Recently, I went for a walk with a dear friend. She’d just returned from holiday and was feeling blue about the prospect of work on Monday morning. My attempts to cheer her up weren’t exactly going down well. ‘It’s all right for you,’ she retorted. ‘You love what you do for a living. Me, I’m just hanging on for my pay cheques and the weekend.’
I didn’t point out that the pay cheques in question would make most people think they’d won money on the lottery – nor that we had always had different priorities. When my friend left university, her focus was to earn as much cash as possible. Growing up in a single-parent family, she dreamed of owning her own home, and of being able to help her mother financially one day. She went on to achieve her goals with remarkable speed.
Now my friend is stranded in a career in mergers and acquisitions. She couldn’t care less about the mood swings of the Nikkei, but she faces 20 more years of Monday mornings. Her kitchen pinboard is littered with cards from famous restaurants and printouts from Le Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris. Instead of handbags and glad rags, she dreams of chef’s whites and kitchen knives. What she really wants to do is retrain to become a chef. There are only two obstacles standing in the way of her secret ambition. Firstly, the pay cut would be extremely painful. Secondly, although my friend has worked her way through a bucket list of haute cuisine hotspots, she can barely boil an egg.
You may not share my friend’s culinary fantasy, but chances are good that, if you’re not happy at work, you have a similar yearning to do something else, possibly something that strikes you as being wildly impractical or downright impossible. So, what’s to be done? We’re all likely to be working until a much later stage in life these days, so finding fulfilling work is important – how to achieve it is the challenge.
1. Conjure up the dream
‘The first question to ask yourself is: What is the vision?’ says Penny Power, author of Business Is Personal (Panoma Press, £14.99) and co-founder of Ecademy, a social network for entrepreneurs. ‘Imagine yourself happy at work. How do you spend your time? How many days do you work? What are your daily activities? Who are your clients?’ Visualise your working life in glorious sensory detail. What shoes are you wearing?
Do you work in an office? Where do you eat lunch and with whom? Is it a power lunch in a stylish restaurant or a creative brainstorming session in the park?
Joanna Young, founder of Wild Geese Leadership, has another perspective. ‘Ask yourself: What do I want to be remembered for? What do I want to be proud of? What do I hope to share with others? People get fixated on a job title, but that won’t fulfil you, nor will it last a lifetime,’ she says. ‘I see a lot of people who, when they achieve the goal, say being CEO, they get there and then don’t know what to do with it. They made their goal a job, but they haven’t addressed their purpose. Look beyond the label to how you might be of service to the world.’
Careers don’t exist in a vacuum. ‘Happiness comes from a satisfying life,’ says Young. ‘Think of your ideal situation in 10 years’ time. Where do you live? What is your lifestyle? You need a certain level of income to pay for it… What pictures are on the wall? People say, “There’s a picture of my kids, but I’ve not decided about children yet!” What has to happen to take you to that life?’
2. Identify your strengths
Visualising is lovely but, sooner or later, a little voice is liable to pipe up: ‘Um, this isn’t going to happen, is it?’ How should we tackle that? Power has a suggestion: ‘You need to overcome limiting beliefs, and the best way to do that is to identify your strengths. Go to the website gallupstrengthscenter.com and take the test. Or make a list of all the things you regularly do at work and break them down into a skill set – training, team-building, software, social media and so on. Get clear on what your skills are and gather evidence to illustrate them.’
Once you make this inventory, go back to the vision of your ideal working life and identify the gaps between your dreams and skills. You might need to take courses or practise something you’re uncomfortable with, like attending networking events or posting videos on LinkedIn, says Power. ‘If you’re planning on setting up your own business, another thing to consider is hiring people who are better at certain tasks than you are. For my latest project, The Business Cafe, I’ve hired a VA (virtual assistant) and someone to do my social media.’
If you’re feeling stuck, Young suggests asking yourself the following: ‘What do I think I do well? When am I at my happiest? Where do I suddenly feel: this is nice; this is good? When am I being my authentic self?’
You may feel fairly confident that you know what your best talents are at work, but it’s still worth taking a closer look, advises Power. ‘I like to ask people to identify what I call “overdone” strengths. So, for me, a core strength is independence. I’m great at working alone and I’m an independent thinker. But, taken to extremes, it means I find it hard to ask for help. Another overdone strength, common in women, is kindness. You like to support and care for others but, taken to extremes, that can lead to poor boundaries and being taken advantage of by others.’
