Pamela Slim and Penelope Trunk smackdown

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smackdownI 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:

  1. “In general, the kind of work you do is not going to have huge bearing on whether you are happy or not”
  2. “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.

16 Responses to “Pamela Slim and Penelope Trunk smackdown”

  1. […] from life as an employee to life as a business owner, my eyes perked up when I read the recent “Pamela Slim and Penelope Trunk smackdown” on one of my favorite blogs Escape from Cubicle Nation. Since I am also an avid reader of Penelope […]

  2. PunditMom says:

    I love two of my favorites going toe-to-toe! 😉

  3. Dan Chase says:

    Pam, I just discovered you via Guy Kawasaki’s post…

    I was going to say I agree with your side of the conversation, but I think after reading Penelope’s comment, that I agree with both. It’s all in how you read it.

    I’m in a situation now where I am still unclear on my career happiness. I think I like what I do but, the environment of the employer has been bringing me down. I have a friend encouraging to go out on my own, and I’m working that way…

    Thanks for making me think aobut it more.

  4. Danielle says:

    I tend to agree with Pam on the two points in contention. People live their lives happily when they have purpose. And worklife is a huge part of our lives in this society, like it or not. Trying to force myself to feel positive and optimistic in a job I didn’t derive any satisfaction from would feel to me like trying to swim against a riptide for all the effort it would take. Why waste a drop of life trying to force yourself to feel something you don’t? That definitely would affect my outlook on life, and not for the better. I would be the one seeking purpose and satisfaction and well-being in every area of my life, including my job, and moving on if I wasn’t getting some sense of reward or purpose from either the work, the atmosphere, the culture or the values there.

  5. I agree with the idea that we need to be content before we can be happy. But, people tend to place too much emphasis on their job as their identity; so, if the job is not fulfilling, they are not content and can’t be happy. Love your life, love yourself and just let your job be a job.

  6. Mathieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk who has been pronounced “the happiest man in the world” based on MRIs done on his brain, refers to happiness as a skill, just like learning to read.

    In his book, “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill,” he tells the story of the time he was on a train in Asia, traveling under cramped and miserable conditions, his laptop with months of work on it just stolen, and yet, was inexplicably happy.

    Okay, he and other Buddhist monks spend hours a day meditating, which is why they’ve gotten pretty “good” at being serenely happy regardless of their circumstances. But I do think you can make the decision to be happy.

    It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for work that would be more personally fulfilling, allow you to express your talents and contribute to the world – just that, philosophically speaking, happiness is not directly correlated to your work, and you don’t have to wait until you’ve got your “dream job” to be happy. (Just as well, since a lot of us have unsatisfying “day jobs” while we’re pursuing our dreams!)

  7. Dwight Hurych says:

    How’s this idea… “I am content with who I am, but I am unhappy with my job.” (Hypothetical, of course.)

    To me, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between contentment and happiness: contentment is the internal cause and happiness is the response to external stimuli. Make sense?

    Think of it this way: happiness, like sadness, is a temporary emotion. However, contentment, like depression, is a condition. Whether a job is right for me or not isn’t going to help if I’m not truly content with who I am. Conversely, if I’m content with who I am, I may or may choose a job, or seek for a job, that I am happy to do. The pursuit of happiness is about sustaining that temporary emotion as long as possible. However, one will really be let down if the emotion is sought without contentment being there already. Know that saying, “money can’t buy happiness”? That’s why. One must first learn to be content without money.

    It only takes a little imagination to see how this works in other things besides jobs or careers, such as marriages. The pursuit of happiness will not sustain a loving relationship.

    Can you both be right? Yes, I think so, just watch the terminology. I think Penelope is basically talking about contentment, and Pam is basically talking about happiness. You can be truly content and have a ‘fab four’ accounting job, or seek greater happiness with a coaching career.

    I’m paraphrasing Nietzsche, who said “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” It’s the answer to why that gives us contentment. Only from there, can we truly be happy.

    Dwight Hurych, a content passerby who is happy to post a comment!

  8. Sandra Mendoza-Daly says:

    Ooh! My two favorite ladies going toe to toe. Well not so much really. I tend to agree with Penelope in that your life is what should make you happy. Not your job. I am truly unhappy in my work right now because I do not have the 4 criteria that Penelope mentions. And in the industry I am in, it isn’t going to get better. So in order to be satisfied with my work life, I need to make a career change. thank goodness for my husband, because otherwise, I’d really be miserable in all areas of my life.

