10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit


We face countless job opportunities throughout our lives, whether they be in the form of new positions, promotions, or side hustles. The trick to creating a life filled with meaningful work is knowing which opportunities to accept - and which to reject. During the past month, I've been mulling over an opportunity that, despite being a poor fit, was hard to let go. As I reflected on the (many) times I've said "yes" to opportunities that deserved a "no" - and then paid the price in the form of diminished well-being and less work fulfillment - I began to compile a "list to self" to help guide my future decisions.

When it was complete, I realized the list might be worth sharing. So here it is:  my 10 time-tested signs of a job opportunity that needs to be turned down.

1. Your first reaction was negative.

We know whether we want an opportunity within five seconds of hearing about it.

Did news of the opportunity feel like a punch in the gut or a lift toward the heavens? Did your mind scream, "oh no!" or a joyful "Are you kidding?! Me?!" Did you want to run away or run and tell your neighbors?

These snap judgments aren't throwaways; they're our real thoughts and feelings, as Malcolm Gladwell argued persuasively in Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Just because we can't put the reaction into words doesn't mean it's worthless. In face, this unspoken quality may mean the feedback is even more valuable.

2.  The opportunity feels heady.

The first thing I thought when I entered the gorgeous atrium where my prospective teaching job would be housed was, "Whoa, this is heady." I had the exact same reaction five years later when I walked into the marbled lobby of the publisher who I was considering contracting for.

In both cases I said "yes" to the opportunities.

In both cases I deeply regretted it a few months later.

Heady is just like the buzz of alcohol:  it wears off. Rather quickly.

The status or power or pay or physical setting may feel intoxicating. But when the real work begins, we're left with little more than a hangover.

3. Success will hinge on your less-developed abilities.

It's terrific to want to develop ourselves and take on "challenges." I'm all for that; we'd stagnate otherwise.

That said, success in a position must rest primarily upon our strengths in order for us to feel content and like the work is feasible.

In other words, it's fine to take an opportunity that will cultivate a number of our underdeveloped abilities, so long as the key ability is our ace in the hole. Choose otherwise and we're setting ourselves up for misery - and failure.

4. The opportunity may make you re-prioritize your values.

The best time to get in touch with our values is when life is calm and stable between opportunities.

Once an offer's on the table, all sense of values tend to go flying out the door.

That's because we humans tend to be awfully good at convincing ourselves that a promotion or job offer is great for us, whether due to fear, excitement, or people pleasing. "I don't really care about evenings with my husband that much," a friend once after she'd been offered a promotion that would require longer hours. This was the same person who, a month earlier, had been waxing poetic about the grounded feeling her hubby provided, and how much she needed that touchstone on a daily basis.

So the battle here is three-fold:

1) Getting to know our values - and their priority level - when no opportunities are on the table.


2) Being realistic about the ways in which a new opportunity may threaten those values.


2) Staying true to that prioritized value list, whatever the job cost may be.

5. Saying "yes" is solely about the paycheck.

Speaking of cost, often the expense of saying "no" to an opportunity is quite literal.

Yes, we all could use more money. We all could think of great ways to spend an extra few thousand or more. Some of us may even need the money to simply stay off of debt collectors' speed dial.

I get this. I honestly do. (In fact, I started this blog a year ago because I so deeply understood this point.)

That said, we need to be clear not only about our fiscal budget, but about our happiness budget. If the opportunity threatens to bankrupt our sense of well-being, it may not be worth the gained income.

In sum, I've turned down opportunities worth at least the cost of my college tuition. Making these decisions felt a lot like band-aid ripping:  painful in the moment, but then I was so glad they were gone.

6. Physical symptoms have appeared since the opportunity arose.

While considering the opportunity recently laid before me, the stomachaches that plagued my childhood suddenly reappeared, I began waking up at 4am unable to fall back asleep, and I emerged from meetings about the opportunity with headaches that felt eerily similar to concussions.

Granted, I may somaticize more than the bulk of the population - we INFs on the Myers-Briggs scale often do - but we all tend to experience some physical signs when we're going astray, however minor those symptoms may be.

Pay attention to them.

Think about it:  if we're feeling ill just thinking about saying "yes," imagine how we'll feel when we're actually doing the work.

7. It seems too good to be true.

Ah yes, the "there must be a catch" phenomenon.

What holds in life holds at work.

If the opportunity looks way too good and feels slightly unearned - e.g., a promotion well beyond what would be expected for this point in your career, a job whose high pay that doesn't add up to the low hourly requirement, a change that elevates you from managing no one to 300 people  - it may be time to move on.

Sure, some great-looking opportunities actually are. But have you gotten your Publisher's Clearinghouse check in the mail yet? Didn't think so.

8. "Everyone" says you "should" take it.

The cardinal rule of creating meaningful work:  beware of "everyone."

Collective tends to be too hung up on extrinsic rewards and status updates to be helpful.

The antidote:  1) identifying the people that get us on a deep level, and 2) only listening to them when we're in decision-making mode.

In fact, I find it helpful to not tell anyone outside my (very tiny) personal board of directors that I'm even considering an opportunity. If friends and family don't even know I'm making a decision, they don't have a chance to weigh in. Problem of hearing from "everyone" solved!

9. The opportunity came to you, not vice versa.

Some amazing opportunities simply fall into our laps. There is no denying that.

Some absolutely cruddy ones do, too.

One of my prospective coaching clients described the latter as "being derailed by opportunities."

The ratio of amazing to cruddy for opportunities that come to me is about 1:20.  The ratio of amazing to cruddy for opportunities that I actively seek out or create is about 1:2.

When opportunities have made their way to us, there's a larger chance that they aren't aligned with what we actually want and need out of life. Instead, they often represent what someone else wants and needs - that they think they can get through use of our talents and skills.

An honor? Yes.

Right for us? Absolutely not.

(Sarah Bareilles' King of Anything is a perfect fit here.)

My mom always warned, "Throughout your life, people are going to see your potential and want to use it to suit their own purposes." Mom knows best.

10. You won't be living your sense of purpose.

Speaking of purposes, if we are to stand any chance of knowing when to green light an opportunity versus when to deep-six one, we need to know what we're heading toward.

Sure "purpose" is no small thing, and it can feel like an overwhelming entity to know.

We'll be breaking purpose down in the weeks ahead, but for now what it boils down to is rather simple:  What makes you feel fired up? What makes you feel "well used"? What makes you feel like you're building a legacy of which you can be proud?

If the opportunity doesn't involve any or all of those things, then forget it.

A superior opportunity will eventually come along. Or, better yet, we'll create it for ourselves.

What did I miss? What would you add to the list, based on your experiences of choosing well...or poorly?!

Photo Credit: Daniel Kulinski

The Key to Meaningful Work: Your Honest Hour


If you want to find meaningful work, you need to know when your "Honest Hour" occurs. As we've mentioned in the past, work's only meaningful when it has genuine significance to ourselves.

In other words, it must be freely chosen. By you.

Which means that all those voices in your head - your mom making an off-hand comment about artists being unable to afford the clothes they sleep in? Your dad saying that the true value of a person lies in her ability to support herself? Your "friends" on Facebook trumpeting their latest status coup?

They have to go. Like, now.

The best way I've found to quiet the Voices is by taking advantage of your Honest Hour:  the brief moment each day when the Voices have duct tape across their mouths and you can finally - finally! - hear your inner melody.

How to Identify Your Honest Hour

The timing of the Honest Hour varies from person to person.

Mine starts at 6am. (It's a taskmaster, I tell you!) If I sleep in a bit, the Voices - including that faceless beast "everyone" - wake up and start screaming at me. Then I can't have a true thought to save my life.

On the contrary, many of my career coaching clients' honest hours occur right before falling asleep.

A few others enter it somewhere around our natural siesta time:  about 3pm or so.

Importantly, though, whenever the Honest Hour happens to fall, we must enter it naturally for it to be worth anything. Sure it's tempting to reach for alcohol or some other substance to make the Voices quiet down and our "truth" come out, but that kind of "truth" is just falsity layered upon falsity.

We want to hear the real you, not the buzzed you.

