Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Finding a Mentor


What's all this hype about having a mentor? Today we'll break it down, one question at a time.

Why Bother?

First, the obvious question:  is the "mentor search" worth the energy? In a word, yes.

People who have mentors tend to get salary increases and promotions faster than workers who don't have mentors. Graduate students in psychology report that peers who have mentors meet more influential people, move faster through the program, have a better sense of direction, and present at national conferences more often.

Although men seem to benefit from mentorship more than women do, women are in greater need of mentors because they still occupy fewer high level positions. It's a shame, then, that Levo League found 95% of Gen Y women have never looked for a mentor.

What Type of Person Isn't a Good Mentor?

Overstretched people make the worst mentors.

They may seem like they have it all - family, career, local fame - and you want to know how they do it. Since they have so much going on, though, they probably don't have the time to give you the mentoring relationship you need.

For instance, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, may seem like an interesting mentor given her high-profile career/family juggling, but with all she's got going on, how much time for mentoring does she actually have?

Who Makes a Good Mentor?

<Continue reading on Life After College>

Everything I Need to Know to Work Effectively I Learned in Preschool


We can create fancy visions of the purposeful work we want to do, but if we can't execute on a day to day basis, our big scheme is worthless. Funny enough, we learned how to do our days right way back in preschool.

How do I know? Because my daughter, K, is there now, and her preschool parent-teacher conference occurred last week. As I read over her teacher's notes (presented in a a beautiful portfolio, no less - call it the annual review for the Lollaloopsie set), I noticed a ton of parallels to what I was reading in Alexandra Levit's book "A Twentysomething's Guide to the Business World:  They Don't Teach Corporate in College."

Levit might be correct that effective work skills are skipped in college...but they're not missed in preschool! Here's a refresher:

1. Express Yourself

In the fall, K's teacher wrote the following goal in her portfolio:  "asserting needs and wants and begin to negotiate conflicts with peers."

Who among us doesn't need that written in our "annual goals" sheet?!

Those of us who are terrific at negotiating conflicts tend to be awful at the other end of the spectrum. Just call us the doormats.

And many of us are excellent at making our needs and wants known, but conflicts boil everywhere we go. i.e., The steamrollers.

Apparently millennials have a reputation as more the latter:

"One of the most common complaints I hear about twenty-something employees is that they think they know everything and don't hesitate to convince others of this at every opportunity." - Alexandra Levit

How to curb that? As K's preschool teacher might say, listen first and then speak second. And when we speak, we should present our full and honest truth without accusing or judging someone else.

K is marked as "still practicing" that skill. How about you?

2. Know What Needs to Get Done

If there's anything K is good at, it's prioritizing.

Sorting plastic eggs into baskets repeatedly? Urgent and important. (Category 1)

Hanging out with her friend Clementine in the reading corner? Non-urgent and important. (Category 2)

Eating dinner because mom is on her back about it? Urgent and non-important. (Category 3)

Watching Thomas the Train? Non-urgent and non-important. (Category 4)

Levit suggests we get as clear as K about categorizing our daily tasks:

"If you're been spending your days running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you are probably spending 90 percent of your time in Categories 1 and 3, and you might have noticed totally irresponsible people who hang out permanently in Category 4. When you master effective time management, you stay out of Category 4 and decrease the time spent in Categories 1 and 3 to allow more time for Category 2." - Alexandra Levit

No wonder K would rather spend time with her little buds than do just about anything else. She's a time management extraordinaire. I could learn a thing or two....

3. Practice Your Manners

Of course we should say "please" and "thank you." That etiquette gets us ahead in any setting.

To take our manners to the next level, though, we need to practice making others feel good about themselves, according to Levit (and K's teachers...)

"Be generous with your compliments, but make sure they're sincere. Empty flattery is, in many ways, worse than criticism. Don't praise every move someone makes, and when you do give a compliment, put substance behind the statement so it's meaningful to the person. The most effective compliments focus on specific actions or facts rather than vague generalities or assumptions." - Alexandra Levit

When was the last time you complimented someone concretely and sincerely? K did it just last night ("Mommy, I like those doggies on your pajamas. They are so cute!").

Hear that? A preschooler is showing you up. Time to get your complimenting on!

4. Communicate Well

Levit encourages twentysomethings to embrace the "C&C rule" of communication:  clear and concise.

Having sat in K's circle time when a child decided to drone on about his trip to visit grandma four months earlier apropos of nothing, I can attest that K's teachers would approve of Levit's rule. ("That's a nice story," one of them said, gently interrupting the boy. "Can you tell it to me later?")

Stated in a way that's appropriate for us adults:

"Whether you're writing a routine email or a quarterly business plan, offer only the necessary information and be prepared to provide supplemental material." - Alexandra Levit

5. Control Your Frustration

We all know the preschool version of poor frustration control. It looks something like a kid screaming and bashing hands while his or her parent tries to melt into the floor. (If you were in the checkout line in a certain Wal-Mart in Maine last Thursday at 6pm and saw a dark-haired girl with her mom, then you know exactly what I mean.)

Alexandra Levit explains that "a key ingredient in frustration is the lack of control that a person perceives for the outcome of their work."  People who believe they control their fate (an internal locus of control) "are more persistent and work longer and harder to get what they need or want," than those who feels like victims of life (an external locus of control).

Put plainly, the internal loci folks effectively manage their frustration.

According to Levit, we can build our frustration tolerance just like we do in preschool:  by consistent exposure to irritating situations.

In other words, that long Wal-Mart checkout line was good for my daughter. And that painfully boring meeting you just sat through? That was good for you.

What did you learn in preschool that you now use (or should use...) in your workplace?

Want more tips? I highly recommend Levit's book. While I've had fun drawing parallels to what we learned WAY back when in preschool, the reality is that she includes information that is essential for workplace success - and that we all too often forget to use.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks

Are You Falling Prey to Career Myths?


Career myths stick in the college population like hand-clapping games stick in primary school. So when my college students drop by my office to talk about "the future" (cue ominous music), the same falsehoods spill out year after year. I certainly can't blame them; I believed these myths myself in my early twenties.

Here's the trick, though:  the sooner we purge our minds of career misunderstandings, the less the ominous music is needed. So let's dispel these bad boys, shall we?

7 Common Career Myths

1. You're about to choose your "forever"

This is far and away the most common myth I encounter. It's usually phrased along the lines of, "But I don't know what I want to do for the rest of my life."

Neither do I! Neither does most anyone I know. How boring would our lives be if we did know what we'd be doing forever?

We don't have good data on just how much career and job change is normative, but it's safe to say that change is the rule rather than the exception.

Skeptical? Then dedicate the coming month to this activity:  ask everyone you encounter how they got to their current career. The stories will likely fascinate and amaze you. Plus make you feel a lot less pressured to figure out "forever" and instead simply choose what's next!

2. Networking is about sharing your resume

When we focus networking efforts on resume sharing, we fail miserably.

Continue reading on Life After College

Is That Legitimate Job Offer a Dream For You...or Too Good to Be True?


Q:  "I’d love to see you expand no. 7 from 10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit ("It Seems Too Good to Be True") to a full post. I associate ‘too good to be true’ with not getting scammed, so in this context, I’m wondering what might be the underlying reasons for it happening, how to diagnose an offer that appears too good to be true, whether that kind of offer might even it be a sign to start looking for a new job." - Vince Skolny, @VinceSkolny A:  So glad you asked. I'm a bit of an expert in accepting "too good to be true" (TGTBT) job offers. Which is not a point of pride, I might add! Hopefully, though, my (many) mistakes can be someone else's gain.

First a note:  there are some obvious job scams out there (hint:  "you can work from home!!!" = not good) but what I want to focus on here are offers that are legitimate. They happen within a solid organization - perhaps the one you already work for - and will pay real money with real benefits, but they're opportunities that come with catches. Often major catches.

Let's tackle your great Q by breaking it into parts.

Why "Too Good to Be True" Offers Occur

When we review the many reasons TGTBT job offers surface, it's a wonder they don't appear in our lives constantly!

