“When I grow up, I want to dislike my job.” - No one, ever.
Friends, I’m sure you would agree that no one wants to dislike their life’s work. Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves in exactly this situation. A 2014 conference board survey found that roughly 40% of Americans don’t find their work interesting and a whopping 52.3% are just plain unhappy on the job. We need to avoid this pitfall, but how can we find happiness, engagement and meaning at work?
Let’s consult the science!
Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once interviewed over 100 highly generative science and creative types to see how they found their calling. The study revealed a consistent narrative; it’s called vital engagement and it’s defined as “a relationship to the world that is characterized both by experiences of flow and by meaning.”
Sounds like a practical way to think about one’s calling, yeah? So let’s consider the nitty-gritty through a quick journaling activity that might shed some light on your calling.
Journal about “Flow Activities”
Researchers found that for most of these extraordinary people, their careers grew organically from consistent and prolonged experiences of flow, where time seemed to fade away and there was nothing but that feeling of being “in the zone.” These exceptional interviewees talked about how flow experiences with certain activities led them deeper into a particular culture, like artistry or science. Time in their new cultures eventually formed a broad base of knowledge, skills, relationships and behaviors that become an essential part of their personal identities.
So here we’ll want to think about how flow has been an organizing principle in our lives. We’re going to think about how enjoyable absorption has led us to consistently participate in particular activities. Grab a piece of paper and answer the following (a stream of consciousness list will do):
• Where have you consistently found that “in the zone” sensation of being so deeply immersed in an activity that you lost your sense of time and self?
• Name an area (or more than one) where you have felt compelled to learn and actively challenge your skills.
• Where have you felt a sense of absorbed enjoyment that drove you toward deeper involvement? For instance, many writers describe feeling “swept away by a project.” They feel driven to research topics, study the dictionary and talk to other writers about their work.
• Where have you felt swept away? What topics and activities have you researched on your own time? Where have you consistently found this phenomenon?
So, what’s on your list?
Science? Sports? Dance? Magic?
Whatever your answers, you now have a list of “Flowtivities” that we will use to narrow options and find your life’s calling.
Journal about meaning and self-actualization
The interviews revealed a second, equally important aspect of vital engagement: meaning. Your list so far could include activities like ping-pong or video games, which while awesome, generally aren’t considered philosophically fulfilling. When we get older and look back on our lives, we’ll want to know it meant something. We’ll want to have become our best selves and contributed to society. Consider the following on the same piece of paper:
• What sorts of activities make you feel as though you are living a good life?
• If you were told that you have 24 hours to live, which long-term goals would you regret not attaining?
• What would the best version of yourself be doing with his/her life?
• What sorts of projects sharpen the qualities you most admire in yourself?
For example, many nurses feel an abiding sense of purpose and life satisfaction. They feel like nursing cultivates their altruistic side; they feel like they are helping others and that the job sharpens valuable skills.
• Where do you find these feelings of meaning and fulfillment?
Now take a look at the two lists and note overlap. Create a Venn diagram and see which activities are grouped at the center. These are your sweet spots. The center of this Venn diagram combines the joy of engagement, your community, your skills, valued experience, meaning and self-actualization.
Maybe there are a few clear answers. Maybe these are fields you ought to explore. Or maybe writing more options for the two lists will help, but at the end of this exercise, there ought to some idea of how take the next step toward a job that excites you - how exciting is that?!
Lastly, let me just say that I know pragmatism plays a role in life and we can’t all be acrobats in the circus. My advice is to be realistic, but optimistically so. With hard work, we can accomplish far more than we think we can. I may not become the next Hemingway, but if I keep at this writing thing I can certainly make a living doing what I love. And that’s a big part of living well.
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