So how do you discover your Honest Hour? Here's the 3-step process I've developed over the years:

  1. Brainstorm your possible Honest Hours. Think of all the times when you might spill the contents of your deepest secrets to your best friend. Or, even better, to a relative stranger! In other words, when does your facade come off and your truth slip out? Write down all the possibilities you can think of. (Note:  you can "cheat" and use the three times I've found to be most common - immediately in the morning, right before falling asleep, and 3pm-ish - but be sure to wrack your brain to take your own idiosyncratic ways into account).
  2. Prioritize your brainstormed list. Which of the times that you've listed seems most likely to elicit honesty? Which comes next? And so on.
  3. Test one potential Honest Hour a day, using the following instructions:

    1. Sit down at the first Honest Hour you have listed. On top of a sheet of paper, write the Honest Hour you're attempting. Below it, write a response to the first prompt below. (Note:  the goal is to trick your rational mind into not engaging, so do NOT read all the prompts and then carefully choose one. Simply do them in order!)
    2. Let the words flow out as long as they will. Aim for at least a page long hand. And YES, long hand is key, as Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way fame would agree. The Voices lurk in electronic devices and get tempted by typing in any way, shape, or form. Once you've become practiced at shoving the Voices aside, you can return to the computer or tablet. For now, hand cramp it is!
    3. Here's the important test portion:  When a Voice appears - e.g., it says in response to something you've written "There's no way you could do that!" - make a little check mark above where it intruded. Then ignore the Voice and keep writing.
    4. Repeat this exercise every day at a different potential Honest Hour.
    5. After you've tried them all, compare both the length of  your responses AND how many checks appear on each page. The paper with the longest response and the least checks is the winner:  you've found your Honest Hour!

Rules for Entering the Honest Hour

Don't celebrate just yet, though. There's a bit more work to do.

In my experience, the Honest Hour tends to be a slippery little thing. If I don't enter it just right, I can't access it at all.

To top it off, many days it doesn't even last a full hour. Little stinker!

I take what I can get, though, and have found strategies to enter and preserve my Honest Hour.

The following are my personal rules. To develop your own, you'll need to summon up some good ol' trial and error (a lot of error, if you're anything like me!).

  1. Do not check email, social media or your phone before sitting down to honesty. Believe me, I've tested this theory about a hundred times. I wake up, think to myself, "I'll just quickly pop on email - I won't respond to anything, I'll just read them," and then find the Voices flooding my mind before I know what's happened. (I almost did it this morning, in fact!) Quieting the Voices takes a great deal of resolve. May the force be with you.
  2. Talk as little as possible before sitting down to honesty. My husband understands that I'm a mute in the morning. I can say "hi" and "how'd you sleep?" but I won't entertain questions about the day ahead, nor have any in-depth discussions. Anything that requires rational thought serves as a gong over the bed of the Voices. Don't ring it.
  3. Hide your to-do list well before entering your Honest Hour. I'm not being figurative here. Literally HIDE your to-do list. If you're anything like me, the mere sight of that monstrosity will set your rational mind ablaze. You'll soon be so hung up in "but I really need to [insert a task that seems important in the moment but actually isn't in relation to the meaning of your life]" that you won't have an ounce of honesty to spare.

How to Use Your Honest Hour

Given how recalcitrant the Honest Hour tends to be, is it really worth working so hard to find and preserve it?

In a word:  yes.

In two words:  totally yes.

In three words:  absolutely freaking yes.

I wouldn't have half the satisfying working life I do if not for my Honest Hour.

Because once we've found our Honest Hour, we can use it to sink our teeth into identifying and pursuing meaningful work.

It's the time to sit down and do introspective exercises (like the many that will be coming right here in the coming weeks!)

It's the time to dream up plans for next steps.

It's the time to trick ourselves into feeling courageous enough to take those steps.

The Honest Hour is where your truth lies. Get well acquainted with it. It's fabulous - even if it does fall at 6am!

Honest Hour Prompts

  • What would you be doing with your life if no one were watching?
  • Describe an ideal work day 10 years from now.
  • What work would you be doing if the emotion "fear" were alien to you?
  • When you die, what sorts of feelings and understandings do you want to have imparted to others through your work?
  • What's the most important work a person can do? Why?

I want to know if my 3-part strategy for finding an Honest Hour works for you...and what needs tweaking!

After you've tried the system out, please write a comment here, or email me at rebecca@workingself.com. I'll send an exclusive Working Self self-reflective worksheet to everyone who shares their experience - plus I may feature a response as a case study right here on the interweb (with your permission, of course!)

Photo Credit: charliebarker

Hiding From Our Life's Work Behind Our Careers


Is your career helping you do your life's work - or standing in the way? Steven Pressfield poses this question - among many others - in his book Turning Pro. He claims that many of us have "shadow careers":

"Sometimes, when we're terrified of embracing our true calling, we'll pursue a shadow career instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its  contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us." - Steven Pressfield

When I read that passage, my mind screamed YES! I'd never have been able to put it into words, but Pressfield's description matches something I've witnessed - and experienced - time and again.

The tricky thing about shadow careers is that they look productive. We can easily convince ourselves and others that we are doing something with our lives, that we are pursuing something important, that we are attempting to making a life worth living.

All the while, though, we know deep down that it's just a ruse. We're taking the easy path - even if the career itself is excruciatingly difficult.

For while we may be doing work that is meaningful to somebody, it's not actually meaningful to ourselves. And as we've talked about in the past, the "meaningful to the self" piece is what actually matters to our well-being.

My Shadow Career

I "get" shadow careers not only because I've seen countless career coaching clients and alumni in them, but because I jumped whole-heartedly into one myself.

I recklessly launched myself into a PhD program straight out of undergrad to create a sense of productivity...and to run from my true desires to build a creative, entrepreneurial life.

I was a stress addict at the time; stress made me physically ill and miserable, but I didn't know how to live without it. What better way to escape what I feared most - living a self-driven, inventive life I'd imagine - than by plunging headlong into my addiction?

I did exactly what Pressfield says:

"Sometimes the reason we choose these [shadow] careers (consciously or unconsciously) is to produce incapacity. Resistance is diabolical. It can harness our drive for greatness and our instinct for professionalism and yoke them, instead, to a shadow profession, whose demands will keep us from turning our energies toward their true course.

Sometimes it's easier to be a professional in a shadow career than it is to turn pro in our real calling." - Steven Pressfield

Time is of the Essence

The good news is that once we recognize our own attempts to hide from our life's work, we can start to make change. For me, that came on the day I broke down from the stress of a statistics final exam - and finally realized that I was sick of being stressed out about tasks and assignments I didn't care one iota about.

Luckily I was only 23 at the time.

I firmly believe that the twenties are when we can most easily make a change and set a healthy course for our lives, a claim Meg Jay has popularized recently.

Pressfield seems to agree, writing:

"The shadow life...is not benign. The longer we cleave to this life, the farther we drift from our true purpose, and the harder it becomes for us to rally the courage to go back." - Steven Pressfield

Hope is never lost, of course, but it typically takes twice as long to uncover the genuine desires of the fortysomethings I coach compared to the twentysomethings.

The younger we are, the less we've poured into our shadow careers and all the delusions that necessarily accompany it - the self-talk claiming, "maybe this is what I always wanted out of life," and "I might not love this work, but I could grow to love it, so I just need to keep giving it time" and, worst of all, "I was just an idealistic child when I wanted to do my dream job; now I'm an adult who needs to be serious about my work."

Make change before you've buried yourself so far beneath your shadow career deception that you can't manage your way to the sunlight, even if you thought to try.

How to Discard a Shadow Career

So if we need to make change, how can we do it?

Here's the advice from Turning Pro:

"If you're dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will point you toward your true calling." - Steven Pressfield

As examples of metaphors, Pressfield points to a person working on a Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because she's afraid of writing her own plays, or someone working in a support capacity for an innovator that he secretly wishes he could be himself.

In my life, my shadow career closely approximated my genuine desires to support human development through writing and one-on-one work. I was writing (research papers). I was working one-on-one (with students). That I wasn't actually writing anything creative - anything that was truly mine - or wasn't building a client base all my own? Small differences.