  • Cheap Labor - TGTBT job opportunities often float our way when we're young and/or unattached simply because the boss thinks they can get a lot out of us for very little investment. They see our eagerness and capitalize on it - but in a manner that's not in our best interest. Instead, they're offering burnout material:  long hours, low pay, little to no recognition, frustrating working conditions. Which brings us to...
  • Desperation - Nobody wants the burnout jobs. Nobody. Yet the work has to get done somehow. The boss feels so desperate, he or she becomes a salesman putting shiny gold lame on a pile of poo. Someone needs to be talked into doing this burnout, toxic work. If you're ambitious and agreeable, that person just might be you.
  • Need for a Fall Guy - As unfortunate as it may be, some projects are destined to fail soon after they get started. The timeline is too short, there isn't enough budget allocated, the right team isn't in place. Everyone associated with the project knows it's doomed, yet someone from above is adamantly pushing it forward. This is a fall guy scenario. Someone needs to be brought in to carry the load of the unavoidable failure. Inexperienced, enthusiastic, hardworking individuals are the perfect target.
  • Desire for a Quiet Puppet - Some managers desire a new feather in their cap without doing the work it takes to earn that feather. They scour their ranks for the most talented, unassuming, high work ethic individual they can find to do the work. They want to tell you what to do, burn you out, and then take all the credit. TGTBT written all over it.

Signs of a "Too Good to Be True" Opportunity

  • (Respected) Others Said "No" - Here's the huge red flag I've often missed. I now know that when considering a job offer or promotion, it is perfectly acceptable to ask, "Have you offered this to other people?" or "Who else considered (or held...) this position?" The manager may lie, sure, but most bosses will be upfront when asked point blank. If I'd asked this question before accepting a major freelance writing project, I'd have saved myself three years of pain. Four people don't take a job and back out of it suddenly for no reason...
  • You Have to Sign a Contract - Indeed many wonderful, legitimate, career-boosting jobs require a contract. But when the contract reads like an iron-clad purchase of your soul, beware. Regarding my aforementioned awful freelance writing gig, the contract had apparently become increasingly lock-solid because so many people had previously pulled out. By the time I stumbled in, I barely made it out without a high-profile legal team. Lesson learned.
  • Ambiguous Job Description - That piece of paper laying out your responsibilities isn't just an HR requirement, it's your lifeline. If you can't understand what you'll be doing, you're setting yourself up for some potentially uncomfortable days...
  • Unclear Hours for the Pay - ...and nights. There's nothing worse than a job you thought would be 9 to 5 turning into 24-hour on-call, doing emails at 3am, writing reports into the wee hours sort of position. For which you don't see an additional red cent. There is something to be said for working hard, for sure, but TGTBT jobs tend to have high time requirements that remain hidden...until you start.
  • Hourly Pay Rate Seems Too High - Speaking of hours, always calculate the salary being offering compared to the number of hours of work being advertised. What is the hourly rate of pay? If it's out of line with what would be expected for your field and/or your level of experience, rest assured that you're going to be working a lot more hours than advertised. A lot.
  • Uncertain Recognition - Are your efforts going to be recognized in some way? Or will you remain a hidden member of the team? If the latter, consider hard whether this position is a necessary rung on the ladder (which it may very well be) or a situation in which you'll get unnecessarily used.
  • Only the Positives Are Discussed - When your boss goes into salesperson mode, beware. Every promotion or job should be presented in a balanced way, with full indication of all the benefits to doing the work - along with the potential challenges. If the offer is not presented this way, something may be amiss. Particularly run for the hills if, when you mention the potential difficulties you foresee from the setup, the boss brushes them or - worse - laughs. (Yup, I've had potential bosses do both.)
  • Management of Difficult People - I also seem to be fodder for these sorts of TGTBT jobs. A manager has a group of people that no one can seem to handle and who don't do their jobs and instead of firing them, they come to me and present some beautiful job title, asking me to take on this unruly team. Uh, no.
  • Climbing Too High Too Fast - I mentioned in the "10 signs" post that unearned opportunities are a red flag. This sign bears repeating (again and again and again) because we are so likely to be honored and excited when "big breaks" come our way early in our career that we fail to ask WHY they are appearing. Sometimes we can climb fast. More often, though, there's something up.
  • Success Doesn't Seem Possible - As discussed in the previous section, fall guys do get set up. We don't want to be pessimistic, but a healthy dose of realism is in order before accepting any position. Projects simply do not succeed without proper budgets, teams, timelines and goals in place - or at least available to be put in place.
  • Comes From Someone Who Has Never Seemed to Like You - An even bigger red flag that you're going to take the fall is when a promotion comes from someone with whom you've frequently locked horns. We want to avoid paranoia, of course, but trust your gut on this one. If you someone who used to glare at you is suddenly giving you the saccharine sales pitch, what do you think is really going on?

Is It Time to Look for a New Job?

If a TGTBT promotion - or a series of them - appears in your life, that doesn't necessarily mean there is anything wrong with the organization for which you work. (It may, though, be an indicator that it's time to look deeper at the company's practices and goals!)

It is possible that your particular manager may not be highly effective, or may not be the sort of person you want to work for.

That said, if your job isn't toxic, then TGTBT opportunities in and of themselves are not cause to leave a job. In fact, your organization or manager might just be hyper-zealous about making good use of you, resulting in a scattershot pattern of offers (some terrific, some awful).

No matter what, though, encountering a sequence of TGTBT offers ARE cause to get clearer about your values, goals, and sense of purpose. And to develop your assertiveness skills so you can say "no" gracefully while building the life you actually want.

To accepting only the best offers,


Have a Q for our Wednesday Q&A feature? Email me ( or tweet @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you’ll get a FREE MINI E-COACHING SESSION about values, plus a backlink to your website!

Have you ever accepted a "too good to be true" job offer? If so, what were the red flags (in retrospect!)?

Photo Credit: *spo0ky*

5 Steps to Turning Down a Promotion Strategically


How should we proceed when we realize a promotion isn't right for us? (See my recent post "10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit" for help determining that.) Ideally, we turn down the promotion in a manner that's not only graceful but advantageous.

The goal is to have our boss say something like:  "I have even more respect for you now than before we began talking."

If we're serious about crafting meaningful work, we need to say no a lot. A lot.

We'd better get good at doing it.

1. Act Like a Consultant

When a boss is laying a promotion on the table, he or she is actually looking to solve a problem. The problem may be straightforward (someone left an existing, necessary position) or more complex (an emerging need has arisen).

If the problem is the former, skip ahead to the next step.

If it's the latter, it's our big chance to act like a consultant. The boss is tapping us for the newly-created position because he or she thinks we have the unique set of skills, insights and connections to fill the emerging need.

In fact, we may be the only person in the organization highly suited to meet this need.

That can put us in a tough spot:  if we say no, are we letting the organization down? Worse yet, will we be seen as an anti-team player?

If we simply say "no" and walk away, then both may be true.

Instead, we need to make time - hours even - to break down the emerging need and think about various ways to address the situation. The proffered promotion is only one possible solution.

Once we have many possible approaches on the table, we can consider whether any of them DOES fit us. In other words, is there a solution to this problem that we want to provide? The promotion might not be the right choice, but some other configuration (e.g., a subtle shift in workload across many people) may be the perfect step on our path to our ideal job.

When we bring our proposed solution to the boss, we may get brushed off. That's OK. The effort we took to try to find a solution instead of simply saying a flat-out "no" will almost always be appreciated. Sometimes deeply.

2. Look at Your Colleagues Through Boss's Eyes

Similarly, one way we can help to solve our boss's problem is to offer concrete suggestions for who he or she might tap next for the promotion (or for portions of our re-engineered solution).

When I need to turn down a promotion, I spend a few days privately vetting my colleagues. I think through what they have to offer, the ways in which they are being underutilized, and - perhaps most importantly - my knowledge of their goals and sense of purpose, information bosses typically haven't accessed.

It can be highly fulfilling to help a colleague's star rise in the direction that person highly desires.

Bottomline:  what's a poor fit for us is a dream job for someone else.

Share the wealth.

3. Discuss Your Strengths and Goals

How often do we get to sit before our boss and lay out our strengths, goals and sense of purpose? Ideally that happens at every annual review, but in my experience, it so doesn't.

When the boss is eagerly awaiting our acceptance of a promotion, though, we have a captive audience before us. We want to be succinct, to be sure - this isn't the moment to unleash our life story! - but we also are due a moment of "here's the lead in to my answer."

One obvious danger in turning down a promotion is coming across like we don't care or are not ambitious. There's nothing worth than appearing to be stagnating water.

Talking strengths and goals is the antidote. Lay out your long as it aligns with the organization's general mission and your continued existence in the company (i.e., this also isn't the moment to announce your dreams of entrepreneurship).

For instance, in a recent promotion turn-down situation I said, "I genuinely care about X. I have been working on that topic for five years and it's what drives me. While I could do the position you're offering well, I would never be driven to do it exceptionally since it is not about X."

