How to be successful and happy (you can be both)

Why career happiness doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to ambition and success — or even your current job.

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Many of the narratives around finding career happiness involve leaving it all behind and giving up a successful job for a happier life. But seeking career happiness doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to ambition and success — or even your current job. You can be successful, full of ambition AND happy. 

What is ‘career happiness’?

First of all, let’s unpack what we mean by ‘career happiness’. For the sake of argument, I’ll define happiness simply as a state of wellbeing and contentment. Like other states of being, happiness is impermanent — no one can be happy all of the time — but it’s fair to say that someone who describes themselves as ‘happy’ probably feels a sense of wellbeing and contentment more often than not.

Career happiness is simply having a career that supports your wellbeing and contentment — rather than corroding it. The things that create career happiness vary from person to person, but the foundations and building blocks are largely the same.

Let your values drive your career decisions

If you are bored, anxious, drained or feeling stuck at work, the likelihood is there’s a misalignment with your values. Career happiness requires a work environment and experience that is plugged into your values. It also requires you to unpick those areas where you’re working against them. For example, if community is one of your values but you work remotely and feel disconnected from people, find ways to cultivate a sense of community (use a collaboration space, join networks, connect with other remote workers). Or if solitude is important but you work in a noisy, crowded office, create ways to carve out space for yourself (work from home or on a different floor, explore adjusted hours so you have some time alone at the start or the end of the day).

Spend some time listing down your values and asking yourself how each of them is being met (or challenged) by your work and then make adjustments. Be creative and take ownership.

Make it easy on yourself — play to your strengths

Many of us are unaware of the things that we are naturally really good at. When something is really easy for us, we often assume it’s really easy for others too. It’s not. When you play to the things you’re naturally good at, you maximise your time and your energy because you already have a head start: natural talent.Talent + effort produces more impact in less time than simply effort alone.

Conversely, wherever possible avoid work or activities that play against your strengths — it will take you twice the effort and twice the time. Unsure what your strengths are? Ask yourself these questions — What do people come to you again and again for help with? What seems to come easily to you that others struggle with? What are you doing when you slip into a state of flow? Answer those questions (ask others for their input too) — and then play there.

Stop negotiating with your non-negotiables

Do you know what your non-negotiables are? If you don’t, you could be unwittingly giving up the very things that cultivate your happiness. My non-negotiables are solitude in the morning, doing creative work and being with my son when he isn’t in school. Yours might be a daily run, working in the community or keeping Sundays free to recharge. When you’re in work that doesn’t allow you to protect your non-negotiables — and you start sacrificing them — it builds resentment and eats away at your wellbeing.

Identify your non-negotiables, communicate them with transparency, be boundaried (but reasonable) and then protect them as fiercely as you can.

Your time and energy is finite — spend it well

At any given point in time, you only have a finite amount of time, energy and focus. Aside from some clever outsourcing, you cannot get more time and energy. Assess very carefully how you are spending yours and make sure it’s in line with the roles and areas of your life you value most. The way you spend your hours each day makes up your weeks, your months and your years. Pay attention, be intentional, be present to your activities and make the little daily choices as important as the yearly or five-yearly ones — it adds up.

Career happiness requires self-exploration, self-awareness, ownership and proactivity. Don’t let your career be something that happens to you. Understand what drives you, what your gifts are, what you need, what gives you energy and what saps it. The tiny choices and adjustments you make to your everyday will make just as much — if not more — of an impact as a sweeping career change.

And if you are planning a total career change, build it on good foundations — one block at a time.

It’s your career, you drive it.

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