Many of us are finding ourselves in career transition mode recently. Perhaps you were laid off and looking for another job or these unprecedented times simply have you re-evaluating your life and career choices. Whether you are making a career change because you have to or because you want to, it is important to earn a living doing something that makes you happy. Which means, you should know the primary reason that hinders happiness at work.

A difficult boss. Frustrating co-workers. Long hours. Despite what you might think, none of these typical complaints are the primary reason people are unhappy at work. In fact, the top reason has nothing to do with the day-to-day annoyances of a job, but rather, something much bigger. 

That’s right, the #1 reason actually involves people not living a professional life that they want, and instead, living someone else’s expectations of what they should do for a living. 

How do I know this? Lots of research! I’ve interviewed over 100 professionals for my blogs and podcast series on the topic of professional fulfillment and what it takes to find true joy and meaning in their careers. The main theme that emerged is that people got into careers based on other people’s definitions of success versus their own. Whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, we wanted to please our parents or fit into society’s norms by going into traditional fields like law, medicine or accounting. Then, many of us stayed in those unfulfilling careers because we consciously or subconsciously worried about what family, neighbors, coworkers and peers would think if we didn’t have the same title, status or material things associated with the profession. Taking a step back would also put us “behind.” Staying in something unfulfilling can feel easier than the unknown.

Creating Career Happiness

What I’ve learned time and again from my podcast guests and my own experience is that only once people take a stand and do the hard work of looking inward, do they find work that brings them joy and meaning. It’s critical to define what you want to do with your life and what success means to you. The challenge is, you have to take bold and creative steps to get there.

Ultimately, to be happy in your career, it must align with your inner motivators:

  • Your personal passions – things that simultaneously intrigue, motivate and challenge you
  • Your personal values – characteristics and behaviors that motivate you and guide your decisions 
  • Your strengths – things you do well and come easily to you vs. skills which are learned or developed 

Anything else, including your boss, co-workers, commute, salary, company culture and more, are external considerations. While nice to have, they are not must-haves to be happy at work. 

If your work aligns with your passions, values and strengths, then you can be more forgiving and still find joy and meaning at work even with bad external considerations. But, if you don’t have alignment with your passion, values and strengths, even a little misalignment with external factors will make you miserable.

What to Ask Yourself

Doing the work of looking inward to define what matters most to use in a career is easy, but takes time. It is worth the time. Here are some reflection questions to get started:

  • Your personal passions – What did you love to do as a child?
  • Your personal values – Who do you admire and why?
  • Your personal strengths – What do you do well that other people compliment you on or ask for your help with?

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