Except they weren't small. They were huge. Ginormous. Gargantuan.

They were the difference between feeling I was living my purpose and feeling like I was merely existing. The difference between flourishing and languishing. The difference between joy and suffering.

Getting clear on the impact we want to make on the world can help us find the metaphor in our shadow career, and then, bit by bit, one delusion at a time, we can break free from it.

Have you had a shadow career? If so, how did you break free?

(Note:  In the coming weeks, I'll be unveiling my strategies for uncovering your desired impact. I'm determined to help you make your shadow career a thing of the past - one component at a time!)

Photo credit: kevin dooley

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

You Don't Have to Be a Do-Gooder to Do Meaningful Work

Which of the following is more meaningful?

  1. A teaching job at an inner-city middle school.
  2. A real estate job in a well-off suburb.

Did you pick one?

Great. Then you're wrong. (Don't worry, I'm not this sadistic when I teach. Well, pretty much...)

The actual answer is hidden choice #3, the beaut we all remember from our days of multiple-choice agony:  "This question cannot be answered based on the information provided."

As much as I despise that answer choice, in this case it's true.

We can't determine which of these two jobs - or any set of jobs - is more "meaningful." Meaning is defined by the individual doing the work. Without insight into what a person's thinking, we have no more business judging it's "meaningfulness" than we do Kim Kardashian's decision to have kids with Kanye West (although, yea, she's cray-cray).

Worth versus Meaning

I've recently learned that some of my friends shy away from coming to this site. They say things like, "my work isn't that meaningful..." or "what I do doesn't really matter..."

While they may very well be using these excuses to hide their hatred of my writing (!), their comments nonetheless bring an important point to mind:  too often our society confuses meaningful work with worthwhile work.

I suspect this may be holding many of you back, too. It certainly used to be a huge stumbling block for me.

Sure, there may be some societal standards for what's "worthwhile" work. Perhaps we could agree on a rank order for how valuable jobs are to the greater good. In that case, #1 above is the clear winner out of the two.

What matters to our well-being, though - and, in turn, to how kind, productive, and engaged we are in life - is not the worth of the job, but how meaningful our work feels to us.

Perhaps an anecdote would be helpful here.

A Case Study in Valuing Worthiness Over Meaningfulness

A number of years ago I had a student who chose the aforementioned inner-city middle school position.

What a grand gesture of generosity, we say. What a stellar show of service. What a marvelous mark of magnanimity.

What a bum bid for burnout.

This student was not intrinsically motivated to teach. If you'd sat her down and asked her to get clear on her preferred skills, personality type, and her values, the resulting document would've read something like:  "Red flag! Not meant to be a teacher!"

This isn't to say that she didn't have the makings of a great teacher. Oh sure, she was sociable and warm and dedicated and driven. She sailed through the organization's interviews precisely because she put on the great front of what a successful teacher-to-be should be.

Yet this student hadn't chosen education as her field of academic study. She hadn't ever mentioned teaching in our countless advising meetings. Heck, she didn't even like it when I asked her and her peers to teach one another about various chapters of a book. This doesn't make her a "bad" person, no more than her dark hair does. It's just who she is.

Truth be told, she'd rather have been studying landscape architecture, changing the aesthetics of the world one gorgeous, resource-friendly courtyard at a time.

At this point you might argue, what's the harm in someone undertaking a noble effort, even if it's not driven by their core self?

To which I'd argue, the harm is that someone in that position will likely provide service very briefly and in ways that aren't what the recipients genuinely deserve. British proverb check here:  "Better untaught than ill taught."

This former student did try her best at her teaching job, as she had at every endeavor of her life to date, but by mid-year she confided that her "best" was about 60% of what she was probably capable. She just couldn't get herself to give any more.

Meanwhile she began suffering from endless colds, insomnia, and overwhelming fatigue. She felt adrift and directionless, and worried that if she couldn't make a go of this "meaningful job" (her words), what would she ever do of any value in her life?

That's when I said:  "You'll go and design landscapes, that's what."

She brushed me off at the time - silly, crazy professor - but after her two-year stint in the schools, she came to that very realization herself while drifting from one stopgap job to another.

In an email she wrote, "I'm coming to think it's better to do something that matters to me than something that matters to 'the world.' Maybe that's how I'll actually make a difference. As counter-intuitive as that sounds."

You Determine Your Work's Meaning

She was onto something:  as we defined in the past, purpose is about finding something that is meaningful to yourself and that extends beyond yourself.

That means that as long as you're not navel-gazing, any endeavor that has meaning to you will provide you with purpose.

Imagine how incredible our world would be if everyone were wandering around full of purpose and pride? Who cares what they'd actually be creating or producing (as long as it's not brutally detrimental, of course); the sheer energy of humanity taking on purposeful projects would form a greater good in and of itself.

Where that "meaningful to self" element comes from, we honestly don't know - perhaps early experiences, perhaps genetics, perhaps some other source entirely - but it doesn't matter. If you long to create terraced grounds that encourage conservation and cultural identity, so be it. Don't fight that longing. Embrace it.

And if you can't embrace it - if you're stuck in a path that you wouldn't necessarily have chosen but can't readily escape - the distinction between "value" and "meaning" means that you can still create meaning right where you are, one step at a time. Even the least "worthwhile" job can be a source of great purpose and meaning if you let it.

So if you've ever bowed your head in shame when reading articles on this site, or the myriad others that call for "meaningful work" and "meaningful careers," it's time to lift that chin up high. You belong here as much as the next guy.

When it comes down to it, meaningfulness is determined by you and you alone.

So get your meaningful work on already!

Now I want to hear from you:  Do you agree that meaningfulness is self-defined? Or do you think we can determine it as a society?

When the Dream Falls Apart


We always think that one day we'll be more than we currently are. Down the road I'll become a teacher. Or a CEO. Or a published writer. Or an anchor person.

After I figure out my path. After I get my degree. After I get some years of experience under my belt.

But what happens when we've crossed all the hurdles, reached the "one day," and realize it isn't anything we remotely desire?

I'm watching a loved one struggle with this question at this very moment, and it brings back ripples of remembrance of the time my dream fell apart.

The Fulfillment of a Longing

For nearly as long as I can remember, I dreamed of one day working from home full-time as a writer. I was the arrogant 10-year-old visiting my mom's company proclaiming, "I'll never work in an office. Never."

I had images of myself in sweatpants and a cruddy t-shirt, hunkered down in my house, scribbling the hours away, day after day.

What precisely I was writing in that scenario is as good a guess yours as it would've been mine. I had absolutely no idea. But if I could avoid pointy shoes, shrill ringing phones, and flourescent lights, I'd write about urinals for all I cared.

Fast forward twenty years:   A large publishing house approaches and asks me to draft a textbook in developmental psychology.

To be honest, this isn't much more exciting than writing about urinals. I try to be chipper, though, convincing myself that writing a textbook would be more thrilling than reading one (ha!).

The cash advances enable me to quit my teaching job and I begin working from home full-time, scribbling the hours away in my yoga pants and stained sweatshirts.

I live the dream.

And hate every minute of it.

Dream, Meet Reality

Before you go thinking that perhaps if I'd been writing something more glamorous - my novel! my heartfelt book on careers for twentysomethings! magazine articles! - my dream would have panned out, let me be clear:  what bothered me most were the circumstances, not the subject.

I missed seeing PEOPLE daily. My long-idolized publishing world turned out to be a petty, ill-motivated, poorly-organized place with which I had no interest in doing business. I actually <gasp!> wanted to wear non-workout clothes once in a while.

And those realizations made my long-held worldview come crashing down.

My immune system plummeted, sleep became a formidable foe, and irritability developed into my perpetual demeanor du jour.

It felt a whole lot like mourning, with a giant dollop of disorientation tossed in. The world wobbled around off-kilter and I couldn't find a horizon line to gain a hint of perspective.

If what I always wanted wasn't what I actually wanted, then what in my life held true?

How to Deal with a Dream Disemboweled

Forget a dream deferred, when we've actually reached what we'd hoped for and realize it's not at all what we'd imagined, it's more a unicorn disemboweled than a raisin in the sun.