  9. Ooh! My two favorite ladies going toe to toe. Well not so much really. I tend to agree with Penelope in that your life is what should make you happy. Not your job. I am truly unhappy in my work right now because I do not have the 4 criteria that Penelope mentions. And in the industry I am in, it isn’t going to get better. So in order to be satisfied with my work life, I need to make a career change. thank goodness for my husband, because otherwise, I’d really be miserable in all areas of my life.

  10. Pam, thanks for starting this discussion. And it’s really fun to read the comments here.

    Something to think about: Our happiness in life is laregely determined by our level of optimism, which is very hard to control. So it makes sense that we look for happiness in things we can control, like which career we have.

    I think there’s a big difference between being excited and stimulated by our job and being happy.

    Also, I think that someone who is in love, but in a bad job, still has a glow on her way to work in the morning. Because in love trumps bad job in the happiness charts.

    Sometimes I think the conversation about how to get a dream job is a distraction. But then I remember that I write a career blog, so I can’t say that too often 🙂


  11. Kathi Fisler says:

    The “stretching you” point falls short by not accounting for whether you’re receptive to being stretched in the direction at hand. As a college professor, I routinely see comments about satisfaction via course evaluations. Courses are often “stretching without defeating” relative to students’ abilities, but students generally don’t learn what they’re not open to thinking about. The analogy between jobs and courses isn’t exact, but this post got me thinking about whether these four points were a good metric for satisfaction in courses in your college major. My general point is that we’re more receptive to what interests us. That could be part of the missing link between Pam’s and Penelope’s perspectives.

  12. Love your post. In fact I read Penelope daily and this post has had my mind wheels rolling for a while now.

    While I agree that a job won’t bring you happiness, it can make you miserable. As one of those transitioning out of the cube, I find that even though I am happy with my life, notice the small things, and have a bigger vision for my career and life, the job thing can drag you down with a daily dread.

    I thing point # 2 is a fine line. If you are a job that is a right fit (or at least a neutral fit) those points allow you to have a much better experience. If you’re in a bad fit job at best having these 4 things can make a bad situation more bearable, but it will never allow you to fully thrive until you align your work with your passions, skills, and values.

    Looking forward to expanded conversations from both blogs on this one…

  13. Greg says:

    If I understand Penelope’s post, she is discussing job change, not career change. So if you, Pamela, were not happy in your accounting gig, by all means consider a career change. But if you were going to change your current gig as a coach for another gig as a coach, you may want to do some soul searching and make sure the issue is about the job, not particular personal needs that jobs may not be able to fill.

    OT: Congratulation on the pending arrival!
    OT2: Penelope Trunk is one of my favorite bloggers too!

  14. Hi Pam!

    Great topic – one I write about frequently.

    I do not believe – from what I read – that Penelope Trunk indicates those four criteria as drivers of happiness. She indicates that they can define a good job. Happiness, if I read her correctly, is separate of the work you do.

    This is something I agree 100% with. The work you do is not the primary driver of happiness. Contentment is. When I indicate contentment, I don’t mean, I am content at a job that is not particularly meaningful or enjoyable.

    For instance, I drove a plumbing truck years ago (many years ago when I had hair). It was neither particularly meaningful nor soul-fulfilling. But I was happy doing it. Part of that happiness is simply being engaged in life – having a direction and pursuing – even if that direction is ill-defined. In fact, even if that direction is, “I just need to experience some things because I don’t know what I want to do or what I can do well.”

    Would I be happy with a widget-placing factory job? Sure, I’d be happy but that happiness would be driven not by the job but by my internal life drivers – those things that make me see possibility and growth. And those things would make staying at a widget-placing factory job so unlikely as to make what I was currently doing meaningless in the scheme of happiness.

    Not sure what I am getting to – I am working on a book project in a separate window, posting here and responding to email – so I apologize for the scattered and lengthy response.

    I am not satisfied with my response but I am happy about it none-the-less 😉

    Take care.
    Matt Moran
    Author: The IT Career Builder’s Toolkit (Cisco Press)

  15. apu says:

    I think Ric above gets it bang on – they are necessary, not sufficient criteria. They make the job environment much more positive and enjoyable, but if the line of work isn’t fundamentally to your liking, it won’t help.

    I also feel the whole issue of company culture is not covered – including how employees are allowed to treat subordinates, overall professionalism, no tolerance of jerks etc. That makes a big difference too

  16. Ric says:

    What – no reaction yet?

    I tend to agree with you – those four criteria could be met by a street-sweeping job … but I wouldn’t be happy doing it. That doesn’t mean NOBODY would be happy doing it … while they are necessary criteria, they are not sufficient to claim completeness.