Do you dread going into the office Monday morning? Maybe a new boss has entered the equation, creating a rift between how you once felt and how you now feel. Perhaps your company has recently been acquired, changing the culture. Maybe you simply have outgrown your role and are bored to tears in your cubicle.
I have found that whether we enjoy our work often boils down to how our job fits with our sense of purpose. Where we work, the role we hold, our broader sense of purpose — all three are subject to change. Thus if we want to stay in the “sweet spot” among these three, we must not fear career transitions or even change itself; indeed, we must seek them out.
Having a sense of purpose in our life is critical to well-being. In fact, in a longitudinal study researchers found that people who demonstrate a sense of purpose in their lives have a 15% lower risk of death. Having a sense of purpose in our roles at work is equally important. And yet it’s not enough to find that sense of purpose once — you have to continually refind it as circumstances (and you) change.
“I am cautious and alert and mindful that the battle is not won yet” is how Céline Schillinger, an executive at Sanofi Pasteur, describes staying on this learning journey. “I will not fall into complacency. No matter what, I will continue to hone myself.” In 2001 Schillinger landed a position in France at the vaccine maker. To date, she has occupied positions in human resources, product development, and stakeholder engagement. She moved to Boston in 2015 to focus on quality innovation. “I would define myself as a person under construction,” she said to me. “I’m always trying to enrich my experience by adding bits and pieces wherever I go. I experiment in my roles, and push for uncomfortableness to eventually gain new knowledge out of each situation.”
Schillinger’s story shows that you don’t have to quit your company to stay engaged. However, sometimes a more radical change is needed. Consider the story of Mana Ionescu. She worked hard to climb the ladder at the U.S.-based company she worked for, and she was in line for the director role. But Ionescu was frustrated by the transactional nature of her work. Creativity was minimal. Inspiration was nominal. “There must be more to my working life than just sitting here making money and not actually making an impact,” she thought. She decided to leave her organization and founded Lightspan Digital, a digital marketing company based in Chicago that specializes in social media, email, and content marketing. Ionescu recognized she had to take charge of both her life and her working life — and ever since, she has been living and working with a sense of purpose.
It’s up to each of us to know when to make that leap.
Try this exercise. At the end of the workday, jot down approximately how much time you spent in each of the three following mindsets:
- Job mindset. When someone has a job mindset, they resort to a “paycheck mentality,” performing their duties in return for compensation and not much else.
- Career mindset. This mindset occurs when an individual is focused on increasing or advancing their salary, title, power, team size, or sphere of control.
- Purpose mindset. Feeling passionate, innovative, and committed are hallmarks of this mindset, as is having an outward-looking focus on serving the broader organization or key stakeholders. Your professional purpose feels aligned with your personal purpose.
Keep a log for a couple of weeks and see whether you fall into one of these mindsets more than the others. If the job and career mindsets total more than 50% of your time, that may be a warning sign that you should to restate or redefine your personal purpose.
No one lives in the purpose mindset all the time, but spending too much time in the career or job mindsets is destructive: You are certain to be dissatisfied with your job, and the mindsets can end up harming your reputation, chances of promotion, and long-term prospects. While everyone should be trying to develop and grow, focusing too much on your career or your paycheck can lead to bad behaviors such as bullying and selfishness, or simply trying to exert too much control over others. Before that happens, seek a new role, and perhaps a new organization, that rebalances your equation.
If you have never created a personal declaration of purpose, now is the time. The declaration is a simple statement about how you decide to live each and every day. Make it succinct, specific, jargon-free, and expressive. Your statement ought to be personal, and it should integrate your strengths, interests, and core ambitions. For example, here’s mine: “We’re not here to see through each other; we’re here to see each other through.”
Take into account all three types of purpose — personal, job, and organization. But don’t shortchange your personal purpose, which is a common error, according to A. R. Elangovan, professor at the University of Victoria. As he told me, ”Especially in contrast to organizational and role purpose, where multiple stakeholders shape the outcomes, my advice is to invest as much effort, if not more, in figuring out our personal purpose.”
Life is short. You deserve to work in a role, and for an organization, where your personal purpose shines. But you cannot leave it up to the organization, your boss, or your team. It really does come down to you defining and enacting your purpose.
Author credit: Dan Pontefract
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