This may be the very reason we routinely put barriers in our own way - oh, I can't pursue a social work degree right now, I have so many hours of Homeland to catch up on... We fear that if our dream is allowed to face the dry wind of reality, it may wither and crack, more heap of sand than sand castle.

Chances are, that's exactly what will happen. Nothing can ever match the beauty in our minds.

The rub is that to get to doing truly meaningful work, we have to go through the disemboweling experience first.

So how do we cope?

The only answer I can assemble comes from thinking back on my dreadful full-time writing days and asking myself what i wanted to hear, what I wanted to know. If I had to boil it all down, the desired words would've gone something like this:

You are courageous beyond belief to not only formulate a dream, but to then pursue it, and then live it. You are even more courageous to stand in the full light of the knowledge that this dreamed-for life is not one you actually want, and to feel naked in the awareness that you have no clue what hopes and goals to move toward next.

Allow yourself to stay where you are for a time. It's so rare a moment when we're not pining or avoiding or striving or maintaining. Just be there, in your disoriented space. Learn what it feels like to break free of the "what's the next thing" mentality of our society.

Then, when the future path has become a blank canvas that you don't feel obligated to fill, then you can begin to imagine anew. This time it will be different; your early imaginings may feel jaded or cynical or disillusioned. You may mourn afresh the wide-eyed view you once had. That's OK; mourn it.

Eventually you'll be able to embrace what you've gained.  You'll realize that your new vision is grounded in what you always wanted:  genuine knowledge of who you are, the circumstances you can and cannot stand, and the impact you need to have on a daily basis to feel well used.

Instead of dreaming, you'll begin building. You'll be thankful for all you lost. And thankful for all you gained.

Photo credit: Bruce Stokes

"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)

The Hidden Barrier: Fear of Success


Admit to someone that you have a fear of failure and they nod their head in empathy. Speak of your fear of success, though, and you usually get a puzzled expression in return. It's a reaction I honestly don’t understand for when I look around - and within – me, I see fear of success everywhere.

It’s in the student who shows every sign of being a gifted musician yet chooses biology as his major.

It’s in the employee who hangs back in the workplace, convinced he's too inexperienced/busy/uncreative/overqualified/tired/out-of-the-loop to contribute more.

It's in the person who hides behind cynicism and sarcasm, drowning in thoughts like "work is just a paycheck" and "the life I'd once imagined for myself was a kid's fantasy."

It’s in the individual who dreams of having tens of thousands of people experience her writing who, after 5,000 people read one of her heartfelt articles, stops writing altogether.

That last one? That would be me.

My Personal Retreat From Desired Achievement

I’ve disappeared for the past few weeks, ever since my first publication in elephant journal not only hit my lofty goal of 1500 views but tripled it. Thankfully my vanishing act conveniently coincided with the holiday season and hopefully went unnoticed. (See what I did there? <wink> I’m wicked savvy at masking my fear of success.)

There's a back story to my predictable retreat from (rather small yet large to me) exposure:  When I started the blog that morphed into this website one year ago today (today!), I set it to “private” for the first three weeks. I couldn’t handle the idea of anyone reading my thoughts.

Once I finally “released” the blog to public status, I nearly had a coronary when my stats revealed that three people had visited – on a day that I hadn’t stopped by myself (and thus couldn’t provide myself with comforting self-delusions about my visits counting).

That was me a year ago. Utterly scared that if I put my heart’s work out there, it might actually <gasp> be well received.

Which is a bit silly because in my days writing as the Child Development Contributing Writer for About.com I got tens of thousands of hits on my articles every single month. That was “success,” wasn’t it? And I withstood that without a blink.

Yet the About.com experience felt removed from me. They weren’t “my” thoughts laid out in pixels. They weren’t “my” passions laid bare. They didn’t represent “my” dream being buoyed or crushed.

Those articles were assignments, plain and simple.

And herein lies the telltale characteristic of fear of success, a feature that masks its existence from its very owner:  the closer an activity lies to your core desires, the greater your likelihood of stepping back when even a whiff of success comes your way. 

Which means we can accept many accomplishments, making it seem to ourselves and to others like we have no fear of success.

All As? No problem. A nationally competitive graduate fellowship? No sweat. Glowing teaching evaluations? Pshaw.

But put my genuine words out there – words plucked from the ephemeral fog I created in the still, private mornings during the five years I journaled and wrote never-submitted essays and crafted a book proposal that only graced the pupils of select agents’ eyes? Then I back down. Full force.

So today I’m coming out and saying it:  doing well at the endeavor I care about most scares me five hundred times more than doing poorly.

And I believe I’m not alone.

Rare is the person who can look the full glare of desired accomplishment in the face and not flinch.

Why We Fear Success

There should be no shame in this admittance (yet there is…) for when you lay out the reasons for a fear of success, it’s enough to make someone (me…) say, “hey, who wouldn’t be afraid?!”

  • Anxiety and excitement feel physiologically similar, so many of us avoid the excited feeling of success. Psychologist Susanne Babbel claims this may be particularly true for people who have endured traumas. I’d suggest, though, that anyone who is tuned into their bodily reactions and internal states may become overwhelmed by the similarity, which puts introverts at risk.
  • We’re afraid of getting disappointed, which is related to the vulnerability issue of “foreboding joy” about which I recently wrote.
  • We’re privately uncomfortable with making others feel “lesser than.” We all claim we want to be king of the mountain, but many of us only want that if it means there's no one beneath us in the valley. Judith Shervan believes the “fear of being fabulous” comes from a commandment “to not break out beyond where you came from, to not really leave home.” She asserts that we have all been subjected to this, in some way, shape or form. I love the quotation by Marianne Williamson on this topic, which Nelson Mandela chose for his inaugural speech. It begins:  “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
  • We secretly believe we don’t deserve success. The imposter syndrome is in full effect for many of us. Check out this dusty article from the Working Self vault for more on the topic.
  • We fear the flipside of success. In one of the few times that I shared my fear of success aloud, I told the listening friend that I feared that I would be swept to the top of a wave – and then be left to fall down its face. It's a valid fear:  artists and musicians often do experience the sophomore slump. The self-consciousness that comes with accomplishment blocks attempts at pure creation, resulting in work that is tepid, uninspired, and “safe.” A la countless second albums. 
  • We don’t want to be criticized. When did I know that this website was getting into a good number of people’s hands? When I received my first negative comment. (Given that there aren’t too many negative comments to be found on this site, you know that “a good number of people’s hands” still means “few relative to other websites.”) It’s generally true that the more eyes, the greater the possibility for criticism. Thus fear of success links closely with fear of failure, making it difficult to tease the two apart.
  • We don’t want to feel exposed. There is no more naked feeling than saying, “Hey world, this is what I genuinely care about. This is what I truly want. This is what I'd sacrifice most anything to have.” It’s basically announcing, “Here’s the A-prime, this-can-be-my-undoing, defenseless spot on my body! And I’m not even going to attempt to protect it!” Yikes. Easier to hide behind cynicism, skepticism, and/or a self-deceiving veneer of “I have no clue what I want” than do this. Note I said easier. Not better.

How We Combat Fear of Success

With all that working against us, what can we do?

We can battle fear of success by doing what we’re doing right here:  naming it, calling it out, recognizing it in ourselves.

For when fear of success remains hidden to ourselves, it acts as plexiglas barrier between us and the work we need to be doing.

And then, once spoken, we march on.

We accept Williamson’s pronouncement:  “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.”

We admit our genuine desires aloud and find ways of dealing with the ripple (or crush) of anxiety that follows.

We ride the wave of achievement even though we know it will inevitability buck us at the end.

We create as if no one is watching.

We build, in sum, the very life we’re afraid of living. Because we know, deep down, that a life lived in fear trumps a life lived in denial.

Photo credit: ecstaticist

Do You Allow Yourself to Experience Joy in Its Full Force?


When was the last time you fully experienced joy? I don't mean a happy moment or a day of ready smiles or even a knee-slapping evening with friends.

