I love Penelope Trunk, journalist, blogger and author of the new book Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success (my review coming soon). She has strong opinions, is smart, even sassy, and is not afraid to take a stand challenging long-held assumptions about the world of work, especially from the perspective of the up and coming Gen Y and Z’ers.
So I am sure she won’t mind if I challenge her to a virtual smackdown over a couple of points in a (not so recent, but new to me) post, Four Ways to Make a Bad Job Good.
All this came about due to an email from my coaching client who expressed a state of confusion over what seemed to be contradictory advice from Penelope and me regarding work happiness. He and I had talked a lot about finding work that was energizing and meaningful so that he could get out of a life-choking cubicle job and enjoy work again. Then he read this:
“I’m not certain whether this is good news or bad news, but the connection between your job and your happiness is overrated. In general, the kind of work you do isn’t going to have huge bearing on whether you’re happy or not.
To be sure, your work can make you unhappy (see No. 2 above, for example), but work isn’t going to give you the key to the meaning of life or anything like that.
Still, you can do a quick check to make sure you have a job that’s good for you. A good job:
- Stretches you without defeating you
- Provides clear goals
- Provides unambiguous feedback
- Provides a sense of control
If you have these things in your job and you’re still not happy, it’s not your job — it’s you.
So maybe it’s time to start looking inside yourself to figure out what’s wrong, instead of blaming everything on your job. I’m a big fan of getting help when you feel stuck. Sure, we can all get ourselves through life, but it’s often easier to get where you want to be faster if you have someone to help you overcome your barriers.”
There are two points in particular that I disagree with:
- “In general, the kind of work you do is not going to have huge bearing on whether you are happy or not”
- “If you have these things in your job (stretches without defeating you, provides clear goals, provides unambiguous feedback, provides a sense of control) and you’re still not happy, it’s not your job — it’s you”
To the first point, I think that the kind of work you do has a HUGE bearing on your day to day happiness.
Example: I love conversation, the world of ideas, creativity, design and human interaction. My best work is when I am dreaming up new strategies, helping people overcome fears or plotting how to promote and grow a new business. That is why I really enjoy my work as a coach. If I were to take a job as an accountant, focused on detail, numbers, analysis and precision, I would dread waking up each morning. Even if I had the “fab four” criteria outlined above all covered, (stretch without defeat, etc.) I can guarantee you that I would live for weekends and vacations, and feel a knot in my stomach each day, all day, as I tried to make myself smile while doing something I hated.
I think you are much more likely to feel relaxed and happy if you are doing work that matches your greatest strengths and natural talents.
Point number two (“If you have these things in your job -stretches without defeating you, provides clear goals, provides unambiguous feedback, provides a sense of control – and you’re still not happy, it’s not your job — it’s you”) is closely related to point number one, as it states that the four criteria are the primary drivers of happiness at work. I agree that they are very important. As a consultant, I saw smart and talented people ripping their hair out because they never got straight feedback from their managers, had a constantly shifting set of goals and criteria for success, and consistently were given much more work than was realistic or feasible, without forgoing sleep or moving full-time into their cubes to sleep on a cot.
But to think that those elements are the primary drivers of happiness for all people just doesn’t seem to ring true based on personal experience. I have coached thousands of people from every industry imaginable all over the U.S. and in Europe, and rarely saw two people who had the same criteria for being happy at work. The ones who were the most content tended to be very self-aware and action- oriented, and didn’t stay stuck in situations or relationships that didn’t work for them.
Here is what I do agree with, in the whole spirit of the article, especially some of the referenced material about the nature of happiness:
- Your day to day happiness is greatly a function of your own positive mental attitude where you enjoy others around you, take responsibility for your learning, and see the beauty in everyday moments. So from this perspective, it is true, your job will not make you happy if you always look to the outside for emotional satisfaction. It is the exact same thing as believing that “finding the perfect husband will make me happy.” Wrong. BEING happy by yourself will make you happy, and make you more likely to attract a mate that is happy too, healthy and without the tendency to try to “fix” you emotionally.
- You will drive yourself crazy looking for THE ANSWER to the meaning of life through a job. It is one piece of a moving puzzle that includes your personal relationships, hobbies, home life, community life, spiritual life and philosophical perspective. The point is not that you will find one job or business that will solve all your emotional problems. The point is to continually look for ways to maximize your gifts, put yourself in situations that force you to learn and grow and get out of unhealthy situations as quickly as possible. If you have to spend a lot of time at work, it might as well be doing something you really enjoy!
Please weigh in with your opinions on this topic, as I imagine there is some heat on both sides of the fence.
And Penelope, you may be 10 years younger, in better shape due to your professional beach volleyball background and with more research to back up your opinions, but this forty-year old (four months pregnant and feeling very sluggish) girl still has a little fight left so give me your best shot. 🙂
I will say that I would never be brave enough to write for Yahoo Finance. Some commenters are downright mean.