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How to Find Fulfillment at Work

I recently met with a young man who, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, asked if we could get together to talk.

“I dread getting up every morning to go to work, and every evening I come home drained and exhausted," he said. What should I do?”

“I want to feel better about my job, but don’t know what to do. Frankly, I’m not particularly spiritual, and am just looking for practical advice.”

This young man is not alone in his perception of his job as drudgery. Many people strive for success and admiration at work and pour energy in to the promise of their careers, but somewhere along the way find that the anticipated rewards either do not materialize, or do not provide the happiness that they had hoped for, leaving them feeling stuck, trapped, bored, frustrated, drained, duped or depressed. I know this, because at times in my career I’ve also experienced all these feelings.

Here’s what I’ve learned, and what I told the young man:

First, you need to objectively identify why you are so unhappy at your work. There can be several categorical reasons:

  1. Your type of work: Perhaps you are in a field that you find inherently unsatisfying, or you feel called to a different type of career. Maybe you are a lawyer, yet yearn to be an artist; or you are an artist but are drawn to business; or you work at a large company but dream of being an entrepreneur.

  2. Your work environment: Maybe you are dissatisfied with your company, and experience your boss as abusive or insensitive, or are in conflict with your co-workers, or find your corporate culture demeaning, or feel undervalued and not listened to.

  3. Your personal situation: Are you unmotivated because the time demands of your job have hurt your relationships with your family, friends, and community, leaving you feeling exhausted, resentful, and unbalanced in your life?

  4. Your attitude: Hovering over all these reasons is your attitude. Do you look for problems and faults, or do you see possibilities for growth? Do you view people as threats and competitors, or do you see others as fellow human beings who share the same struggles and desires as you do?

Let’s look at ways to address each of these reasons:

  1. Many people I speak with tell me that their jobs are not fulfilling, but can’t identify alternatives. In those cases I recommend an exercise that you may find useful: Make three lists. On the first, write down all the things that you are naturally good at. On the second, all the things that you enjoy. And on the third, all the things that are meaningful to you. Don’t hold back or edit your responses; just write what comes to mind. Now, look for a theme that comes up in all three lists – that’s an indicator of your true purpose. An immediate answer may not appear, but you will be pointed in a direction. We are energized when we do something we enjoy, excel at, and that is meaningful.

  2. If your work environment is truly toxic to your mental and physical health, you ought to consider leaving. If you decide to stay, though, and want to be satisfied at your work, you must truly commit to your job, and to the success of your peers, co-workers, and your company. Once you do this you will naturally find ways to contribute, and will suddenly discover that you are not a helpless victim, but are a crucial and valued member of an interdependent community. This is not a Pollyanna, unrealistic vision, but is exactly how successful, energetic people approach their jobs.

  3. In order to feel satisfied at work it is crucial that we live balanced lives. Plan meaningful time with your family, exercise regularly, find community activities that involve you in the needs of others, and explore hobbies that allow for creative release. Most of us have much more available time than we think, but we often squander this time watching TV or in some other activity that we think will bring relaxation, but that actually drains us even further. Finding balance is about commitment and discipline.

  4. Once you implement the first three recommendations with positive intention, you will suddenly discover that your attitudes have changed. You will lighten up and have more energy. You feel more free, engaged, relaxed, optimistic, and grateful, because you will have discovered possibilities for your job and your life that had been hidden under the cover of limiting, negative attitudes.

I suspected that one or more of these reasons applied to the young man’s situation, and wished him the strength and courage to implement lasting changes that will transform how he views his job, himself, others, and the purpose for his life.

I also shared a quick thought with him about “spirituality.” We may think of spirituality as naively idealistic or something reserved for special times and activities, but “spirituality” is, essentially, the experience of a transformative connection. In other words, we are “spiritual” when we connect deeply with ourselves, others, and the Divine, in a way that strips away our defensive fronts, revealing our true selves. We have all had these experiences - in the beauty of nature, at the birth of a child, when we commit to love, care for another, or in the moments of creative “flow” - and spiritual practices are developed to help train us to make these connections in a regular, deliberate way. In this way, the recommendations above are all spiritual practices designed to help us find more peace, purpose, and fulfillment in everything that we do.