11 October 2017
Anna Skoulikari

How to Find Fulfilling Work

On the possible beneficiary audience of this book:

This book is for anyone contemplating what they want to do with their lives (professionally speaking, that is). Possibly asking themselves if they (still) like their work or not. Or maybe finishing some sort of educational programme (be that high school, university or something else) and pondering what their next steps should be.

On a summary

This book gets you thinking - about your past, your future and most definitely about your present. Why did you make the decisions you made, how did you end up where you are now and what should your next steps be? His discussion includes a history lesson on the relatively recent invention of the meaningful career, as well as an explanation of how we have too much choice, too much baggage and too much faulty career advice clouding our view of our professional lives.

He focuses on three main pillars of a meaningful career - meaning, flow and freedom. And he delves into each of them separately bringing them to life with a rich array of narratives and personal insights. Most importantly though he empowers the reader to take action, real action, no more sitting around writing lists and contemplating another life, instead he pushes us to get up, try stuff, talk to people and experiment. He calls this method ‘act first, reflect later’ and it sounds refreshingly practical.

Below are some concepts and quotes that got me thinking and that I wanted to share.

On our pasts

Roman introduces the reader to Sameera, a young women working as a lawyer who at some point realized she didn't want to be a lawyer any more. And through her story we can explore the trifecta of past baggage that keeps so many of us in jobs that no longer jive with who we are - sunk costs, familial expectations and constricting (and premature) educational decisions.

Sunk costs, these take us into the field of economics. If they don’t ring a bell then no worries because they are really simple to explain. A sunk cost is a cost that has already happened and you can’t get it back. In this case Sameera had already invested in a law degree and years working at a law firm. So then what would happen once she decided to switch careers? What a waste no? No.

What would probably be a waste is staying in a career that she was no longer being fulfilled by right? Right.
How many times have we allowed the pure fear of sunk costs keep us from changing something? The most probable answer to that is - too many. But this isn’t the only fear that keeps us from staying true to ourselves and possibly doing something new. What about what everyone is going to say?

Familial expectations in particular can be intense. Especially those of our parents. Then again, making decisions with them in mind may leave us miserable. And given most parents want their children to be happy, this would ipso facto leave them miserable too. An eye for an eye may leave everyone blind but one forced decision made for a restrictive expectation may leave everyone miserable.

And it’s not just family, it’s friends and everyone else around us we try to impress. We may dream about the high school reunion where we get to walk in with pride as our former classmates gawk at our awesome careers. (Facepalm) But in the pursuit of status Roman notes:

“We can easily find ourselves pursuing a career that society considers prestigious but which we are not intrinsically devoted to ourselves - one that does not fulfill us on a day-to-day basis.”

But how do we even get started on a possibly sub-optimal path in the first place? It starts so early on, it’s sort of ridiculous. Back in school. Our choice of subjects often affects the array of careers we perceive as possible for ourselves. And many times these subject decisions are extremely arbitrary, possibly influenced by a particular preference for a teacher rather than a keen interest in the subject material.

When reflecting on our past decisions however it is important to keep in mind that our current working lives are more a journey rather than a destination and empathizing with ourselves is paramount.
Roman shares this idea:

“We ought to recognize that our early educational and career choices could well have been made when we were very different people than we are today. Clinging onto a job that no longer suits your personality or aspirations can be like trying to hold onto a relationship that just isn’t working because you’ve grown apart. There comes a point when splitting up is probably the healthiest option, painful though it may be. We all change: we learn more about ourselves, and shift our priorities and perspectives, under the challenging tutelage of human experience.

On work versus our relationships

Of course a discussion on work can not shy away from addressing the hedonic treadmill (work, work more, eat, sleep, repeat) and the protestant work ethic that have infiltrated our society and our lives. And although it’s sort of a jaded argument that we have heard over and over again and repeating it just feels sort of like self-flagellation, Roman does pose some interesting questions.
So as Roman discusses one of the five aspects that can provide meaning to work, money, that is, he ends his discussion with a question posed:

“So we may be looking for fulfilment in the wrong places - in having rather than being, in accumulating possessions rather than in building nurturing, empathic relationships.”