Thankfully "X" is a priority to my organization, just a different priority than the one targeted in the promotion. The boss respected my honesty and seemed to appreciate the opportunity to gain insight into how to make best use of me. Any good leader would want that knowledge about his or her star players (and if you're being offered a promotion, yup, you're a star).

4. Demonstrate Your Values

Similarly, if you're clear on your values, don't be afraid to show them.

I spent years turning down opportunities explicitly to spend time with my young daughter. Some people may have judged or discounted me for that, but I was so sure about my values that their thoughts honestly didn't matter to me.

Even better, the people whose values did resonate with mine drew closer to me. By being upfront about why I was making decisions, I gained valuable and loyal allies in my organization, including some administrators who'd made similar choices - or, interestingly, wished they had.

Is it risky to let your values surface?

Perhaps. But I've always found the pay off to be well worth it.

Being known as someone who is principled and authentic tends to be respected across the board, even by people with a very different value set.

5. Display Deep Gratitude

Finally and probably most obviously, turning down a promotion is the prime time to show deep and genuine humility.

Recognize what the boss sees in you, accept it (i.e., don't brush it off or think yourself unworthy), and say thank you.

Someone saw us. That is, in essence, what a promotion offer actually is:  a boss's moment of saying "I know you're there. I see what you're doing. I appreciate your talents."

Being seen is the greatest gift one human being can give to another.

So no matter what else we say or do, we need to let the gift giver know that we appreciate the gesture and will truly carry it with us. Down our chosen, meaningful path.

Photo Credit: swisscan

What steps would you add to this list?

How to Find a Mentor


How to find a mentor is the topic of my hot-off-the-headset podcast interview on Stacking Benjamins, a high-energy, humor-filled show about earning, spending and saving. We discuss:

  • What's the cost of NOT having a mentor?
  • Can books be mentors?
  • What's in it for the mentor?
  • How should you go about asking someone to mentor you?

And much more (including dogs-playing-pool basement decor; ya know, why not?)

PLUS, during the interview I offer a deal on my career coaching services (a $200 value!), so listen through to the end and then fill out an "interest" form if you want to snag one of the two coaching spots I have left!

Do you have a mentor? If so, how did you find him or her? What advice would you give others about finding one for themselves?

My Favorite Career Advice (and Its Surprising Source)


I've spent the past decade fairly obsessed with questions of career and work. It would seem reasonable, then, that my favorite career advice I ever ran across would come from some learned source.

A psychology study, perhaps. Or What Color Is Your Parachute? Or maybe even Oprah.

Try none of the above. Not even close.

I've spent years sharing this incredible career advice, but avoiding telling its source. Today I finally come clean.

The Best Career Advice Ever

Before I reveal the secret source (and, no, it wasn't actually a fortune cookie. Nor a bubblegum wrapper. But you're getting warm...), let me first share the advice, as told to me:

You keep looking for the next exciting thing.

You think when you've found "it," it'll feel constantly thrilling and exciting and will always keep surprising you.

The truth is, the RIGHT thing feels more like relaxing into your favorite easy chair than strapping onto a roller coaster.

You think you should feel some sort of tap-tap-tap, reminding you it's there.

In fact, when it's RIGHT, you'll almost forget its presence because it's so consistent it can be easily overlooked.

Trust that the right thing is there when it is, and know that it's precisely what you need.

Why I Love This Advice

This advice saved my sanity, in more ways than one.

First, it was dead on:  I did think the perfect career would feel like an adrenaline rush. Hearing otherwise was a head spinner.

Second, it reminds me to be grateful for what I currently have rather than always searching for its replacement.

Third, it made me feel like I could finally - finally! - get off our societal treadmill of "what's next? what's new" and just be. Not be complacent, mind you, but be present and aware and fully, refreshingly engaged.

I've told this advice to countless career coaching clients and college students and the reaction is either total puzzlement - what is up with you? - or complete and utter relief. When it's the latter, I know we're making progress.

The reality is that to create meaningful work, you can't spend all your time and energy searching for "next." While sometimes "next" is completely necessary - especially when "now" has morphed into toxic city - more often than not, we're searching for "next" out of a knee jerk response rather than a genuine need.

I often meet people who have "pretty good" in their hands. Instead of looking to tweak and improve that "pretty good" into "amazing," basing their subtle and gradual changes on knowledge of their values, preferred skills, and favored environments, they want to toss it all and start over.

There must be something more is the common refrain.

The true - and comforting - answer is that "more" comes as you focus on the impact you want to make, and then make changes to more effectively create that impact.

A sexy answer? Uh uh.

But it's honest.

And such an amazing relief.

Secret #1

So now that you've heard the advice - and my testimonial for it! - allow me to let you in on a couple of secrets.

The first secret is that this advice wasn't intended to be about career at all.

In fact, it was told to a nineteen-year-old version of myself.

What do teenagers tend to be preoccupied by? Yup, love.

This was advice about my love life. And let me tell you, my now-husband is grateful I received it; he was the "easy chair" boyfriend I was overlooking at the time.

Secret #2

Now, the source, which I've kept neatly hidden every time I've shared this favorite bit of advice.

Keep in mind that I was nineteen and a college freshman, so go easy on me.

My favorite career advice came from...a psychic.


What Do We Take Away?

The moral of the story is, don't consult a career coach when you're having rough times, just consult a psychic.

Oh wait, that's not the moral.

The moral is that we tend to try too hard to create a fairytale career love match when no one actually has that.

The search for that thrilling end state - which doesn't exist - can make us feel overwhelmed, confused, and disillusioned.

Take me for instance:  I love my work. Ridiculously so. My work feeds me, makes me feel like I'm living my purpose, and, on more occasions than I'd like to admit, sends me back for Round #2 of deodorant.

Even still, my work is more like relaxing into an easy chair than riding on a roller coaster.

Thank goodness I recognized the gentle arm of the chair pushing against me, and continue to recognize it still. It's the best anticlimactic climax I've ever experienced.

Now I want to hear from you:  What's your favorite career - or life - advice? (And where did yours come from?!)


Photo Credit: C.P.Storm

"I Hate My Job. Now What?!"


Have you ever clawed your way into a job only to discover that you...hate it? If so, you're not alone. Many of us have faced the crushing reality of "dream jobs" (or "dream educational opportunities") gone bad.

The big question is what to do next. Should you keep working at the job, hoping it will get better eventually (or, worse yet, feeling paralyzed by the thought "maybe this as good as it gets..."), or should you quit and find something else?

In a recent interview conducted by quarter-life coach Michelle Roby, I answer these questions and more, including:

After you watch, I'd love to hear about your experiences answering the question, "I hate my job. Now what?!" What did you do to cope and/or make change?

Photo Credit: mjtmail (tiggy)

What is "Meaningful Work"?


I can't count how many 20somethings have said one of the following to me:

  • "I wish I knew what my purpose is."
  • "I don't know what I want to do, but I want a fulfilling job."
  • "I want my work to be meaningful."

Great goal, I say, regardless of their particular way of phrasing it. So glad you're thinking about that. Happy you're digging in.

Then I follow my genuine praise with a simple question:

And what, may I ask,  do you mean by "purpose"/"fulfillment"/"meaning"?


Uh, OK...

I get that "purpose" is a hella difficult thing to put into words. I couldn't have done it myself five years ago.

But how can we go around saying we're seeking something out when we have no clue what that something actually looks like?

(And millennials truly are all walking around saying this:  a recent study found "the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning." Which makes my heart throb with joy.)

I'm not referring to knowing how to find purpose/meaning/fulfillment in our own lives. That's a conundrum all it's own.

I'm simply saying that if we don't even know what we MEAN by "purpose" or "meaning" or "fulfillment," these terms are little more than filler words, coddling us into believing we're on a genuine hunt for something.

It's a lot like saying, "I'm on a quest to find the world's best gnocchi...but I haven't got a clue what gnocchi is."

Enter today's post:  brass tacks on meaning, purpose, and fulfillment at work. It'll put us all, finally, on the same page about what we're searching for - so we can move on to the important challenge of how to find it.

The Definition of Purpose

Let's start with purpose, which is inextricably linked to "meaning," although psychology scholars endlessly debate exactly how.

After a good deal of reading, I've found one definition of purpose that I embrace, created by psychologist William Damon and colleagues.

Purpose is:

  1. A goal toward which one can direct their energies that is
  2. Meaningful to the self and
  3. Extends beyond the self.

