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Reclaim Your Purpose at Work Now

Put your values to work today.

Do you ever feel like you’ve lost your way in your career? Like you started out with one idea or plan but then life happened or things changed, and a loss of purpose crept up on you? And now you’re either going through the motions each day not feeling much, or maybe you’re actively unhappy and wondering how you got where you are. Maybe your feelings are more fearful or anxiety-related—you’re afraid that this is how your work is always going to be or that you chose the wrong career. You probably feel alone in this but you’re not. It’s not only common to experience these feelings, it’s common to experience them more than once in your life. Always remember that whatever you are feeling is temporary—and your feelings are a function of your thoughts. If you can change your thoughts you can change your feelings—and you can feel better. Be kind to yourself through this process.

One of my inspirations for writing this post came from a recent episode of Chicago Med entitled “Monday Mourning" which focused on the characters’ reactions to the workplace suicide of one of their colleagues. I really like the psychiatrist played by Oliver Platt. His character is nuanced and well-written and doesn’t fall into the usual movie psychiatrist stereotype of Dr. Evil or Dr. Wonderful. At one point, he makes an interesting observation: "You know that 400 doctors a year take their own lives, the worst of any profession. I've got a strong hunch it's got something to do with taking people who have a powerful desire to help and throwing them into a game where the odds are stacked against them."

Reclaiming your purpose is at once simple and complex. It may require a major career change, but it might also be solved through some renewed focus on how you spend your time at work. Let’s start with the word “reclaim.” How did it disappear? What changed in your life or your job? Maybe you never felt you had a purpose: you were following the career advice of others. (See my previous blog on the “Tyranny of Shoulds” if that’s the case.) Or maybe your purpose lacked true meaning: perhaps, for instance, your purpose was to “achieve”, and so you achieved more and more, without stopping to consider the “why” of it all.

A sense of purpose tends to come from our values, rather than a specific skill or talent. The skill or talent, and the work we do, is how we express our values. And, as pointed out by that episode of Chicago Med, sometimes our values are the source of our stress at work. So let’s start by identifying the key value or values (no more than 5) that are or were important to you. Samples of values include Adventure, Autonomy, Creativity, Leadership, Serving, or Wealth. Google-search “values” to find lists, or here’s a good list of the most common values from James Clear. Another way to figure out your top values is to take an excellent test from Authentic Happiness called the VIA Test of Character Strengths. The test is free, but you will need to create an account. Look around the site while you’re there; you’ll find several excellent tests and helpful information.

If you want to feel a stronger connection to your purpose/values, try this:

1. Select a value that’s important to you now, and take a few minutes to get quiet and focus. Breathe. After you have quieted your mind, think about the past week or two at work. Can you recall situations where you demonstrated or experienced that value? Where? What happened? Conversely, are you having trouble finding an example? Perhaps you started your career to “help people” but then you moved from direct service to administration and your sense of helping others became more abstract. Or maybe you’ve gotten caught up in all the problems and challenges connected to “helping people” and you now see the challenges as overwhelming or insurmountable.

2. Are you expressing your values in a way that still works for you? For instance, maybe you would prefer to “help people” by developing an app that will make their lives easier, or writing a project management report that will help them work more effectively and efficiently. Maybe your purpose stays the same but you have found (or need to find) a new way to express it.

3. If you can think of ways that you have expressed your values, focus on them. Reflect back on the times when you succeeded—even if it was more than a few weeks ago. Think of a person you helped, a creative idea that came to fruition, an interest you developed and perhaps taught to others, etc. If you want, take a few minutes and write down those “wins.” Consider developing a daily or weekly list of connections to your purpose.

4. Whether you could identify any “wins” or not—what can you do now to create or increase the number of value “wins” at work and connect back to your purpose? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is my overall purpose in my work? What values am I expressing through my work? What am I bringing to my work that enhances my life or the lives of others?
  • How am I expressing my values or how could I express them? Through projects? Creative new ideas? How I manage my staff? How I interact with my colleagues, clients, or customers?
  • Can I list some ideas for possible ways to express my purpose? For example, what if I emailed a colleague and thanked them for their work and told them I appreciated them? How might that help my sense of purpose?
  • When can I start doing this? Now? Tomorrow morning? What one action could I take to focus on my purpose?

And now we’re at the bottom-line of purpose: Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why is this purpose important to you and how much mental energy will you apply to it? What difference might it make in your life and in the lives of others? Your answers to these questions are important—and may mean the difference between just another day at work versus a fulfilling and meaningful day at work.

©2017 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved.

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Check out the newly revised and updated version of my book, “You Majored in What? Designing Your Path from College to Career.

Photo credit: "Pondering" by Gilliu00/ Flickr Creative Commons.

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