You are most likely someone who has serious goals for your career. You are headed in an upward direction, making consistent progress above and beyond what most other people are willing to work for, and you are destined for big things.
But are you happy?
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a superstar at work recently. One of the things that seems to plague people with big dreams is feeling like what they have today just isn’t good enough.
Which makes sense — when you are dreaming big, you usually have a long way to go between where you are now and where you want to be. And it can be hard to live in that in-between-space — after all, if you haven’t yet achieved your dreams, how can you be satisfied?
But you only live once, and I don’t think anyone wants to spend most of their time feeling unhappy or disappointed. So how can you feel happy even as you work towards the things you really want?
This week I want to share some thoughts on how to make sure you know what you are working towards, why you are working towards it, and how to be happy even before you achieve it.
Defining your happy life
The other night, I got dinner with a friend who confessed to me that she’s been feeling really anxious about not being in a relationship. She told me that she feels like every day that passes without finding a husband feels like a failure.
It really struck a chord with me, because as we dove into it, the way she talked about her goal of getting married reminded me so much of the way many people talk about their career aspirations.
You see, the thing we uncovered in our conversation was this: getting married isn’t actually the goal for her. In her mind it has become The Goal, but really it is just the representation of other needs and wants that would make her feel truly happy to have fulfilled.
And if you think about it, that makes sense, right? Obviously being married, in and of itself, isn’t really the goal. If she really *just* wanted to be married, she could find some crazy person tomorrow and run down to the courthouse and be legally married to someone. But she isn’t doing that — because that’s not what she really wants.
It isn’t “marriage” really that she is after; it is what marriage represents to her. I asked her to explain what it would mean to be married. Why would it make her happy? What would it fill for her?
And most importantly — once she knows what these bigger desires really are, how can she create opportunities for them in her life right now, so that she is not unhappy until she finds a husband?
This is how you should be thinking about your career goals too.
How to set and work towards goals that are really meaningful to you
You probably have a big, overarching goal for your career. It might be something you know is 20 years and a lot of experience away from happening, but it is what you are working towards.
But when was the last time you checked in with *why* that is your goal?
For me, I know that making a connection with people and making them happy is really critical for me to feel satisfied at work — more so than other things like money or public recognition (which of course are nice — they just don’t beat that personal connection, for me).
This desire to connect and please is why I am great at customer service, it is why I made a great assistant, and it is why the 1:1 coaching and 360 review sessions we do at Popforms are some of my favorite parts of my job.
I know that feeling appreciated and seeing the impact I can make means more to me than other priorities, and so this gives me a really specific feeling to chase as I move up in my career.
What are your priorities? When are you happiest at work? What have been your favorite moments at your current job, and how can that inform your future priorities and goals?
Here is a good way to pin down your priorities, if you don’t already know: if you could only have one of the following, which would you pick as most important to making you feel happy about your work?
- Personal connections
- Something else?
Feeling happy even as you work towards your goals
In life, you can’t just focus on the end goal, like getting married or running your own company. If you wait until you’ve achieved your very biggest goal to feel happy or proud, you’ll spend so much time before that feeling unhappy and dissatisfied. Instead of waiting and counting on the fact that someday you will be happy with what you’ve achieved, you need to be constantly checking in with what the end goal *represents* for you and making sure you are incorporating that into your life today.
Here is an example: if you want to be a senior engineer, ask yourself why you want to be a senior engineer.
- Is it because you want to work on hard problems and set the course for how they’ll be solved?
- Is it because you want a high salary?
- Is it because you want to be a strong leader helping to develop other engineers?
- Is it because you want a title that reflects your experience and knowledge in your field?
These are four totally different, yet valid, reasons for wanting to be a senior engineer. You could potentially get all of these benefits (autonomy, salary, recognition, and leadership opportunities) by becoming a senior engineer, but not necessarily — and you should think now about which one of them is most meaningful to you so that you choose your opportunities effectively.
So what is most important to you?
If what is meaningful to you about becoming a senior engineer is getting to become a great leader and mentor, how can you make leadership opportunities part of your current life?
After all, you don’t have to be a senior engineer to start helping other people develop their skills. Even if you’re in your first job, there are lots of ways to start exercising your leadership muscles.
You can be an informal mentor today. Odds are, you know something that someone else at your company doesn’t know. You can practice your coaching skills right now by seeking out opportunities to share specialized knowledge you have with others, even without them officially thinking of you as a “leader” or “mentor”.
You can mentor outside of work. Developing leadership skills doesn’t just have to happen at work. Helping a child with their math homework once a week also helps you practice and develop coaching and communication skills you’ll need later on.
You can start blogging or speaking. If you want to share your best ideas and strategies with people, start sharing them now! The more practice you get communicating ideas and nurturing an audience, the better you will be when working with a team in the future — plus you’ll get the satisfaction of teaching and leading that you are seeking right now.
You want a career doing things you love and that are meaningful to you, so don’t waste time not doing those things that matter most to you just because it’s not part of your job description. Even if you can’t have them exactly in the way you envision them for your ultimate “this is what I am building towards” goal, odds are you can make them a part of your life now so that your work has meaning and satisfaction for you today.
Think about what it is about your goals that made you pick them. Get really granular.
KateM recently wrote about her definition of a “rich life” and how wanting to be a startup CEO fit a specific list of life-improving qualities, including wanting to work on projects that made the world a better place and being able to make her own schedule.
Could she have gotten those things with a different job title? Probably. Do other startup CEOs have different reasons why CEO is their dream job? Definitely. But the specifics aren’t what matters; what matters is knowing what drives you and then putting yourself in a position where you can get more of that.
To create a similar list for your own career and goals, ask yourself these questions:
- What are your non-negotiables?
- What are the things that make your dream job so appealing?
- When you imagine your dream job, what do you do all day?
- What’s your favorite moment of a normal workday?
- What would make it so you felt like you were living the best parts of your dream job today?
- What are the most basic needs you could meet and what steps would it take to start doing those things?
This week, try to write down your biggest goals and define what it is about those goals that meet your biggest needs and desires. And if you want, share them with us! We love talking to passionate people about their careers and would love to go over your goals with you.