I'm talking the intense, clarifying, vulnerable experience of joy. The emotion that, in order to be experienced in its fullest, requires us to be at our most emotionally mature.

As sociologist Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly, "Having spent several years studying what it means to feel joyful, I'd argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel."

Yet if we want to live a rich life - and fully pursue meaningful work - we must learn to experience joy. In all its powerful, overwhelming, humbling force.

Joy versus Pleasure

First, we must distinguish between the easy emotion of pleasure and the difficult emotion of joy, which are too often used interchangeably.

"A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road - you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience."  - author Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books

Smith goes on to note that joy is a far more complex emotion than pleasure, and may even involve some negative components, including terror, pain and delight.

Joy, as far as I can tell, is the full acceptance of the emotion of the present moment, without making demands about exactly what that emotional moment entails.

This matches Eckhart Tolle's take on joy versus pleasure:

"Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within." - Eckhart Tolle

In other words, pleasure comes to us by chance, but joy comes to us by choice.

Why Joy Scares Us

This choice, however, is not easy to make.

According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, joy involves great "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure."

To guard against this sense of vulnerability, she found that many of us experience "foreboding joy," or planning for disaster. About 80% of the people she interviewed had an experience of simultaneously experiencing great joy and being flooded with terrible images of that moment being taken away.

Brown explains foreboding joy this way:

"We're trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don't want to be blindsided by hurt. We don't want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment."

She goes on to describe the source of foreboding joy:

"Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We're afraid that the feeling of joy won't last, or that there won't be enough, or that the transition to disappointment will be too difficult. We've learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?"

We must learn to get past this, both for the sake of our lives as a whole and for the sort of work we strive to create on this site.

Why Accepting Joy is Key to Meaningful Work

More often than not, meaningful work comes along with a relatively low paycheck. As a result, the rewards gained from meaningful work are intangible and not subject to traditional calculations.

One of the most powerful of those rewards is joy.

Brene Brown found that one of the times people feel most vulnerable and experience foreboding joy at its highest is when they are actively loving their jobs.

This makes sense since there's little more temporary in life than work. The job that provides us purpose and identity can be stripped from us in an instant due to economic downturns, a fickle boss, or other factors beyond our control.

Yet we have no choice but to embrace this reality:  if we don't allow ourselves to experience joy in its full force, we're subjected to all the challenges of the meaningful work without its most powerful rewards, making us prime candidates for burnout.

How sad to move on from the job or field not because it was a poor fit, but because we didn't let the experience get under our skin.

How to Accept Joy in Its Full Force

So what can we do to learn to accept joy?

According to Brown, gratitude is the great "antidote to foreboding joy."

"If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there's enough and that we're enough." - Brene Brown

Some of her suggestions for practicing gratitude include:

  • Keeping a gratitude journal.
  • Starting a gratitude jar.
  • Recognizing joy in the small, ordinary moments, where joy tends to be housed.
  • Literally saying to yourself, as Brown does, "vulnerability, vulnerability" when you feel foreboding joy strike. Then forcing yourself to think, "I'm grateful for..." and filling in the blank genuinely.
  • Recognizing and accepting that we can never prepare for loss and it's a waste of time, effort, and good moments to do so.

The quotation that struck me the most from the entirety of Brown's Daring Greatly spoke to that last point:

"I used to think that the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn't happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn't prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared that I didn't fully enjoy."

Let that not be us. This holiday season, lean into your joy. There's no better time to start embracing the good things in life and work than when the world is celebrating alongside us.

Do you know someone who has difficulty accepting joy in their lives? Then please pass this article along.


Now I want to hear from you:  How do you allow yourself to experience joy in its full force? Do you have any gratitude practices that help with this process?


Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography

Forget the Pursuit of Happiness!


Happiness is overrated. We think rushing around to find the next pleasurable hit is a good plan...until the hits stop coming, or don't prove to be big enough.

So what's the alternative? Meaning, of course.

But, to be honest with you, a meaningful life can feel pretty darn dismal at times. Without the pleasure hits, we might be building a fulfilling legacy, but feeling crummy in the moment!

What to do?

Find out in my guest post on elephant journal:  Meaningful Life or Happy Life? Take Your Pick!

This is my first BIG guest post - and I need your help to make it a success. Please swarm over there to read, COMMENT and share!

(PS - If we hit 1500 views, we get on the "popular lately" section of the site, increasing the odds of a like-minded person meandering over here, to our corner of the web, enriching all of our lives. Can we make it happen?!) [UPDATE: We did it - and within 24 hours, no less! Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting!]

Check out the article!



Should I Quit My Job? The Lowdown on Three Types of Jobs - Including Toxic Ones


With a new year approaching, many of us get to thinking that it may be time to move on to a different job. Whether it's time to quit depends on the type of job you're in - and how much that job's affecting your mood and behavior.

The Three Types of Jobs

Start by determining what type of job you hold, then pop down to "Next Steps" to learn what to do in your situation.

1.  The "It Pays the Bills" Job

This job - which might be called a stop gap or even a drudge job - is one for which you don't hold out any high hopes of fulfillment or long-term potential. It's purpose is simply to supply the cash while you balance other demands (e.g., school or family life) or try to secure a job in the field of your dreams.

2.  The "Unfulfilling Career Ladder" Job

This is a job that you'd hoped would set your heart on fire. It's in your field of choice, has many aspects that are a good fit for you, and has at least some potential of being "the one." When it comes right down to it, though, the job leaves you feeling...blah.

Importantly, this sort of job isn't dragging you down, it's simply not boosting you up.

3.  The Toxic Job

Now THIS is the job you need to quit. And soon. This job type is so important (and common...) that we'll spend the bulk of today's post discussing it.

Jobs in categories 1 or 2 can turn into a toxic job, sometimes with little warning. The toxicity of a job is just like the toxicity of substances – you may be able to take it until it reaches a critical level, and then it simply takes you down.

Signs of a Toxic Job

Before we dig into the signs of a toxic job, an important note:  the following are not the aspects of a job that make it toxic. That actually varies from person to person depending on preferences and personality. (What seems like a yelling, abusive boss to one person feels like a great motivator to another!)

Instead these are symptoms that you may start to display while in a toxic job:

1.  Never smiling at work.  Most of us don't spend our entire days smiling. That would just be weird. (!) That said, you don't want to be like my career coaching client who said, "Someone came in my office and told a funny story and when I smiled, it felt strange. Like I hadn't used those muscles in so long I couldn't remember how to make them work." Ugh.

2. The belief that something is wrong with you for feeling miserable in your organization or field. This one breaks my heart. If your work environment or career path doesn't match your preferred skills, interests or values, that doesn't mean YOU are the problem. It means you and the work don't fit. Period. When your work is changing your thoughts about yourself and your sense of esteem, it's an ugly, ugly sign.

3. Irritability. You've become the snappiest person you know, launching into bitter tirades at the drop of a Kardashian marriage, especially when you're home. This doesn't mean your home life is the problem, it's simply "safer" to show your anger to your loved ones than to the people who can have you fired, so that's where the irritability tends to make its great display.

4. Hopelessness about future work. The most common sentiment I hear my clients in toxic jobs express is, “I don't know if there's any job out there worth doing. I think I'm doomed to be miserable at work forever." This is a depressive mindset, thinking that negative things going on now will continue forever. Once you breathe the clean air of a healthy work environment (even vicariously through informational interviewing), your thoughts will begin to change. Trust me.

5. Lack of motivation/energy at the end of each and every day (except maybe Fridays). We all have exhausting days. We all have days we'd rather not be working at all. But when those once-in-a-while days become your norm, it's a pretty sure sign you're in a toxic job. You should want to do more than watch TV and eat takeout all evening every evening. That is not living.

6. Sleep disturbances. When your sleep starts to change, job toxicity is nearing a breaking point. You might find yourself being unable to fall asleep, waking up for long periods of time in the middle of the night and/or waking up too early every morning. For instance, my husband began waking up at 4am every single day in the three months after his job turned from unfulfilling to toxic.  He said he wasn't thinking about anything in particular (not even work) but couldn't fall back asleep. Once we made the decision that it was time for him to find a new job, voila, he started sleeping normally again. And - bonus - he hadn't even quit yet; the decision to leave was enough to cause the change.

