Joseph Campbell gave bumper-sticker-worthy career counsel when he suggested, "Follow your bliss." His advice has been a beacon—but only for those of us able to identify some non-erogenous bliss by our early twenties, when we are tasked with staking out a career path. The rest of us tend to wander into our work lives, following a road outlined by opportunity and illuminated by little more than a developing sense of self and the freighted opinions of parents and friends.
However you found your way into your professional identity, you will eventually confront another career choice: Can you look around and learn to love your work? At some professional points, that's not so easy to do.
The problem is, once you've found your niche, its rocky outgrowths will predictably start to abrade. Over time, those irritations—the hellish commute, predictable routine, incompetent boss, political colleagues, or mountainous paperwork grind—may begin to loom large, overshadowing satisfaction. It's all too human for gratification to recede, while frustrations continue to clamor for attention, making long-term career contentment, like long-term romantic love (or perhaps long-term anything, come to think of it), heavy lifting.
The secret to vocational fulfillment is not always found in a better job, or a more impartial supervisor. Sometimes the only thing you need to change is your attitude. And, as cognitive psychologists have long demonstrated, attitude can be significantly influenced by where you choose to focus your attention. What we think shapes what we feel, at least as often as the other way around.
Perhaps one secret to loving your work is to find the perfect job and then be overpaid for it. Failing that, you will love your work most when you deliberately, consciously, and regularly remind yourself of what there is to love about it.
In 30 years of practice I have observed only one universal truth: No one has to be coached to think more negative thoughts. They just come naturally. But positive thoughts require focus, effort, and discipline. The task itself is simple enough. Just take out a piece of paper and write down every single thing you like about your job. Or keep a daily list of five things that were positive at work today. Making that list can be attitude magic.
Direct your gaze along the following positive lines and see if it helps you to develop that (yes, it's saccharine, but it's also powerful) "attitude of gratitude."
- Review the sweet spots of your day. A physician so frustrated by managed care and malpractice that he brooded daily about escape eased his professional struggles with a positive trick of the brain. "Every morning when I start my internal rant against the ridiculous requirements of my new practice group, I force myself to STOP and picture one patient I feel I helped the day before. That soothing image brings my stress level down enough to get through another day."
Whether your best moments are central to your job description (you manage a team and management of any kind brings out your personal best) or peripheral to it (you organize the office softball team, including the T-shirt design), take the time to notice the moments in the day when you feel like your best self. Flash on that mental image in a clear and vivid way several times a day.
- Cherish the social support. However grand the mission of a war, warriors report that they fight on behalf of their unit buddies. So it is in the office. Whether we are making the widgets or selling them, we are in the marketplace fighting alongside our buddies. Their friendship, success, and our own contribution to the overall cause are often the best reasons to come to work. Take a minute to remind yourself.
- Appreciate positive parenting. If your work is a place where you can continue to develop, and if you've got a boss who bothers to show you the way, then you have a surrogate parent long past the time when most of us are left to flounder on our own. Good mentoring is not always easy to take, but it is definitely reason to cheer.
- Perks count, too. If you work in a pretty place, if they throw in baseball tickets, if you can bring the baby or the puppy to the office so all the parts of you are under one roof, if they give a swell holiday party or take a relaxed attitude towards facial hair or sweat suits (and you are partial to facial hair or sweat suits), then count it as a blessing.
- Finally, foremost, the money. Hallelujah, you are working for the money. Frankly, that's why they call it "work" and if you are being reasonably well paid, you have a very good reason to love your job. While this should be immediately obvious, you may find that your appreciation of a salary and benefits has gotten lost in the public promotion of other, higher, reasons to value your job. Bliss is, after all, a tough act to follow.
Certainly a sense of self, a contribution to society, intellectual challenge, and deep visceral thrills are all excellent reasons to love your job. But on the off chance that your day-to-day employment falls short on these dimensions, remember that money is the primary reason adults are at the workplace. Independent adults pay their own way, and they do that by working.
If you earn your keep, take pride in it. And let yourself love your job for it. Because, if you love your job, it makes work worth it. Even if you have to work at it. —Judith Sills, Ph.D.
Five Signs You'll Never Love Your Work
Let's face it. A positive attitude is not always a possibility. Here are some signals that your current job is just a bad fit.
- It embarrasses you to tell people what you do. If it makes you cringe, then you hoped for better. Or at least different. Take that seriously.
- You've been at the job for over a year and you still feel like a total fraud. If the job isn't new, and you still feel like you are faking it nearly all the time, well then, maybe you are.
- You connect with no one. Assuming that you have demonstrated a capacity to form friendships, if you have made no pleasant social connections in the workplace in what you consider to be a reasonable period of time, then you are probably with the wrong group of people.
- You are overwhelmed with rage or anxiety on a daily basis. Daily outbursts or inner explosions are a sign that something is wrong—maybe the job itself?
- The pay is lousy and you need the money. Though you need a wage to live, this is not the job for you.