The beauty of this definition is that it makes clear what's not purposeful. It explains, for instance, why pursuing pleasurable, self-focused hobbies can leave us feeling empty and disconnected. There's no service component in such activities:

"A purpose in life represents an intention to act in the larger world on behalf of others or in pursuit of a larger cause." - psychologist Kendall Cotton Bronk and colleagues

It also explains why we can engage in acts that are undeniably selfless and yet still feel lost and directionless. That's because many "giving" acts lack Component #2:  meaningfulness to the self.

"The emphasis on self-meaning underscores the fact that the pursuit of purpose is voluntary and self-motivated. The individual, rather than peers, parents, or others, serves as the driving force behind the intention." - psychologist Kendall Cotton Bronk and colleagues

The Definition of Meaning

This begs the question of what is "meaningful" to ourselves.

Scholars are surprisingly cloudy on the definition of "meaning," often referring back to "purpose" in some endless circular definition (see a recent New York Times article for a case in point).

From what I've gleaned through my coaching, advising and research, a meaningful act is, at its core, an undertaking that feels incredibly urgent and important to us...even if no one around us shares our fascination.

It's feeling like who we are and what we do are one in the same.

It's doing something that makes us feel used in the very best way possible.

It's vibrating on a higher plane, focused on a topic or goal that riles us up emotionally, and that, for reasons we can't begin to articulate, feels totally right and "meant to be."

It's almost like flow (deep engagement to the point of losing track of time and being completed focused), yet it's performed consciously and can be sustained over long periods of time, through many series of interruptions.

It's completely independent of happiness, and may even leave us feeling less happy.

In short, "meaningful" acts are the activities we do because we aren't ourselves when we stop doing them.

Even if, at times, we genuinely wish we could stop doing them, just as we sometimes wish we had a different body type or eye color or singing voice.

Truly meaningful acts are part and parcel of who we are.

Meaningful Work

So what do these verbose definitions mean for work and career?

Everything, according to psychologist Michael Steger, a leading researcher on meaningful work.

According to him, the three components of meaningful work are:

  1. Work that we experience as having "significance and purpose."
  2. Work that contributes to our broader sense of meaning in life.
  3. Work that enables us to "make a positive contribution to the greater good."

In other words, knowing what meaning and purpose are enables us to begin to begin to put them into practice in our lives, a lofty goal well worth pursuing:

"Few other avenues offer as much promise for accomplishing valued outcomes as creating meaning in work – both in terms of individual flourishing, citizenship, commitment, and engagement and in terms of long-term, sustainable innovation, culture maintenance, and performance in organizations." - Michael Steger, PhD

Are you up for the challenge?

Do you know someone who is struggling with issues of meaning and purpose? Then please pass this article along to him or her.

Now I want to hear from you:  what is your take on meaning and purpose? What do you think you're striving for? There's certainly no one "right" answer.


Bronk, K. C., Hill, P., Lapsley, D.K., Talib, T., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 500–510.

Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K.C. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119–128.

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography

Make a Career Change - Without Quitting


Wish you could say "take this job and shove it"...but can't? You don't have to. It's possible make a career change without quitting. Or, at the very least, make your job feel less misery-inducing.

Believe me, I've spent ten years doing this very thing to my own job.

Yes, it takes work. Yes, it's easier to whine and moan and curl up on the couch to have a Breaking Bad binge. Yes, you'll thank me if you actually dig in and do it.

What do you have to lose?

Say "Hello" to Job Crafting

The secret to making career change within your existing job is "job crafting"

Job crafting is the process of redesigning your current job to better suit who you are, what you value, and what you do best. We can all become "job crafters," even if we're in a rigid drudge job.

Business researchers from the University of Michigan use the example of a machine operator working on an assembly line who "may craft her job by forging enjoyable social relationships with co-workers or taking on additional tasks in order to use her talents, such as building a shelving system to organize important equipment."

Job crafting is an ongoing process - you can choose to engage in time and again. Best of all, it can happen without anyone's approval.

"Job crafting can happen whether formally sanctioned by managers or not." - Business researcher Justin Berg & colleagues

Simply put:  there's no excuse not to get your craft on, people!

The Benefits of Job Crafting

Job crafting is something of a wonder drug for workplaces. It's been shown to provide workers with a greater sense of meaning in life and an altered work identity. Active job crafters also enjoy work more than their peers and are more effective workers.

In addition, since psychology research indicates that we are happiest when we regularly engage in activities that are personally meaningful and that send us into the state of "flow," if we can re-engineer our jobs to maximize those qualities, we can find deeper and more lasting happiness than we ever could through pleasure alone.

How to Job Craft

Hopefully by now you're chomping at the bit to learn how to job craft. Well wait no more! Here are the three ways to make career change without quitting:

  1. Task Crafting:  In this method, you "alter the boundaries" of your job by changing your tasks themselves. For instance, you might expand what you do, delegate some of your tasks, or change the system you use to complete your work. Start by creating a task list, then working through the list one by one to identify the items that are most amenable to change. Once you've made the easy changes, challenge yourself to engage in creative problem-solving to improve your most stubborn tasks.
  2. Relational Crafting:  You could also craft your job by altering the way you interact with co-workers, customers, management, and the random interns from the office across the hall. This might entail changing the form of communication - such as from email to video conferencing - or simply the tone and approach of your communication. Start by being mindful during one interaction a day; try to make a small change (e.g., to wear a different expression while talking) and observe how it alters the content of your conversation. If you like the effect, try it out on others throughout the week.
  3. Cognitive Crafting:  Since self-talk can have lasting effects on behaviors and attitudes, one of the tricks parents are taught when talking about their kids' unruly behaviors is to "reframe" those behaviors. Instead of saying or thinking you have a "difficult" child, for instance, you are taught to call that child "spirited" or "highly engaged in life." This advice holds true for your job, too. Alter the way you think about "the purpose of tasks, relationships, or the job as a whole" and your entire attitude toward work may shift. Is it difficult to do? Absolutely. But start small - such as by changing the way you think about the difficult last hour of each day. It's not "the final push until I get to go home," it's "my last opportunity to engage in my important tasks for the day." (I know, that one's going to take some practice...!)

I love these crafting techniques so much, I formed the core of my free eBook, 15 Ways to Make Your Job More Fulfilling - Today, around them.

How Job Crafting Can Lead to a Better Career

Not only can job crafting change the way you approach work today, it may set you up perfectly when a better job opportunity eventually comes along. This happens for three reasons:

  1. Since you've been so interactive with your co-workers, they'll be the first in line to lend you their network to find better opportunities.
  2. If chosen well, your new tasks should align well with your desired job's demands, making your resume rise to the top of the stack.
  3. Your boss will think highly of your positive attitude and give you a glowing reference.

An Excellent Example of Job Crafting

A while back I shared a video of custodian Candice Billups. Her brief interview exemplifies job crafting better than just about anything I've encountered.

While some may think of being a custodian as a low-meaning, repetitive job, Ms. Billups has engaged in task, relational AND cognitive crafting to make it a job about which she positively glows.

If you haven't watched the video yet, make ten minutes right now to check it out. I promise it'll make you see your own job in a whole new light.

Bottomline:  remember that you're in control. Even if you're stuck in a job that isn't all you'd hoped, you can make it better and genuine career change can be in sight - without quitting.

The Michigan researchers note "designing jobs is not just a top-down process - employees can and do exercise agency to redesign their own jobs." So go forth and redesign! If Ms. Billups can view cleaning vomit as job security, you can certainly find a way to infuse meaning into your work.

If you try.

Know someone who dislikes their job? Pass this article along to him or her.

Then tell me in the comments below:  what have you done - or could you do - to "craft" your job?

Photo Credit: marsmet548

Source:  Berg, J.M., Dutton, J.E., & Wrzesniewsky, A. (2007). What is Job Crafting and Why Does it Matter? Theory to Practice Briefing at The Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, University of Michigan.

How To Make Your Childhood - and Future - Self Very Happy


Here's my big admission:  I'm obsessed with Google calendar. Obsessed. It's never not open on my computer. Sometimes I stare at my week's schedule in wonder. All too often I'm tempted to enter "event" blocks for the sheer thrill of putting them in there.


Because a little girl named Becca Lynn created schedules just like this. WAY back before Google. Back before even AOL or Prodigy or - gasp - affordable home computers.

Pen and paper worked just fine for childhood fantasy games, thank you very much. Still does.