It’s not that overdone strengths are bad per se, but sometimes they can limit us and keep us trapped in roles we never really wanted in the first place. For example, a shy person might hide behind their talent for admin. ‘Early in my career, someone told me: “Don’t be the person in the meeting taking notes,”’ says Young. At the time, she worked for the Metropolitan Police (she rose to the rank of chief superintendent). ‘It was fantastic advice. There are a lot of reasons we do it. Perhaps we like notes and do them well – but it also means we’re “busy”. “I can’t speak because I’ve already got a job.” Note-taking is a way to hide. Your head is down, your hair is possibly over your face, emitting low status.’
3. Get the right mindset
It takes confidence and optimism to create meaningful change, so it’s important to stay positive. A block that can stymie you at the outset is the misplaced belief that your career has been a mistake up until this point. ‘The key thing to tell yourself is: These aspects of my work don’t satisfy me any more. The “any more” is important,’ says Blaire Palmer, transitions coach and founder of A Brilliant Gamble. ‘You’re not saying: OMG, I made a huge mistake 20 years ago! Why didn’t I make different choices? Instead say: I did it all perfectly – but it’s not working for me now.’
Palmer also cautions against charging into ‘action mode’ in order to escape a work situation with which you’re not happy. ‘What people often do is start looking for a new job and it becomes a logical process. They say: OK, these are all the things I can’t stand, so I’m going to make a big change and then I will be happy. That’s not how happiness or fulfilment works. The place to begin is to ask: How do I feel now? How would I prefer to feel? Don’t ask: What can I do differently? Instead, ask: How can I feel differently?’
Palmer put this idea to the test recently. Last year, she decided that she would go travelling around Europe in an RV with her daughter and their dog. ‘I went because I was feeling trapped and bored. Life was repetitive and predictable. I wanted to feel free, I wanted physical space. I felt stagnant and wanted to have new experiences. The great thing about focusing on feelings is that you get there immediately. When it comes to the workplace, if you focus only on doing, you can get trapped in a cycle of delayed gratification: “If I work a lot of late shifts, my boss will be happy and will promote me.”’
She cites the example of a female lawyer of colour with whom she worked. ‘She was feeling stifled at work. She felt pressure within her super conservative law firm to keep her hair tightly pulled back. Making the simple decision to allow her hair to unfurl in its own voluminous style was the first step towards expressing herself more authentically at work.’
4. Devise the plan
Eventually, you will be so excited about your vision that it will be time to create a blueprint for change. Long-term strategy is everything here. ‘Although my company is called A Brilliant Gamble, I’m really in favour of pacing yourself,’ says Palmer. ‘All too often, I see people online talking about how they’ve left their job to pursue a so-called incredible idea, on which they are now relying for their sole income. ‘So, how do I get my first client?” they ask on day one.
‘This is something I have witnessed especially in journalism and writing. People contact me asking for advice about how to get a column in a magazine or secure a literary agent for their book. When I ask to see a link to their blog or student magazine articles, I’m met with a blank face or radio silence. A desire to do something life-changing is not enough, you have to take action.’
Preparation and testing out the market – the job market or the market for your product – is vital. ‘People talk a lot about side hustles these days,’ says Palmer, ‘but, actually, launching your side hustle should happen quite far down the line. In the beginning, when you have your initial vision of what you want your new working life to be, you will have to start by researching it – because chances are that you won’t even know whether you’re going to enjoy it until you try it. Volunteering, embarking on adult work experience and talking to people who are already doing the job can all be valuable first steps in creating your plan.’
These are wise words. My banker friend eventually dragged herself off to a cookery class at a local college. It rapidly emerged that she had neither the knife skills nor the patience to make it as a chef. What she actually loved was food and telling others about her hot new discoveries. She’s now planning a podcast about eating out. Without taking the first step towards your dream, you’re never going to garner this information. Palmer suggests that the best way to create a plan is to reverse-engineer it. ‘Ask yourself: Where do I want to be in 12 months’ time? In order to get there, where do I need to be in nine months, six months, six weeks? What do I need to do today? Pivot your idea as you research and then start testing it. Know that your plan will inevitably be flawed. You can only ever be about 80 per cent prepared,’ she says. This applies equally whether you’re launching a business, product or creative offering – like a book or screenplay – to the world, or applying to organisations for a new post or a promotion in your current company.
5. Be brave
You can do all the visualising, planning and pep-talking in the world, but there will come a day when you have to take a risk. ‘It’s difficult to change within the status quo. You can do a lot of reading inside your comfort zone but nothing changes,’ observes Palmer. ‘There will come a time when you absolutely have to go for it, to change career, to start your own business or move to another city. When you get to the stage when you know in your heart that you won’t be able to let go of this dream unless you have at least given it a shot, then you have to take action. We actually don’t have all the time in the world. Do you still want to be thinking about this dream in 10 years’ time?’