Survey after survey, study after study say the same thing: workplace unhappiness is one of the leading causes of stress and anxiety.
In the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual stress report, “work” is regularly cited as the top cause of stress. The problem is even more acute among younger people, with Gen-Z more likely to attribute their stress to work than everyone else (77% vs 64% respectively).
In fact, a new study by NPR found that outside of extreme events such as severe illness or death, “problems with work” is the most stressful experience people had over the last year.
What gives? Why are people (especially young people) so stressed about work and career? Is it even possible to create a career that gives you satisfaction instead of anxiety?
The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. You can have your career cake and eat it too. As I’ll show you below, it is possible to design a career that is not only financially lucrative, but also emotionally satisfying.
Develop a T-Shaped Skill Set Around Your Strengths
IDEO, the 700-person strong Palo Alto based design firm, is best known for revolutionizing the way people think about design and engineering. The skilled technicians working across its 9 global offices have been responsible for such iconic products as the Apple Mouse and Palm V.
Equally influential has been IDEO’s philosophy towards design, skills, and culture. And perhaps the best example of this is their idea of “T-shaped person”, first coined by CEO Tim Brown.
“T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter ‘T’ to describe them. The vertical stroke of the ‘T’ is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. The horizontal stroke of the ‘T’ is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.”
Depth and breadth – being exceptionally skilled at one thing, and being “good enough” at a handful of other, complementary skills. A true jack of all trades and a master of one. That’s the essence of a T-shaped skill set.
The collaborative nature of modern work demands people who can move across fields. A designer, for example, would need to work with marketers and developers. A good example of T-shaped skills for a designer, thus, would be as follows:
A T-shaped skill set enables you to work with people from diverse fields while still holding your own. In the modern workplace, this itself is a powerful advantage.
So how do you build your T-shaped skill set?
Start by categorizing your skills as follows:
- Skills you’re really good at (usually this will be your core training, such as programming for a software engineer)
- Skills you’re partially good at (i.e. skills you’ve developed on your own because of interest or necessity, such as a programmer learning Excel to manage his finances).
- Skills you’re interested in getting good at (i.e. skills you’ve always wanted to nurture but haven’t had the time or opportunity).
In the T-shaped skill set analogy, you can categorize these as follows:
Your goal should be to develop category #2 and #3 skills (i.e. the top portion of the ‘T’) to the point where they can complement your primary skill. If you’re a designer, learn to code and write. If you’re a developer, understand design and marketing basics.
Not only will this make you more valuable, it will also make you happier at work since you’ll be using skills you’re actually interested in.
Learn How to Learn
Side hustles. Part-time gigs. Job switching. These are all par for the course for modern workers. The idea of being a “lifer” who spends his entire career working for the same company is dying, if not already dead. More people hop from job to job than ever before.
For good reason – switching jobs and seeking new opportunities can lead to higher pay and job satisfaction.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. Charles Handy talked about the rise of “portfolio workers” way back in 1989 in his book, The Age of Unreason. Modern workers dabbling in lucrative side-gigs and hopping jobs is just a manifestation of the same.
But if you want to build a truly satisfying “modular” career, the one skill you need above everything else is the ability to learn.
For most people, learning stops once they enter the workforce. They rarely pick up new skills, and if they do, they turn to formal, expensive, and slow learning methods such as certificate programs and courses.
Such slow, outdated learning methodologies can’t support a modular career. Side hustles and part-time gigs require you to deploy a wide range of skills in a short amount of time.
A programmer working a side-hustle as a bootstrapped startup founder, for instance, needs to know marketing, finance, and sales. If you were to take 6-months each to learn these skills, you’d be too slow to get to market.
The solution to this problem is to change the way you approach learning. Instead of going deep, go wide. Focus on learning less, not more. Identify what is useful to you and learn only that, nothing more.
In our above example, the programmer with a side-hustle needs to know the basics of business finance. But he doesn’t need to know accounting or complex Excel functions. He can identify the aspects of business finance that is useful to him immediately and only focus on that.
This is one of the most valuable skills in the modern workplace. If you learn how to learn, there will be few skills that you won’t be able to conquer.
Focus on Culture, Purpose, and Values
In his book How Will You Measure Your Life?, Harvard professor and the bestselling author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen notes how many high-achieving professionals end-up being unhappy and unfulfilled in life.
The reason, more often than not, is the pursuit of money and job titles over values.
Don’t get me wrong – a financially lucrative career can be a great source of stability. But when it comes at the cost of ‘purpose’, it has a long-term negative impact on happiness.
Your first step should be to define two things:
- What purpose do you want your work to fulfill?
- What values do you identify with?
It’s important to understand that neither your purpose nor your values will be static. What you value in your 20s won’t be the same in your 40s.
What matters is that your purpose and values should energize and motivate you to push further.
As Karen Dillon, who served as a co-author on How Will You Measure Your Life says:
“Your life’s purpose may shift over time. It’s not a question you answer overnight. But you know it because it’s the cause you sacrifice for, the thing that makes your heart beat. It both exhausts and energizes you. You’d feel great about doing it even if no one knew you were doing it. It makes you feel part of something greater than yourself.”
Pursue opportunities that align with what you believe in. If you constantly work in companies doing work you don’t identify with and around people who don’t share your values, you will leave the office unhappy.
Take some time out twice a year to do a review. Ask yourself: am I fulfilled? Am I doing my best work? Do I believe in this work, my colleagues, or my company? Does this work have a purpose?
If the answer to these questions is ‘no’, look elsewhere.
Building a career that is financially rewarding and emotionally satisfying is one of the toughest things in the world. But by focusing on sought-after skills, clearly identifying your values (and sticking to them), and developing the ability to learn things quickly, you’ll have no trouble landing that dream gig you’ve always wanted.