We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it- but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
When was the last time that you woke up on a workday, and felt excited to begin your day, to get to work and dig in? Do you dread your work day? Do you feel stuck, or like you're just drifting through your career or job with no meaning or purpose, just passing time? If these statements are true for you, what do you think about changing that? How would your days and weeks be different if you truly were in love with your job? Most of us spend a minimum of 40 hours a week working, not including commuting, responding to calls and emails, managing crises, etc. Most of us probably spend more time with co-workers, customers, and clients than we do with our own families; this means that the enjoyment we receive through employment strongly correlates with our overall quality of life. In this post we will cover some ways to extract as much joy from this very necessary part of life as possible; that might mean a change of venue, or just a change in perspective.
It's been said that 'if you do what you love you will never work a day in your life.' I believe that while there is a lot of truth to this, figuring out what we love to do is not necessarily easy or straightforward. Three questions though can help us to clarify what you might love doing, if you haven't already figured that out. These questions might also help to open up possibilities if you do in general enjoy your field, but are less satisfied with your current role or position. These questions are: 1. How well does your current position or profession match your professional values? 2. What experiences are you rewarded or reinforced by? 3. What are your professional boundaries? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, only what's right or wrong for each individual person. There are many values inventories available online, but let me walk you through an exercise that I believe can be really helpful for clarifying values, reinforcers and boundaries.
Clarifying Professional Values and Reinforcers
Take a moment and reflect on at least one really rewarding experience that you have had over the course of your work life. If you can think of more than one that's even better. Think of at least one time that you felt really proud of yourself and really successful. This might have been solving a difficult problem, this might have been making a meaningful connection with another person, this might have been creating something beautiful, really this can be anything that you can look back on as a success. Write this or these experiences down on a sheet of paper. Now let's do some reflection with these experiences. When I reflect on my own career experiences that I have felt really good about, the first experiences that I think of are times when I had very "productive" sessions, meaning that important information was uncovered, meaningful connections were made between experiences and feelings, and my relationship with the person I was working with felt deep and meaningful. Reflecting on that I see that I really value things like deep conversation, uncovering new information as either a teacher or a learner, and feeling like I understand another person at a meaningful level. I can see that I value learning, authenticity, and growth. This means that for a career or job to be in line with my values, it needs to provide opportunities for me to both learn and teach, to behave authentically, and to relate to others in a deep and meaningful manner.
Now think about what you found most rewarding or reinforcing in those experiences. For something to be reinforcing, it needs to match our values, and also fill a need that we might have. I know for myself, I need to do work that feels like it contributes something of value to the community that I live in, just remember that these needs are very individualized. What meets one person's needs doesn't necessarily meet another person's. Do you have a need to create? A need for predictability and consistency or conversely for novelty and excitement? Do you need uninterrupted time to think deeply, or frequent interactions with other people? Do you need more autonomy and flexibility, or more structure or direction? Take some time to think about what needs your employment does and doesn't fill, beyond meeting basic necessities of life though these needs are important as well and can't be overlooked.
Now let's look at work related experiences from the other side of the glass. Think about a time or times when you felt disappointed, or unfulfilled. This might be easier for most of us, because it's just part of human nature to attend more to negative experiences than positive experiences but both offer opportunities for learning. When I first moved to Colorado I worked at a large community mental health agency in the Denver Metro area. I worked in this position for six months, which I think is the shortest amount of time I've ever worked anywhere in my adult life. It was actually this experience that spurred me to start my private practice. I liked my clients, coworkers, and supervisor. I had control over the hours I worked, I had access to good training and learning experiences, but felt very dissatisfied with my job. Reflecting back on that experience I can see that it wasn't in line with my professional values and didn't provide what I find most reinforcing. In this position I was constantly assigned new clients, and I didn't control scheduling, this was done by an administrative person. What this meant is that I would meet someone and just start getting to know them, then they couldn't get back on my schedule for six weeks because I was scheduled so far out, seeing new clients. When a person can only access therapy once a month or less, as they begin their healing journey it usually stalls their progress. This meant that I couldn't practice in a way that seemed beneficial to clients, which did not feel at all ethical to me. I also realized that a primary reinforcer for me is getting to be a part of someone's healing journey, and watching this process unfold. Again when a client could only access sessions on a monthly basis, this process is very slow or doesn't happen at all.
So again, make a note of these experiences and take time to reflect on these to identify what did and didn't work for you. Was the experience contrary to important professional values that you hold? Did the experience not provide opportunities for meaningful rewards or reinforcers? Clarifying these can help to clear up any confusion that you might be experiencing about what you actually love to do. With these in mind let's take a moment to explore the last issue: boundaries.
Boundaries are a topic that arise in virtually every context from interpersonal relationships to the way that we use our resources. There are two components to boundaries: capacity and willingness. For an experience to fit within our boundaries, we must have both the capacity and the willingness to participate. If we have capacity but not willingness, this isn't within our boundaries. If we have willingness but not capacity this isn't within our boundaries, and if we have neither willingness or capacity then it certainly isn't within the scope of our boundaries. Think about the resources that your job requires in terms of time, energy, proficiency, focus and any other resources required. These are important and finite, we only have so much and when the resource is depleted, it's gone until replenished.
I frequently am asked to schedule sessions in the evenings and on weekends and I totally understand this. Most of us have jobs and taking time off during the workday isn't necessarily possible. What I have found though is that my brain doesn't work very well after 4:00 in the afternoon, so I just don't function as well, therefore I don't have the capacity to provide sessions on a regular basis later in the evening. I have found that if I schedule sessions on the weekends, it means that I'm not able to get other important things done like grocery shopping, cleaning, and hiking with my dogs. I notice if I do this very often I start feeling resentful, this means that I don't have the willingness to work weekends regularly. Take a moment to think about how well your current position fits into your boundaries in terms of both capacity and willingness. Does your current role ask you to participate in a way that you don't have capacity to participate in? Do you sometimes or often notice feelings of resentment? If so then this probably means that you are being asked to do something that you actually aren't willing to do.
Finding the Best Fit
Now let's put this all together. Think about your chosen field and ask yourself: Is this focus in line with my professional values? Does this field offer opportunities to be reinforced or rewarded in ways that both meet my needs and align with important values? Lastly, do I participate in work that I have the capacity and willingness to do? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are probably in a field that is a good fit for you. If the answers are no, then maybe look around and ask yourself, and maybe others about alternatives that might be a better fit for you. A little bit of a tip to think about is when we are in an environment that is a really good fit for us, it typically doesn't take a lot of energy, so if you find yourself really drained most of the time, this is important information that you should pay attention to. Now if it seems like you're in the right field but maybe the wrong position, the same questions apply so reflect and drill down on what might be missing. Is it not in line with professional values? Can you not practice your craft in a way that feels effective and ethical for you? Are your needs not met in this position (both basic and higher level). Finally, what is your capacity and willingness, and would a different position, or asking for changes to be made in your current position, make these align a little bit better?
In conclusion, when our individuality, our profession, and our personal life meld together in a balanced way this can be one of the best moments of our life. Life is always changing though, so we have to really watch the curves in the road to be able to adapt accordingly. So if you reach this wonderful moment of synchronicity enjoy it, but also be ready to course correct when the moment passes. Life is a dynamic thing and so are we humans.