Most days I'd sit at my mom's home office desk and ask her to "call" me to make appointments in my business du jour. Hair salon, travel agency, greeting card company, private museum, sign factory...I ran them all (sometimes all at once).

The common task running through all of these businesses was that you had to make appointments to see me. And I reveled in creating elaborate charts to record said appointments.

Now, thirty years later, here I am with my own real live Google calendar, booking appointments with glee. I feel like a delighted little girl every single time I rearrange my blocks to "squeeze in" a student or a client or even some special time with my daughter (yes, I've become THAT person - not because I need a schedule to remember my daughter, but rather because creating blocks is so fun!)

Get in Touch With Childhood Pleasures

I'm telling you all of this because today I want you to reflect not on WHAT you wanted to be as a child, but on what you liked to DO.

Ditch the job titles. That's not at all what we're talking about here.

We're talking about tasks.

In the past I wrote about how career choice may be partly in our genes, with 50% of our interests and 30% of job satisfaction being attributable to genetics. I then wrote a follow-up post encouraging you to consider the innate environmental preferences you have, including a handy list of questions to ask yourself along the way.

When I looked over my questions, though, I realized that tasks isn't even on there. Huge oversight.

The more I work with students and clients on career choice, the more I realize that preferred tasks is where the core of job satisfaction is at. Period.

It's Fine If You Never Had Childhood Dreams

The beauty of focusing on preferred childhood tasks is that it even applies to the people who say, "But I never wanted to be anything when I was a child. I had no career dreams."

No matter. You still did things as a child, didn't you?

Whether at play or on athletic fields or during recess with your friends, you had chosen activities that made you feel happy and free and alive. (I so do not want to know what Jason, the kindergartner who spent recess tracking me down and kicking me in the stomach, is now doing with his life...)

How to Identify Your Childhood Preferred Tasks

So think back - right now! - to that kiddo you were around 5 to 9 years of age, before society's "shoulds" strongly entered the picture.

Then do the following:

  • List the things you spent your time doing when you were able to choose your activities (yes, we all spent tons of time in school. Who cares? That wasn't by choice. Now if you were creating a school at home, that's a different matter entirely).
  • For each activity, break down the skills and tasks involved in each. For instance, my private museum tours about the Tawls, the wondrous people of the North that I invented (their fort is pictured above...), involved scheduling, creativity, teaching, entrepreneurship, and public speaking. Basically a mini-version of my current life. Basically.
  • Then go through your list of skills and tasks and take note of two things:
    • The tasks/skills that appear repeatedly
    • The tasks/skills that you would like to use in the future (i.e., those you believe you'd still prefer, even if you haven't used them in years - or decades!)

If you really want to get serious about the preceding task, make a field trip out of it. Set a time in your schedule (your Google calendar, perhaps...?) to go back and intentionally revisit your childhood stomping grounds. Thanks to the context-dependency of memory, you'll be amazed at all the memories that suddenly appear on your school lot or your childhood street corner (although the latter would prompt me to ask, what were you doing as a kid exactly?).

Childhood = Pure

Sure, our childhood selves didn't know it all. Far from it. We've developed skills and tried out tasks that we didn't even know about when we were 6.

That's no reason to forget the activities we were drawn to when we were little, though. In fact, I'd argue that's all the reason not to forgot those childhood activities.

Because what we did when we were kids, that was the true stuff. It wasn't about adding to the resume or proving ourselves or impressing anyone (Case in point: the coat I'm wearing in the photo above. Clearly impressing was not on the list).

It was about enjoying life, fully and in the moment, for no ulterior motive other than joy.

Which is the goal of any good career search, now isn't it?

So you know what you need to do. Get down to it.

I'll be over on Google. You know, doing some scheduling.

Staying Put Doesn't Necessarily Mean "Settling"


I never thought I'd say this:  Contractual obligations are the best things that ever happened to my work life. From teaching college, to writing textbooks and supplements, to taking on odd jobs around campus, almost all the work I've held, I've been contractually obligated to finish.

This used to make me insane:

I have STAY PUT for set periods of time? What if I HATE what I'm doing? What if I suddenly realize I'm BETTER SUITED for something else?

What if I - gasp - end up having to SETTLE for a life less than the one I could have?

The Beauty of Striving-in-Place

The thing about those nasty little contracts, though, is that they forced me to learn my greatest lesson of finding meaningful work:  the lesson of how to "strive-in-place."

Striving-in-place is my term for becoming our best selves in the context of our current situations.

The process includes job crafting, environmental refinement, and perspective shifting to create your best working life - without jumping to a new job. [I offer examples of this approach in my new free eBook 15 Ways to Make Your Job More Fulfilling - Today.]

Don't get me wrong:  changing jobs is often necessary to better our lives. To be sure, virtually all of my coaching clients leave their jobs at some point in our coaching process because they need to:

  • They're in completely the wrong field for their interests, values, and preferred skills
  • Their work environment is positively toxic (e.g., abusive management, ethically questionable practices, soul-sucking tasks with no flexibility to change them)
  • Their conception of "work" has shifted so far from the traditional notions of 9 to 5 - healthfully so - that they need to construct an entire new way of living

Barring these situations, though, striving-in-place is a terrific skill set to have. It not only makes work life more fulfilling, it's good practice for life in general, in which one enters into arrangements - e.g., marriage, parenthood, caring for ill relatives - from which it's difficult or impossible to run.

Striving-in-place is not about settling. It's about living fully and intentionally. Right where you are.

Job Hopping is Too Easy

I suspect striving-in-place will be unpopular advice in some camps.

For instance, in the very camp where I specialize:  millennials.

At least statistically speaking, it should be.

The average length of time a worker stays at a job is 4.4 years, according to Forbes' article "Job Hopping is the 'New Normal' for Millennials," while millennials' average is about half that time.

Most articles on the "job hopping millennial" trend lament it from a corporate perspective (e.g., it costs about $25,000 for each millennial that needs to be replaced) or view it as one more opportunity to jump on the "anti-millennial stereotype" bandwagon.

A few, though - such as "Millennials Should be Job Hopping" from Business Insider - actually make the case the that job hopping is the best strategy for economic and emotional well-being of the individual.

My approach would probably fall somewhere between the two. I can't see how perpetual job hopping could lead to satisfaction; it creates the peception of too much choice, the very thing that undercuts our happiness.

Besides, it takes time, energy, and negotiation to bring any working endeavor to its fullest potential. Job hopping makes it too easy to jump to the "next possibly perfect thing" instead of working to make the current position the best it can be.

Of course, to put striving-in-place into practice, one has to be careful and intentional about choice of jobs. Otherwise you end up with one of the first two "need to switch" work situations I outlined above.

In addition, sometimes a situation turns out to be totally different than what we'd expected while interviewing. Believe me, I've happily run from some work endeavors as soon as the contract freed me to do so - and I even wrangled to legally abort one particularly toxic situation.

These "sometimes" situations, however, shouldn't lead to job hopping every one or so years. If work is chosen intentionally and crafted effectively, one-year tenures would be anomalies, not habits.

Don't Let Your Workplace Off the Hook

Before we wrap, I want to make three things clear. This post is NOT:

  • A plug for living a mediocre, vaguely unsatisfying life. I have fought tooth and nail to create a meaningful, rich life that aims to extend service far beyond myself. If you have the opportunity to forge such a life for yourself - and I'd argue we all have that luxury, even if we cannot switch positions or secure high-status jobs - then you're shirking your life's responsibility by living anything less than that. Striving-in-place is all about aiming for more. Without changing jobs.
  • A finger-wagging at millennials. It makes sense to switch jobs more frequently in our early work lives as we gain an awareness of who we are and what we like to do, and begin to master the skills of striving-in-place. Besides, I believe much of the "job hopping" phenomenon lies at the hands of a society that believes it's acceptable to make young people labor for free and outdated workplaces that are utterly unequipped to ensure the highest functioning of its personnel.
  • An agreement with unhealthy corporate cultures. Hopefully my preceding point made this clear.

With regard to unhealthy workplaces, part of our striving-in-place mission needs to be forcing our work environments to evolve with us. Some companies already offer mentoring, workplace flexibility and community service programs to enhance retention and engagement of workers. There needs to be more.

Workplace enrichment will only come if we demand it. Often and loudly.

Keeping in mind, though, that sometimes the best way to make a demand isn't with our feet. It's with our voices.

What do you think? Have you ever stayed put and found growing satisfaction, or is moving on necessary to find our best place in the world?