7. You experience repeated “Sunday night hangovers" - a sense of dread that descends as the work week creeps closer, affecting your behavior and mood. As business consultant Ellen Mastros told US News and World Report, we all tend to feel sad as Monday approaches, but getting angry, irritable, or having physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches isn't OK. Not sure if you experience these hangovers? Ask the people who live with you. Believe me, they'll know.

Next Steps

Now here's what I'd suggest you do, depending on your job type:

If you're in a "It Pays the Bills" Job, you'll know when it's time to quit:  when your path to meaningful work finally becomes available. (PS - if you're not actively working toward making that a reality, it's time. "It Pays the Bills" Jobs are notorious for turning toxic.)

If you're in an "Unfulfilling Career Ladder" Job, before you think about quitting, make a concerted effort to employ some concrete job crafting strategies, such as those covered in my free eBook. Put a time limit on how long you'll give the strategies a shot before reassessing quitting - maybe 6 months or a year - and be proactive during that entire time period. This isn't about settling but about building. Believe me, the teaching job I've now held for a decade went from bland to blissful because I took these very steps.

Finally, if you see one or two of the signs of a Toxic Job, it's time to formulate your exit plan ASAP; you only have months or possibly weeks until the toxicity overwhelms you and makes you suddenly scream "I quit!" in the middle of a team meeting, burning boku bridges in the process. (Most of my coaching clients wait until they're at this point-of-no-return before contacting me...not the best move.)

How do you make a plan to quit smartly? By building an emergency fund, doing introspective work to determine your next best move, and using networking to lay the groundwork for the change ahead.

Then when the toxicity eventually scalds you to your core, you'll be ready, not desperate.

Know someone who is thinking about quitting? Please pass this article along to him or her.

Now I want to hear from you:  What are your experiences with quitting? Were you in a toxic job, or in one of the other two types? What was the final straw that made you leave?

Photo Credit: quinn.anya

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

The Best Time to Show Gratitude is In Our 20s and 30s


What if I told you we have a super power in our 20s and early 30s? What if you learned that this power is now at its peak and will recede with each passing decade?

What if you discovered that because of this power, we can attain one of our deepest-held goals in the here and now?

I'd imagine you'd want to identify and harness that power...or at least I'd hope you would!

So here's the big reveal:  Our super power is <drum roll please> gratitude.

And if we don't use that awesome super power now, we may regret the oversight later.

Who to Thank

First, the big mistake:  showing gratitude only to our favorites. Favorite coach. Favorite teacher. Favorite wacky librarian who strongly resembled Ms. Frizzle.

Good start.

But only a start.

What about that teacher who stayed long after school to help you master long division, or that coach who invited you over his house for dinners, or that mentor who came in early – leaving his young children behind – to spend time prepping you for your big meeting? These people all went beyond their job duties to invest in you.

They may not emerge in your mind as your “favorite” for myriad reasons – personality disconnects, the passage of time, a bad parting. But does that make their investment any less significant or worthy of appreciation?

Although someone may not be your favorite influencer, you may be their favorite investment.

Don't they deserve some credit? <Click to share this thought>

How to Show Gratitude

Which begs the question, how to give said credit.

After teaching college for ten years, I can tell you definitively how not to demonstrate gratitude:  By sending an email filled with effusive praise...followed by the request for a favor (e.g., a reference).

Um, no.

That's called manipulation, not gratitude.

Yet 95% of the "thank you notes" I receive take this exact form. Not because millennials are entitled or narcissistic or any such generational sputum. Because they're human - busy and forgetful. Every generation is guilty of the same.

It's one thing if you've previously demonstrated gratitude and THEN come back months or years later asking for assistance. Influencers are more than happy to oblige. But don't go radio silent for five years and then show up all full of "appreciation" because you need something.

On the positive side, here is the best way to demonstrate appreciation:  through as much "deed over word" as you can muster.

A non-requesting note is terrific. An in-person visit is even better. An invitation to a special event - graduation party, wedding, baby shower - is best yet.

Wait? Infuencers want to be invited to gift-bearing events? Isn't that like requesting a favor?

Yes, they do, and no, it's not.

Invitations are gifts in themselves. It's hard to remember this during the 20s and early 30s, when invitations are so abundant it feels like money is being sucked straight out of our pockets into silver-plated gifts and tacky outfits.

This period of abundance will end, though. And soon. Milestone, made-to-party events are a developmental patch that waxes then wanes, much like sleepover parties and all-nighters and binge-drink-a-thons.

In other words, it's likely your influencers' mailboxes aren't exactly overflowing with invitations.

Besides, even if your influencers happen to be the most popular people on the planet, if they took the time to invest in you, you are who they want to celebrate.

Which is exactly why invitations are the ultimate form of gratitude. Invitations aren't burdens, doled out to poor suckers who feel obligated to buy something for you. They are offers to share in your joy. They're a note saying, "You mean enough to me that I want you there when I celebrate a milestone in my life."

This is exactly what influencers want most:  to see you thrive in life. Seeing you doing well is the great pay off on their investment.

What does it cost you, really?

(Psst - If you're worried about the concrete financial cost - which I hope you're not... - influencers tend to be in a much better financial position than your gaggle of friends. Put bluntly: you'll likely come out ahead. Far ahead.)

Gratitude Enables You to Make a Difference...Now

Not only does showing gratitude not cost you too much, it actually pays you:  saying thanks enables you to meet one of your deepest-held goals. In the here and now.

That goal is "making a difference," cited in study after study as millennials' deep desire.

To be clear:  we influencers don't take our jobs expecting a “thank you." Nor do we imagine we’ll ever need a “thank you” to keep us going.

Yet as reality settles in and we start to feel like we’re reaching about 1% of the population with which we work, it's easy to lose faith in our worldview.

Especially when the 1% don’t seem to recognize our efforts, either.

This is to say, by contacting an influencer and making a genuine gesture of appreciation, you don’t know what crisis of confidence you may be averting. You don’t know whether you might be contacting that influencer at the precise right moment to make them say, “oh thank goodness, I am doing something. This is just what I needed right now.”

Yours may be the letter or visit or invitation that enables the teacher/coach/mentor to buck up and go on to influence countless others.

As a result, in your act of gratitude, you become an influencer all your own, creating ripples that extend far beyond the one person you actively appreciated.

On an even larger scale, if you give away what you hope to one day receive, you contribute to a culture that provides ongoing fuel for investments in others.

If you hope for recognition in your future, you have to be willing to give it in your present. <Click to Tweet>

You Don't Have Forever

By now you may be thinking, "This is all well and good, but I'm so busy right now. When life calms down, I'll get around to showing gratitude."

First:  HA! Life calms down! HA! Keep dreaming.

Secondly:  Your influencers may not be around by the time you remember to thank them.

Not only can the random events of life snatch your influencers away - like my husband's beloved grade school principal who died not long ago in a car accident on his way to work - but odds of mortality increase with age. Of course.

And let's face it:  your grade school influencers? They're getting up there now. Because (shh...), you're not exactly a spring chicken yourself any more.

Case in point:  I had the opportunity to invite my grade school talented-and-gifted teacher to my college graduation, not only to attend, but to hear me give a brief speech about her work and to receive an award.

That opportunity reconnected us after a decade of silence. We then began corresponding with hand-written notes, visiting occasionally, and sharing my wedding day together.

She has since died of Alzheimer’s.

What at the time felt like an act of recognition for her now feels like an amazing gift to myself. It’s a moment I could not regain if I’d taken longer to recognize her influence on me.

Gratitude is a A Gift To Ourselves

Which leads to my final point:  if you don't want to show gratitude for the sake of others, then at least demonstrate it for the sake of yourself.

As the uber-viral Soul Pancake video on gratitude demonstrates well, showing appreciation makes our lives happier, more satisfying and more meaningful. Sharing appreciation also reduces anxiety and depression, helps us sleep better, makes us more resilient, and strengthens relationships.

