When you meet new people at a function, what is one of the first things they ask you? Every time I am introduced to new people, we generally say ‘hello’ and ‘pleased to meet you’. Then, we ask each other, ‘what do you do for a living?’
I can understand why people ask this because it breaks the ice and keeps the conversation moving. It is assumed that the question ‘what do you do for a living’ will reveal something about who you are and then encourage more discussion.
I am an accountant. This has been my most succinct response to the ‘what do you do for a living’ question. The problem is that this short answer gave people a false impression of the real me. The field I studied is no longer congruent with the dreams and aspirations I have for my life. I have never fitted the stereotypical accountant profile so I always wanted to qualify the statement and say ‘I am an accountant BUT…’ Sometimes a BBQ, wedding or light-hearted cocktail party is not the place to get too philosophical and intense. So, I generally left my response as a brief ‘I am an accountant’ but felt something was missing from my answer, just like I felt something was missing in my career in general.
I have always wondered whether other people feel the same way as me. Do people’s jobs and the companies they work for define who they really are? – ‘I am a doctor’, ‘I work for IBM’, ‘I am in the oil industry’, ‘I am an engineer’, ‘I am in project management’. Recently, I have made it my mission at functions to subtly probe whether people’s jobs are congruent with their passion and who they feel they really are.
My extensive, informal research has confirmed the results I suspected. Most people crave something more in their careers and when they state their profession, they don’t feel it captures who they really are. Work is generally not a reflection of people’s true passions. In most cases, it pays the bills but people dream of something else. If money were no object, they would often be doing something more creative and artistic.
Here is an example. At a BBQ on Saturday night, I was introduced to four people with high profile, well paid jobs. When we met, we spoke about the type of work they do, the state of the industry in which they work and how hard they have been grafting lately. Later in the evening, I began my research by casually asking, ‘Do you enjoy your job?’ Whenever I ask this question, I can see people’s imaginary masks start to disappear and I get a glimpse of who they really are.
It turned out that Chris, a business consultant, has a high-powered job at a FTSE100 company but is unfulfilled by it. If he didn’t have a mortgage, he would rather teach Yoga. He is in conflict – he likes the status and standard of living that his job provides but his heart is not in it. Sally, another accountant, quit her job 5 years ago and is now an acupuncturist. Owning her own business has many challenges, the biggest of which is that her income comes in waves instead of on a conveyor belt. In spite of her daily challenges, she has no regrets and could not imagine going back to the cut-throat corporate world. Craig is a hot shot in the airline business and was recently offered an obscene salary to manage a new airport in Russia. He refused and then quit his job in order to study musical theatre at Trinity College in London. For two years, he will have to pay his own way. Living on the smell of an oil rag does not bother him because he is finally following his heart. Then there was Shona, who is a management accountant. Her job also pays the bills but, if she had the choice, she would love to buy dilapidated houses and redecorate them from scratch.
Fascinating. What were Chris, Sally, Craig and Shona missing in their day jobs that made them crave something more? What do their dream jobs have in common? They needed more right brain qualities in their work. They needed beauty, creativity, meaning, community, personal expression and more emotional involvement.
After chatting to people at BBQs, cocktail parties, weddings and at dinner parties, I have concluded that today’s workers crave more of these three things in their jobs –
1. Meaning and significance.
The work force of the 21st century yearns to be significant, not just successful. They do not want to live to work. They want to fulfill a need in society and see others benefit from the fruits of their labour. The routine, sequential, analytical nature of many jobs does not give people an opportunity to make a visible, tangible difference to others.
2. Passion and flow
Today’s work force want to align their work and their passion as much as possible. They want work to be an expression of who they are in some way. They believe that, if they will spend most of the day working, they should at least enjoy it. They crave what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called ‘the flow experience’. Flow is a mental state in which a person is completely immersed in what they are doing. They feel intrinsically motivated by the task at hand. They have an energized focus and feel fully alive. It is a feeling of great fulfillment, skill, enjoyment and absorption. They feel in the groove, in the zone and on the ball.
3. Freedom and flexibility.
21st century employees want more flexibility and freedom at work. If they have to work 15 hours a day, they want more freedom to choose exactly which 15 hours they will work.
Technological advancement and globalization is leveling the corporate playing field and companies now require more right brain capabilities in order to stand out from competitors. Right brain qualities are becoming more valued in business as they are more likely to stimulate the creative innovation that will give competitive advantage. Chris, Shona, Sally and Craig’s employers were not tapping into the skills and talent that could provide them with the most value. People who experience ‘flow’ at work are the most productive.
Here’s an interesting question to ponder – If people are missing something in their day jobs, whose responsibility is it to provide employees with what they crave? Is it the employer’s responsibility? Or, is it the employee’s responsibility to find the job which provides them with meaning, fulfills their passion and gives them more freedom and flexibility?