Want Well-Being? Fix These Two Aspects of Your Career


One of my former students recently stopped by for a chat. An intelligent, eager woman in her mid-20s, she's moved beyond the wide-eyed optimism typically worn by new graduates. Too far beyond it.

"How's your job?" I asked.

"It's work," she said. "You know. It pays the bills. I mean, what more can you expect? Besides, it doesn't really matter. It's just work."

My cringe of the century followed.

JUST work?

Not only would I beg to differ on my least feisty day, she crossed my path days after I learned of large-scale, representative research showing how wrong she is.

Poor girl.

I'll spare you that long-winded, hand-flailing, eye-bulging version here. In fact, I'll boil my point down to just four sentences:

Work matters to your overall well-being. Big time. More than anything else in your life.

And your "work health" can be summed up with the answers to just two questions.

Now for Pete's sake read on because this concision thing is killing me!

The Two All-Important Questions

We'll start by unveiling the two questions that not only predict your Career Well-being, but your well-being overall.

(Is it just me or does this feel as tense as a Jerry Springer "is he the daddy?" moment.)

The two all-important questions are:

  • Do you like what you do each day?


  • At work, are you able to do what you're best at each day?

Notice there's nothing about your boss or your co-workers or your physical office or your hours. According to Brandon Busteed at Gallup, it all comes down to liking what you do and using your strengths. Period.

So if you can "strongly agree" with both of these questions, you're in great stead. Grab some Pirate Booty and get back to work.

If, on the other hand, you only "agree" or are "neutral" or are - duh dum - in the "disagree" camp, it's time to take a good look at your career. Afterall, work is the most important factor affecting your overall well-being.

Career Disproportionately Affects Our Well-Being

Not ready to believe me about the importance of career health to our overall well-being? Can't say I blame you; I am a bit biased.

We'll turn to the good people at Gallup to back me up:

"Gallup finds that Career Well-Being is the most important predictor of well-being across the board. Though not a guarantee, it is likely that someone with high Career Well-Being also has high Social, Financial, Physical, and Community Well-Being. Across every country Gallup surveyed, people said that a good job trumps everything, including health and happiness." - Brandon Busteed of Gallup

These are strong words:  Regardless of nation, career matters. More than health or relationships or money!

In fact, "people with high Career Wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall," according to Tom Harter and Jim Rath in their book summarizing the Gallup research, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements.

In other words, all my blabbering on about the importance of meaningful work is well-founded. By research!

Amazingly enough, prior to last week, I didn't even know it.

(If you imagine that I was doing back flips when I heard Busteed announce this at a recent conference, your imagination simply isn't wild enough.)

Why Career Well-being Matters So Much

Work affects our well-being for a variety of reasons:

1.  We spend a whole lot of time working. About one-third of our lives, in fact.

2.  Work spills over into our entire lives:

"Imagine that you have great social relationships, financial security, and good physical health - but you don't like what you do every day. Chances are, much of your social time is spent worrying or complaining about your lousy job. And this causes stress, taking a toll on your physical health. If your Career Wellbeing is low, it's easy to see how it can cause deterioration in other areas over time." - Harter & Rath, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Element

3.  Work shapes our identity. So much so that...

"Our wellbeing actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment." - Harter & Rath    (Graphical evidence of this phenomenon is on Gallup's site)

If You Can't 'Strongly Agree,' You're Not Alone

Cover of "Wellbeing: The Five Essential E...

Now that you know how important Career Well-being is, you may be fretting over your initial answers.

Don't worry:  if misery loves company, you're all set.

Of the 10,000+ people around the world to whom Gallup posed these questions, only 20% "strongly agreed."

Only 20%!

Considering that Career Well-being is the singlemost important factor in our overall well-being and only 1 in 5 people has Career Well-being, no wonder we're a people obsessed with pursuits of happiness and get-pleasure-fast schemes.

We should stop chasing happiness and start working. Happily.

"Sort Of" Doesn't Count

By the way, if your answers were something like "well, I kind of agree" or "some days I feel like that"? <BZZZZZ> Sorry, no Career Well-being for you.

According to Busteed, a person has to "strongly agree" with those questions EVERY DAY for their overall well-being to be positively impacted. Less frequent simply doesn't cut it.

Does this seem like a ridiculously high standard?

Perhaps, but it's attainable, too.

How to Use These Findings Positively

How do we know it's attainable?

Because if we turn the 20% figure around, it can serve as a guiding beacon for us all:

1 in 5 people has found work that they like and that uses their strengths EVERY DAY.

Think about it:   You know, what, about 600 people? (Sorry, your legions of Facebook peeps don't count.) This means you know approximately 120 people doing the sort of work that would make a huge difference in your overall well-being.

There are 120 people you could go out and informational interview.

There are 120 people you could shadow at work.

There are 120 people you could simply spend time around, soaking in their work-fulfilled energy and gaining courage to seek it out for yourself.

In other words, when you get thinking that meaningful, fulfilling work is impossible to find, you're simply not talking to the right people.

We're out there. It just might be hard to catch us.

We're too busy working.

4 Ways to Cope When You Have Too Many Options

When it comes to career, do you feel like you simply have too many options? Did you believe so fully in the "you can do anything" mantra of childhood that you don't know how to let it go?

Can you think of a ton of things you could imagine yourself doing, but can't figure out how you'll ever pick just ONE?

I get it. I felt the same way.

And so do many of my college students and coaching clients. In fact, it's one of the most common questions I hear.

Yet we all know we have to narrow it down. We can't be a doctor AND a professional musician AND a world-class artist AND a entrepreneur.

At least not while staying sane!

So HOW do we do choose?

Here are my four steps for overcoming career choice overload and the dreaded paralysis that accompanies it. (Hint: Your logical brain is probably putting options out there that you don't truly want.)

After you watch, I want to hear from you:  What strategy do YOU use to overcome career choice overload?

3 Life Lessons from Einstein


While conducting research for my recent piece Are You Trying to Find Yourself or Construct Yourself?, I repeatedly stumbled upon life lessons from Einstein. He had fascinated me in my days as a physics major (back before my first surge of authenticity) because in many real ways he was the most nontraditional scientist, while also being the most brilliant. Thus it felt oddly comfortable to get back in touch with this man's great ideas, which extend far beyond the lab. Here are the life lessons he had to share about finding solutions, keeping balanced, and making space for important work. In other words, about all of the things with which we grapple here at Working Self!

Life Lesson #1:  Sudden Insights Come From Preparation

As we discussed recently, you can no more “find” who you are than Einstein could “find” the theory of relativity. It wasn’t written on some bathroom stall just waiting for him to happen by one day. “Oh my!” he’d exclaim upon seeing it all scrawled there, the superscripts hovering in bathroom-y bliss, “There it is! Now I know!”

Albert Einstein

It’s true that we often do experience a flash of insight – a moment when the answer we’ve been seeking suddenly appears in full form in our mind – and Einstein was famous for having such flashes of brilliance while bicycling. Insight is most likely to arrive while we’re doing something unrelated task that lets our mind wander – e.g., showering, hiking, doing the laundry you’ve put off for three weeks.

But here’s the trick to suddenly “finding” the answer:  you have to have put in a good deal of effort before that moment. It’s like a garden. One day, suddenly and without warning, your plants spring forth from the ground. But you have to have tilled and seeded and fertilized and watered first.

Einstein did his “garden preparation” through extensive reading of physics and philosophy. He became absorbed in the topics, marinating in the works’ words and dilemmas regularly and deeply. He put in the time long before any insights came his way.

"A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions. But, thinking it through afterwards, you can always discover the reasons which have led you unconsciously to your guess and you will find a logical way to justify it. Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience."  - Einstein

Life Lesson #2: You Have to Make Room for the Important Work

How nice for him, you may think, to have had time to stew in philosophy and the like, passing it so deeply through his core that it stirred wholly original thoughts within him.

In fact, Einstein didn’t have leisurely hours to do this work. And he wasn't paid to do it. He was reading, researching, and thinking while supporting his wife and small child on a meager salary from a full-time job as a patent clerk.

“One must not think of Einstein as a tranquil academic, brooding at leisure on weighty intellectual problems. Rather one must imagine him fitting his intellectual work into the interstices of a professional career and personal life that might have overwhelmed someone with a different nature.” - writer John Stachel

Einstein wasn’t all that much unlike a contemporary twentysomething – holding down a crappy job, trying to make ends meet, knowing there were bigger questions that needed answering but not knowing how the heck to fit it in.