In other words, giving thanks provides the very feelings we search long and hard for on this site.

I can attest to this first hand. While I no longer can extend an invitation to my influencers - my milestone events have come and gone - I still reap the rewards of having done so:  Ever since she was a baby, my three-year-old daughter has whiled away hours playing with the albums of casual photos taken at our wedding.  In the past few months she has taken to coming up to me with the albums and asking, “who’s that?” Through this unplanned activity, I’ve had the occasion to tell her about my deceased grade school teacher, my now-retired physics professor, and my influential psychology professor.

Because of my demonstration of gratitude, I've gotten to share with my child the traits I admire most and concrete examples of lives that make a difference.

By looking at the wedding albums, my daughter is learning about giving and getting, about meaning and purpose, about influence and appreciation.

About, in short, all the intense, life-enriching emotions that make this life worth living.

And none of it would be possible if I'd forgotten to show gratitude while in my 20s.

Now I want to hear from you:  What influencer are you going to reach out to...today?! And whose investment have you overlooked in our society's focus on "favorites"?

Photo Credit: Jeff S. PhotoArt

The Most Important Professional Decision You Need to Make Is Personal


There you are, making decisions about what'll bring you a long, deeply fulfilling, I-made-a-difference-in-this-world-goshdarnit sort of career. You think you should be considering your interests your "passions," your personality, your values.

And, sure, all of that is good and helpful and "proper."

None of it will matter, though, if you fail to make the most important professional decision of all:  who you choose to be your spouse.

In honor of the twenty-year anniversary of dating my husband (fact check:  I'm not ancient - we were simply high school sweethearts!), here's the down and dirty on why the personal determines the professional - and how to make the best choice yourself, whenever the time comes.

Meaningful Work Is High-Powered

Most of the articles you find about spousal support for one's career focus on "high-powered careers."

Read:  the people at the top of the corporate ladder, making boku bucks with a three-letter acronym adhered to the butt of their names.

I contend, however, that pursuing personally meaningful work demands the same level of drive and commitment as "high-powered" careers. Finding such work requires a full immersion of self, a healthy lack of work-life boundaries, and the willingness to make sacrifices - financial, personal, familial.

If the pursuit of meaningful work were easy, more than 20% of us would've found it.

There's simply no way to keep this sort of gig flying without a supportive spouse, as research attests:

"Support from a spouse is paramount to steering a successful career and personal life, according to a recent survey of 270 successful women by Kathy Korman Frey, a faculty member at the George Washington School of Business Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. In response to the question, “How do you do it?” nearly half of the women surveyed said: 'support from my spouse or life-partner.'" - Wharton Business School article

Does This Apply Only to Women?

The previous quote begs the question of whether spousal choice is as important for men's careers as it is for women's.

I want to say:  Hell yes! I really want to say that.

I can't, though. The fact remains that women still take on more of the household work than men do, even when both are fully employed outside the home.

That's why Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg devotes an entire chapter to the topic of getting one's husband to be helpful ("Make Your Partner A Real Partner") in her excellent book Lean In, which I reviewed in the past. As Sandberg points out, only 9% of dual-earned families report splitting housework, child care, and breadwinning equally.

That said, I have seen spousal choice negatively affect people of both sexes, especially when men feel pressured to bring home hefty paychecks at the expense of fulfillment and sense of purpose.

Signs of a "Good" Decision

Based on many articles on the topic, here's are the signs I've distilled of making a "good" spousal choice - signs you've found someone who will support you as you pursue the challenging, but highly worthwhile, goal of finding meaningful work:

  • Doesn't hold rigid gender stereotypes. 
    • For example:  Is willing to have conversations about all sorts of work-life arrangements, including women staying home, dual-earner, and men staying home. Does not cringe or balk during these conversations.
    • [Note: A NYTimes article reports on a study that found that "traditional views of gender identity, particularly the view that the right and proper role of the husband is to make more money than the wife, are affecting choices of whom to marry, how much to work, and even whether to stay married."]
  • Isn't wedded to a high standard of living.
    • For example:  Says something like, "As long as we're together, I don't care where we live or what we eat." And lives those words (within reason, of course!).
  • Doesn't use income as a yardstick for "important/worthwhile work."
    • For example:  Actively admires people who live according to a set of values, regardless of their earnings.
  • Readily sees everything you could be, if only circumstances allowed you to be it.
    • For example:  Says something like, "I'd love to help you figure out how you can cut down your job so you can do the writing you've always been talking about."
  • Sees partnership as a team effort, not as two individuals competing or besting one another.
    • For example:  Doesn't even put your accomplishments or income in the same sentence as his own. The comparisons simply don't exist.
  • Has experience with and willingness to compromise.
    • For example:  You two can pick out a movie on any given night without getting into a brawl - even when you want to watch polar-opposite sorts of flicks.
  • Takes deep personal pride in your accomplishments, without making you feel pressured to accomplish.
    • For example:  You're at a party and you overhear your partner sharing your latest fulfilling milestone while beaming. Does not mention this to you later.
  • Believes in your capabilities, both at work and at home.
    • For example:  When you divide duties, doesn't come behind you and re-do them "correctly" after you're done. As Sheryl Sandberg writes, ”Anyone who wants her mate to be a true partner must treat him as an equal – and equally capable – partner.”

Next Steps

Do the signs above seem like a tall order?


Yet such partners do exist. I snagged one, and I know many other men and women who have, too.

In my opinion, the best way to find someone supportive is to BE someone supportive. We attract what we are.

Plus, the odds are increasingly in your favor. Studies show that men currently graduating from college are more egalitarian than in past decades, while women are more realistic about "having it all." As a result:

“It’s increasingly possible to carefully, consciously and deliberately choose roles that fit our values. [Young people] are seeing more choice, more freedom and more realistic ways of pursuing lives that fit with the roles they want to fill in society.” - Stewart Friedman, Director of Wharton Business School's Work-Life Integration Project

So set your sights on meaningful work, pick a partner who will help you reach for such heights, and don't stop striving until you get there.

Photo Credit: tommie m

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.

Why Are You Listening to These People?


I've finally identified the common theme running through the lives of my career-conflicted students and coaching clients: They listen to the wrong people.

Who are these "wrong advice"-givers?

Anyone leading a life we don't want to lead ourselves.

Think about it:  why would we listen to these people? Their "you should" and "I would" and "I did"'s are probably not going to lead to a life that's a good fit for us. They're going to lead to a life that's a good fit for them.

To be clear, these advice-givers are not providing "bad advice."

They're benevolently doling out "wrong advice" - advice that is not right for you. Taking "wrong advice" on board can prove detrimental to your psychological health and sense of motivation.

This post isn't about disrespecting people's choices. Nor is it about judging their lives. Whatever works for them, I always say (or doesn't work, yet they're willing to accept...).

It is about comparing the fit between an advice-giver's life and your values, preferred skills, and "flow" activities. If the fit is poor, why the heck are you listening to these people?

My Personal Foray Into Accepting the Wrong Advice

I spent years actively soliciting career advice from tenured and tenure-track professors when I knew I wasn't made to fit into a tenured career.

These professors were nice people, they had good lives (secure, financially rewarding, intellectually engaging), and I respected them as individuals. Why not take their advice on board?

Because it nearly was my undoing.

When I continually accepted the well-meaning advice of people living a life that didn't fit me, I ended up feeling like the oddball.

I constantly had thoughts like:

What the heck is wrong with me?

I should just buck up and find a way to make this path work.

If this life worked for them yet I'm feeling unfulfilled by it, I must be a real failure.

If they're happy in this path and I'm not, I must be doomed to never be happy.

Sound familiar?

Why "Wrong Advice" Happens

As I mentioned, "wrong advice"-givers are not malicious, by and large. Not by a long shot.

Instead, they give into human frailty. They're insecure about their life choices, so they want others to follow their paths to confirm that their lifestyle is "worthwhile."

I can see your "but" coming:  yes, some advice-givers are able to drag themselves out of the way and truly hear you and your needs and your desires.

Don't kid yourself, though:  these people are rare.

I know we want to believe this of people. We want to think people are giving advice and guidance that's in our best interest.