He also quotes Sue Gerhardt when she discusses consumerism and its perils and she says of the people stuck running on this treadmill:

“Lacking emotional security, they seek security in material things.”

Material things can’t reject us. Our partners and friends can though. Material things can’t pack up their bags and leave. They can’t express disappointment or make us feel vulnerable.

And so when we are feeling insecure it is easier to invest time into our work rather than face the uncertain reality of the people we actually care about in our lives.

Later on when discussing how an intense work (or overwork) ethic has become a sort of norm in society the question arises:

“Do I put more time and energy into my work than into my relationships with loved ones and friends?”

This makes me think about the gym. Sort of random, I know, but let me explain myself. When a lot of work moved from being physically laborious to more mentally taxing (think, office jobs), we started to have to make explicit time to work out and keep ourselves physically fit.

In the same way now that a lot of our interactions are through digital means and we lead much more individualistic lives rather than communal ones, we may also need to make explicit time to invest in our close relationships.

In the same way that our abstinence from physical exercise leaves us out of shape. Our negligence of our relationships leaves us emotionally void.

When was the last time we really invested in the relationships in our lives? When did we last do something thoughtful for someone we care about? And really, when did we last express our appreciation for someone in our lives?

On learning by doing

Roman may not be a doctor but he does have a prescription. And it’s called ‘act first, reflect later’. It’s supposed to replace the previous remedy of ‘plan then implement’.

Whereas we can sit for ages and think about careers and plan every detail of every tip toe (because let’s face it, we are scared shitless of actually taking a full blown step) this won’t get us that much closer into figuring out whether we are truly going to enjoy something.

Because until you try something out for real. Like spend a day in the shoes of someone that does that job. You can’t know whether you will actually like it.

So Roman encourages us to start dating. Job dating, that is. And how? His prescription includes three different pills. The one with the highest dosage is a radical sabbatical. If your system can’t handle one of those then he pushes for a branching project and if you are really just looking for something low key, then conversational research is the one to go for.

Let’s take a look at this last one, conversational research. What does that even mean? It means talking to people about their jobs in order to find out if you would be interested in doing it. Plain and simple.
But don’t forget to read the warning label (which includes the potential side effects). It reads as follows:
Warning. You should avoid conducting only conversations with people in your social circle. It is important that you have conversations with people you normally would not come across or talk to that have a different worldview than yourself. Conversations may cause doubts or alterations of your worldview.

As Roman notes (with some striking imagery):

“...our worldview is a psychological straitjacket that restricts us from pursuing new opportunities.”

What opportunities may we have overlooked? Have we thought about the internet for example? The internet has created so many new jobs but I am not convinced they are included in career guides. Professional ebay seller, professional airbnb host, famous blogger, are career counsellors taking these new jobs into account?
(Quick note: if this practical approach resonates with you then Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans is another (must) read.)

On the missing map

So many of us want answers. We want a book, someone, an institution or a company to tell us what to do. What is the right decision? But maybe, there is no map? As Seth Godin states in his book Poke the Box:

“Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps not those who follow them.”

On the discussion of being an employee versus being self employed, Roman takes it one step further and dabbles with the idea of the bespoke career. This is one step further than self employment since it is literally designing a new career that doesn’t actually exist but which you would create (thereby creating your own map). And it has become a whole lot easier with the internet by our sides.

Even when discussing the five aspects that provide meaning to work (earning money, achieving status, making a difference, following our passions and using our talents) Roman points out that there is not set blueprint. Each and every one of us requires different ingredients at different times for a recipe that will lead to meaningful work.
Roman beautifully expounds on the absence of a map below (and it comes with a giggle too):

“There is a widespread - and mistaken - assumption that a vocation usually comes to people in a flash of enlightenment or moment of epiphany. We’re lying in and suddenly we know exactly what we’re supposed to do with our life. It’s as if the voice of God has called to us: ‘Go forth and write Chinese-cookery books!’ Alternatively we put ourselves through a process of intense self-reflection which at some point, is supposed to give us a blinding insight into our future: ‘My task in life is to set up an otter sanctuary!’ It’s an enticing thought, which, in effect, takes the responsibility away from us: someone or something will tell us what to do with our lives.”

Who are we waiting on to tell us what to do with our lives?