Einstein on a Bike.jpg

As Einstein found, the only way to fit it in is simply by doing it. By keeping your family and professional drama to a minimum so you can do the important work of constructing a vision of who you are, what you value, and the impact you want to make on the world, large or small. You must hold down a job, you should keep an active social life, you need and hopefully want to attend to your family. But don’t put your real work – the work of finding you and the work you're meant to release into the world - on the backburner while you do it all.

Life Lesson #3: Remain Active At All Times

While it was a different physicist who famously said, "A body in motion stays in motion," it's certainly a statement with which Einstein agreed. And not just on the lab bench:

"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving." - Einstein

Sitting around waiting for "the answer" to appear is the least likely way to find it. Whether that "answer" is who you are, what you're meant to do, or whether the work you're currently doing is the right fit, sitting around contemplating the question won't get you any closer to the solution.

We don't find answers by being in our heads, we find them by trying different possibilities out in the real world and seeing what sticks.

So get out there and ride your bicycle. It's the only way you'll stay upright.

Which of these life lessons resonates most for you? How come? (And if you have any great Einstein quotes to share, I'm all ears!)

Enhanced by Zemanta


For every new idea we create, I believe we have to read at least 50 times the amount. (Photo credit: afagen)

He's still joyfully riding in cities around the world. (Photo credit: adambowie)

What Do I Want to Do? 5 Books That Offer Answers

I'm obsessed with books that offer help me ponder the question "What do I want to do?" The less prescriptive, the better - I want to sort things out for myself, TYVM, but it is helpful to hear what's worked for others. Here are five books that I've dog-earred, scribbled upon, and carried from beach to board room and everywhere in between.

1. What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question by Po Bronson

What a question

What It Is: Po Bronson spent significant chunks of time with seventy ordinary people in order to compile this lengthy, thought-provoking social documentary. The book provides detailed sketches of Americans grappling with questions of career, fulfillment, and purpose and lets you draw your own conclusions.

My Testimonial: This book popped onto shelves - and Oprah's couch - when I was smack-dab in the middle of debating whether to drop out of my fully-funded doctoral program. Reading Bronson's tales of everyday people who made changes in their lives gave me the courage to create my own defining moment. It wasn't long before I wrapped up my master's thesis research, gave notice, and set off to my dream state of Maine!

Favorite quotation: "This theme is going to reappear throughout: It's not easy / It's not supposed to be easy / Most people make mistakes / Most people have to learn the hardest lessons more than once. If that has been your experience, the people herein will comfort you. They did me. That alone was worth the trip."

2. Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for you Through the Secrets of Personality Type by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger

What do you want to doWhat It Is: This hefty book enables you to quickly figure out your Myers-Briggs Type (you know, those four letter codes people always seem to know about themselves, like INFP or ENTJ). You can then turn to the chapter dedicated to your type and read career profiles, elements of career satisfaction, and ways to job search effectively using your personality strengths. Best of all, the authors lay out specific occupations frequently pursued by people from your type.

My Testimonial: This book gave me wisdom in spades throughout my twenties. My college roommate and I first bought a "dorm room" copy and then, after graduating, passed it through the mail depending on which of us felt lost at the time. The occupations listed for my type are DEAD ON; I've tried or explored most of them of my own accord, even when I've forgotten they were listed in "my chapter." I recommend this book to my Intro Psych students every single semester. (Besides, you don't want to be caught at a party not knowing your MB Type. Total loser moment.)

Favorite Quotation: "The right job enhances your life. It is personally fulfilling because it nourishes the most important aspects of your personality. It suits the way you like to do things and reflects who you are. It lets you use your innate strengths in ways that come naturally to you, and it doesn't force you to do things you don't do well (at least, not often!)."

3. What Now? by Ann Patchettwhat

What It Is: Based on a commencement address she gave at her alma mater Sarah Lawrence College, novelist Ann Patchett (State of Wonder, Bel Canto) offers a refreshingly honest look at the winding path toward career and fulfillment. She explores her own ways of answering "What do I want to do?" while offering commencement-worthy nuggets of wisdom.

My Testimonial: Patchett is my favorite novelist, and I was an aspiring fiction writer myself at the time this book was released. I found it soothing to read that Patchett's road to literary stardom was littered with waitressing, odd jobs, and doubt, a confirmation that I wasn't the only one whose twenties didn't resemble the glamorous adult life we all envision.

Favorite Quotation: "Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined."

4. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillonwhat do you want to do

What It Is: The book is based on a speech Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen gave to the Harvard Business School's graduating class. He had just overcome the type of cancer that had killed his father, and his brush with mortality made him urgently consider questions like "how do I find happiness in my career?" and "what is the role of relationships in my work and life?"

My Testimonial: Christensen is a no-nonsense business prof through and through. It's fun to watch him pair his love of theory and strategy with deep, philosophical questions. The result is practical, useful advice that has a "work it out your own way" twist. I haven't added a book to my list of Top "What Do I Want To Do" Books in almost a decade (and believe me, I've been looking!), so to finally find one worthy enough is testimonial enough. (And it even held up as a brainy beach read, as you can see here.)

Favorite Quotation: "When you were ten years old and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, anything seemed possible...Your answers then were guided simply by what you thought would make you really happy. There were no limits. There are a determined few who never lose sight of aspiring to do something that's truly meaningful to them. But for many of us, as the years go by, we allow our dreams to be peeled away. We pick our jobs for the wrong reasons and then we settle for them. We begin to accept that it's not realistic to do something we truly love for a living. Too many of us who start down the path of compromise will never make it back. Considering the fact that you'll likely spend more of your waking hours at your job than in any other part of your life, it's a compromise that will always eat away at you."

5. I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What it Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It by Barbara Sherdo2

What It Is: Career counselor Barbara Sher pulls out all the self-improvement stops in this classic book. You simply can't talk about "what do you want to do" books without mentioning this one. Between the brief exercises, practical tips, and get-off-your-butt wisdom, it really is the starting point for most career fulfillment seekers.

My Testimonial: This is an oldie but goodie, published way back when I was in high school. Its tone and examples are targeted toward a middle-aged audience, but that didn't stop this "there has to be more out there" high schooler from loving it (it didn't hurt that my second-hand copy came with a handwritten erotic love note tucked inside...which is still there!). After finishing the book, I dreamed of creating my own version of the book that would speak to young people. Who knows, maybe one day I will.

Favorite Quotation: "Did you know that fewer people get depressed during war than in peacetime? In a war, everything is important. Day to day, you know exactly what to do. Your life may be frightening, but the struggle to survive gives you direction and drive. You don't waste any time figuring out what you're worth or what you're supposed to do with your life. You just try to keep alive, save your home, help your neighbors. The reason we love to watch films about people whose lives are in danger is because every move is loaded with meaning. When there's no emergency to rise to, we have to create goals that have meaning. You can create such goals, if you know what your dream is."


What did I miss? Let me know your favorite books that help you ponder "What do I want to do?"

The second edition of the Working Self Newsletter hits inboxes this Wednesday! It features an exclusive, full-length article about how to negotiate toward a career you'll love. If you're on the list, watch your inbox (including your "junk" box and "promotions" tab!). If you're not on the list, sign up now:Email

Enhanced by Zemanta

Twitter Resumes & Making Passion Practical


If there could be two less-related topics in one post, it would be these. But since they're my two most recent guest posts - and are both vital to a healthy working self - here are some peas and ice cream for ya. Dig in!

  • You've heard the argument for doing what you love. You've heard the argument for being practical and keeping a roof over your head. You've found yourself totally confused about which to believe. Guess what? There's a feasible - and readily available - middle ground. In my recent guest post "Does Passion Matter? How to Find Your Dream Job", I argue for practical passion - and tell you step by step how to attain it. I thank Nick at A Young Pro for publishing it this past Friday.
  • Can you sum up your experience, skills, and aspirations in 140 characters? More importantly, should you? Twitter resumes are starting to leave the station, and you need to know whether it's time to grab a ticket. In "Do You Need a Twitter Resume?" published today on, I discuss when a Twitter resume makes sense...and when it doesn't. Read up:  you don't want to be caught with your Twitter finger unarmed!

I hope you enjoy these two guest posts. I'd hoped to rustle up an all-new post for this site at the same time, but it's dawning on me that summer in Maine is short and that my kiddo will only be two years old once - SO off to the beach, Storyland, and other toddler wonderlands I go. And back to the content shortly! (The best part of creating a life you love is being the boss of what you get to savor when!)

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts about my guest posts, so please pop over to those sites and leave some comments!

Is Meaningful, Purposeful Work Reserved for the Privileged Elite?

