeing those of others, I’ve learned that the specifics of where we end up will often be different than we thought or intended; and our thoughts and intentions put us in the right general direction.Coaching: Set your direction, standards, and manage your mindset to take steps forward. When you tell yourself, “This is what I want, and here’s what it’s going to look like,” consider, as the saying goes, “No plan ever survived its first contact with reality.” Where do you need to open your mind from specifics to a more general path forward, and to avoid fear about adjusting course to adapt and respond to changing conditions? What help do you need to be okay to make a wrong choice then correct it later, rather than stay stuck in the status quo?

    Next, I learned (and am still learning) the power of patience:

    In making a deeper, more transformational career change to find and do work you enjoy most days, it may be quick, slow, or very slow. But, it pays to take the long view and keep at it. When I made my change, people told me, “It’ll take five years for you to hit your stride in your new career,” and I wish that had been true. It actually took eight years, and I’ve taken many detours along the way, including a recent and fairly radical shift to realign with my standards.Coaching: Timing will vary, and the right level of clarity to make your change(s) will happen in its own time. What can you do to manage your timing to be appropriately patient, but not complacent or “stuck”? What help do you need to set and live by a timeline?I'll leave you with this: Despite being taught “only the lucky ones get to do work they enjoy,” I’ll never forget what my teacher, Kay Cummings at NYU, once told my class—and it stuck with me: “The best work is constructive play.”I challenge you to let that notion infect you and those in your world (in a good way). Let it wipe out any sad, old ideas about work being work, a necessary evil. Find and fall in love with the work you enjoy most, don't settle for less, and be challenge the self-limiting ideas that may be holding you back.

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