The problem is that what people think is in your best interest often doesn't include a whole lot of "you" in the equation. It's based on personal, biased experience; on what they read or presume (sometimes falsely) about the job outlook for certain fields; on bitter retributions against wrongs that plagued their lives.

Where the heck are you in any of this?

How to Deal With "Wrong Advice"

  1. Set up a mental sieve. Before accepting the advice, opinions or judgment of anyone - ANYone - take a look at where they're coming from. If they're using "you"-centered language (e.g., "you seem to...", "I'm hearing you say..." or "it sounds like you..."), you're good. If they're leading a life you'd love to lead and are using "I"-centered language, you're good. Any other situation? It should get stuck in your "wrong advice" sieve and never be allowed to approach your logical and emotional cores. Note:  I'm not suggesting you be confrontational and not listen to the advice. You can listen attentively, say, "I appreciate you taking the time to tell me your thoughts," and then go and live your life with the "wrong advice" firmly snared in the sieve...not your heart.
  2. Find people who are living a life that would fit you well. As we just mentioned, it's fine to hear the "I"-centered advice of people who are living a path you desire. Actually, it's beyond fine - it can be invaluable. Hearing about their mistakes and successes on the way to their current state can help you streamline your journey. While you'll still need to make your own choices, their words can prove to be highly motivating, and can support you when you make "unpopular" decisions. (Note: this step presumes you've identified your values, preferred skills, and flow activities in advance.)
  3. If you can't find physical people, create a virtual support group. I've had many coaching clients who don't  know anyone living the sort of life they desire. In that case, create a virtual support group. This might take the form of a community of bloggers and/or forum members online, but more often it is created through videotaped interviews, quotations and writings by well-known people whose lives they admire. Surround yourself with these people's words and you'll naturally start to emulate their choices.
  4. Don't actively solicit the advice of "wrong advice-givers." This is perhaps the most important step of all - and the one I violated repeatedly throughout my twenties. If you go to people whose careers you don't want and ask them, "So what would you do in my situation?" what do you think you're going to get? The wrong advice! Worse yet, you are ASKING for it. You're asking to feel more conflicted, anxious and depressed. Stop rubbing salt in your wounds. You're not a fit to live their life. That's OK. Actually, that's great. Celebrate your authentic spirit and then go and find the right advice. Trust me, it's out there.

Have you ever taken "wrong advice"? What are your strategies for dealing with it?

Photo Credit: ModernDope

Quit the Comparisons


See if you recognize yourself in this story: It's a sun-drenched day. My two-year-old daughter is swinging before me on our town playground. She whizzes through the air for tens of minutes, the wind tugging at her corkscrew curls, giggles spilling out of her like a bird chattering at the dawn of a spring morning.

She quiets only when a man and his son approach the swings. Under her intense gaze, the man lifts the boy into the rubber seat and elevates him high into the air.

"Whee!" the boy squeals when his father releases him. "More!"

The father pushes hard, causing the swing set to shake. The boy flies so high, his torso becomes horizontal to the ground. I wonder if he might flip clear over the top.

My daughter cranes around to look at me, her face contorted. "Mommy, higher," she says. "Higher!"

I try with all my might.

"Higher!" my daughter yells, looking at the boy soaring beside her. "Higher!"

I push and shove and grunt. My arms start to burn. I feel sweat breaking out on my forehead. Still, my daughter's only halving the height of the boy beside her.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," I say after many minutes. "This is as good as it gets."

With that, she bursts into tears.

The Social Comparison Scourge

Although it's been a while since you frequented a swing set, I bet you recognize yourself in my daughter's reaction. Especially if you're a millennial. As Paul Angone says in 101 Secrets for Your Twenties:

"Obsessive Comparison Disorder is the smallpox of our generation."

How could it not be, given the omnipresence of social media?

All these social comparisons are our great undoing. They not only block us from pursuing the work we'd find meaningful, they make us more likely to experience all sorts of negative emotions including:

  • Defensiveness
  • Regret
  • Envy
  • Guilt
  • Unmet cravings
  • Lying to protect self and others
  • Loneliness

I don't want these to be my daughter's reality. That's why the swingset episode hit me like a gut punch. The only way she'll learn to quit the comparisons is if I learn to stop them myself.

But how?

I turned to the research to find out. And boy did it come through.

1.  Don't Use Social Comparisons To Make Yourself Feel Good

As I wrote in I'm Awesome. Except Next to You. And You. And You, social comparisons have an upside. They can bring us joy...IF we're the one on the swings flying higher than the kid next to us. In fact, they feel so good we get hooked on them as our source of self-worth:

Feeling crappy about your hair? Dig up that horrid Facebook photo of your friend on a humid day.

Feeling upset about your drudge job? Think of your buddy who hasn't landed a single ounce of paying work.

Feeling icky about your breakup? Check out your friend's tweets about her loser boyfriend's antics.

The problem is, using this feel-good strategy comes with a heavy price:  we end up feeling badly about ourselves most of the time.

"Frequent social comparisons may, in the short-term, provide reassurance. But in the long-term they may reinforce a need to judge the self against external standards." - Dartmouth Professor Judith White and colleagues

In other words, comparing yourself with others becomes an addiction. You end up scrambling around Facebook, desperate for a hit of "I'm rocking life compared to that person," but in the process you're exposed to a whole lot of "wow, that person is doing so much better than me."

2.  Find Happiness

This may be a bit chicken-and-egg, but if you can "find happiness," you may be less tempted to look at the boy swinging next to you. And less affected if you do.

Studies show that unhappy people make more frequent comparisons and take them more to heart, compared to happy people.

Of course we could fill 15 million posts on the question of how to "find happiness," but I'll stick with the psychology-based answer I strongly believe:  lasting happiness comes not from fleeting pleasures, but from structuring your life around endeavors that are personally meaningful and that frequently plunge you into the state of flow. That's why I advocate for creating a work life filled with purpose.

3.  Practice Mindfulness

This one gets a bit deep:  We can either view ourselves subjectively (from the inside out) or objectively (looking at ourselves as if we're an object). People who do the latter engage in more frequent social comparisons, according to research, and thus feel less content.

"Viewing one’s self objectively cuts one off from mindful experience, resulting in mindlessness. Not only are we holding the self still, in order to view it objectively, but also we are holding still the dimension on which we are making the comparison. In a mindless state, a person automatically accepts the positive or negative consequences of a social comparison." - White and colleagues

The best way to counteract mindlessness is to practice mindfulness, such as by meditating.

If you're new to mindfulness meditation - an approach that makes no spiritual claims and has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and blood pressure - Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Wherever You Go, There You Are is a great starting point.

Researchers note that making social comparisons may cause mindlessness, so you'll need to reconnect with a mindful viewpoint daily to keep things in check.

"In a mindful state, the same social comparison information can have a completely different meaning, and thus different consequences." - White and colleagues.

4.  Set Internal Standards for Self-Worth

Finally, getting clear on what you care about, then prioritizing your life around those values takes the punch out of social comparisons.

"People who are uncertain of their self-worth, who do not have clear, internal standards, will engage in frequent social comparisons." - White and colleagues

In other words, if you believe that "success" results from meeting YOUR goals - not the goals of your parents, friends, teachers, or "society" at large - you'll be less likely to succumb to the agony of social comparisons.

Thinking this way is a lifelong process, of course, but you can start the process today. And you should.

Because when it comes down to it, a day on the swings is always better than a day stuck at home. Regardless of who's swinging beside you.


So it all comes down to four steps. Four tangible, doable, why-not-make-these-a-priority-because-life-stinks-if-you-let-comparisons-rule-your-existence steps:

Step #1:  Don't use social comparisons to make yourself feel good. More often they'll make you feel bad.

Step #2:  Spend more time in activities that give you a sense of flow and that are personally meaningful.

Step #3:  Set aside ten minutes (or more!) to meditate daily.

Step#4:  Identify your personal priorities and work toward them, regardless of what others say you "should" do.

What do you think? Can we do it? Our futures depend on the answer.

White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L., & Welch, J. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 13, 36–44.


Photo Credit: Taylor.McBride™

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?