"All of this talk about finding meaningful and purposeful work is nice and all," one of my students says as we gather around our upper-level seminar table. "But it isn't applicable outside of a small, privileged, affluent population. Most people work because they have to." I love this moment, which happens every single time I teach about meaning and purpose in work. It means at least one person in the class is thinking, engaging, and moving beyond his or her own experiences.

Garbage Man

And I hope you've asked the question yourself, in response to a post or two of mine. Like my last post - When Work and You Align - one might question whether such a convergence of self and work is a luxury accessible only by a privileged elite.

My contention is no (not a shocker, is it?). Not only should everyone be entitled to finding meaning and purpose in their work - and reap such benefits as lengthened lifespan, fewer psychological disorders, and better physical health - but I also contend that anyone can find it. If they look for it. Without having to leave their "it pays the bills" job. Even if said job involves low status, low skill, and hard labor.

Skeptical? Good, that means you're still with me.

First let me say this:  I'm sure many people in drudge jobs don't find meaning and purpose in their work.  Just as many people in high pay, white collar jobs don't.

But we only need to look to Candice Billups for proof that it's possible. A custodian in the oncology ward of a hospital, she was interviewed by the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan to discuss her work. As she talks, it becomes immediately evident that she finds deep meaning and purpose in her low status job.

Even more notable, it's clear that she actively created - and continues to create - this meaning in her work. It's not something that simply happened to her.

Perhaps the real question is this:  why do we treat meaning and purpose as some sort of mystical cloud that will waft into our lives if we're somehow fortunate and privileged enough?As Ms. Billups demonstrates, depth of feeling about our work is available to all of us, regardless of our particular job or SES or educational background. If only we work to find it. [youtube]

What do you think? Do you believe meaningful and purposeful work are reserved for the privileged elites? Or are these feelings accessible to all of us?

Exciting note:  Our new site - - will launch on Monday, June 24th! Watch for notices about signing up for our brand new email newsletter, and an announcement about our first-ever giveaway. It's time to move out of the classroom, folks, and I hope you'll be graduating with us!

Could waste collectors feel meaning and purpose in their work? Well I'd sure hate to be around if they stopped working, so... (Photo credit: dmourati)

When Work and You Align

I had the coolest experience last week:  I realized that what I do and who I am are one and the same. I don't mean this in some creepy "I live my work, am super-glued to my inbox, and have no life" sort of way. Although maybe some would argue that's true of me! No, I mean it in the wonderful "I love what I'm doing so much that I'd be doing it in my free time even if it weren't my job" type of deal. And let me be clear about one thing:  ten years ago - heck, even five years ago - I wouldn't have even begun to believe this would ever be true. Pettengill Hall, home of the Social Sciences

I'm not telling you this to brag or show off or inspire bitter envy so strong that it makes you throw a pox incantation at my photo. I'm telling you this because I'm astonished that doing what you love is actually possible. For any of us.

Let's back up:  why did this realization suddenly hit me? I suppose it's too strong to say "suddenly;" it's been a dawning realization over the course of the past few years. I certainly wouldn't have started this blog if I hadn't already been realizing it. But I had the true "moment of insight," if you will, when I sat down to complete a work assignment last week.

The department chair at my college earmarks funds for each of the departmental faculty to buy anything that will support our teaching and/or research. With the fiscal year ending on June 1, I was up against a deadline and decided to find some good summer reading to inform my teaching.

So I hit Amazon and ordered 17 - count 'em:  17! - books. It was Christmas, my birthday, and Festivus wrapped into one.

The most incredible part, though, was that about half of those books came directly off my Amazon wish list. Yup, what I'd been longing to read was the same as what I needed to read.

In other words, who I am and what I do is, at long last, one and the same.

Now you might be thinking, "well you're lucky because you're an academic and that's what academics get to do." Valid point. I am lucky. But I didn't always feel lucky. In fact, for a long while I felt disgruntled about my teaching job and would hide what I did from people, dreading the, "wow, that must be a great job!" comment, to which I'd put on a thin smile and nod tightly.

You see, for the first five or so years of teaching, I felt like I had to pretend to be someone else when I stepped within the walls of my plush academic building. I felt like I should be someone who was on a straight path, who cared about pure research, and who believed in the immense power of empiricism above all else. In reality, I was someone who had a rebellious creative streak, who appreciated research of all types but personally wanted to engage in dissemination of others' research, and who wanted to study topics that I believed to be outside the realm of "serious psychology."


But a number of years ago, I became sick of putting on the front. At that point I left the position - intending to never return - and when I chose to come back a year later, it was as a more authentic me.

Into classes that once felt "boilerplate" and that had irked me with their rigidity - such as Intro Psych - I started to infuse ME. For instance, into 101 I put a "Psych In Action" portion in every lecture, during which we discuss direct application of psychology research and theory to students' lives, and actively engage in reflection on ourselves and our lives. And when I was offered an upper-level developmental seminar, I went out on a limb and chose to focus our study on the development of meaning and purpose across the lifespan, topics I was pretty sure I shouldn't be discussing unless I was an erudite old man in the philosophy department or some weirdo pseudoscientific self-help guru.

Since I'm not on the tenure track, there were real risks involved in these decisions; any given year I can be not asked back. In other words, in order for me to make change, the fear of losing my income had to be outweighed by the fear of living a life which wasn't authentic and passionately lived. And right around the age of 30, that tipping point arrived.

At first my students seemed caught off guard by my choices - they were different than what they were used to seeing - but what everyone says about authenticity proved to be true:  when you're your genuine self, people become attracted to you and respect you, even if they disagree with precisely what you're doing, saying or believing.

And that leads me to now:  incredibly - and certainly in no way related to my efforts! - our new college President has created an initiative to infuse purposeful work across the curriculum, co-curricular activities, and student life, and I'm a happy member of the initiative's working group. My colleagues eagerly join in when I suggest a panel on the "meandering path" of life. I teach classes that I'm excited about and fully engaged in, even when they're "tried and true" courses like 101 that don't seem to have any room for personal spin. And, of course, I get to buy books that I'd be reading even if I didn't "have" to.


All this to say:  that impossible dream of creating a life you love and having your identity be inseparable - in a good way - from your work? It actually is possible. You "just" have to start from where you are, become clear about who you are, and begin to infuse bits of you into the elements of your work over which you have some control, however small those elements may be. It won't be an overnight change, but if you craft your work around your self bit by bit by bit, one day you'll wake up and realize that you're doing exactly what you are. Which is why I named my new site (still in design phase...) Working Self - it's all about the intersection of who you are and what you do.

This has been a ten year journey for me. And I certainly still have much journeying ahead. But it feels good to stop and appreciate how far I've come. And to relay how far you can come, too, if you make a mindful effort to do so.

So how about you? Are your work and your self aligned? If not, do you feel yourself moving in that direction? Or do you believe this isn't a worthwhile goal for any of us to pursue?

That's my building. Ridiculously gorgeous, isn't it? It's the main reason why, back in 2003, I took my teaching job rather than a position working with kids with autism. Shallow, huh? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was so happy to leave my teaching position that my friends threw a surprise party to celebrate (this was my chair). It's funny because looking back now, I can't see why I was so happy to leave. Just goes to show that it's not a particular job as much as your perspective on that job that actually matters.

And then I met Patrick Dempsey. Oh wait, that has nothing to do with this post. It just happened to have occurred the same month I left my teaching position so I ran across the pic while searching and figured it would pretty up the page a bit! I mean, how could he not pretty things up?

Who Are You and Why Does Your Work Matter?


Big questions, aren't they? Thankfully there's a super-quick, uber-helpful tool to prod your thinking on these very questions. Available for free! With no catches. (Say what?) I know, I was in disbelief myself. I just completed it as part of a class I'm taking with the wonderful Jenny Blake of Life After College and I couldn't wait to share it with all of you!

It's called the great I AM worksheet and it was created by Alexandra Franzen.

Snag it here, print it out, take 20 minutes and DO it! As in, NOW! (Hey, I'm letting you out of class super early - only 180 words?! From me?! - so you have the time!)

Alexandra herself says there's only one rule:  "Don't Overthink It!" You have no excuse - write fast and get 'er done. Your real work is waiting.

Can't wait to hear what you think - drop me your thoughts in the comment box below!

And let's say a big thanks to Alexandra by flocking over to follow her on Twitter. Twitter following says love.  (Hint, hint, if you're considering getting an apple for the CA101 teacher as the school year winds down...)