Trying to climb the corporate ladder? Warning: It can be a dangerous distraction. Promotions don’t always increase your job satisfaction or nurture your passions. In fact, the added responsibility could drive you further away from finding meaning in your work because you’re too busy to even consider it.
Americans in particular are under immense pressure to be chronically busy. Last year, 55 percent of the U.S. workforce left 658 million vacation days unused. If you value advancement but never figure out whether moving “up” will help you bring your passions to play in what you do, you might lose all sense of purpose. This is not an uncommon problem; fewer than 20 percent of leaders of organizations feel passionate about their individual purpose, and many of them can’t even articulate what that purpose is.
How do you find the passion that can fuel you through distractions and an exhausting pace?
1. Note how challenges make you feel.
Even if you love your job, some aspects of it will be difficult or unpleasant, because as the saying goes, that’s why it’s called work. You need to figure out how those challenges make you feel. Are the parts you hate the norm or the outliers?
Connecting your work to a larger personal goal can help you avoid procrastination or laziness. Finding a job you’re so passionate about that every task seems easy isn’t a bad idea, but it’s an awfully high bar to clear. But it’s important to feel that the obstacles ahead of you are worth overcoming for reasons beyond a paycheck.
To gauge how I’m feeling about my daily challenges, I use a simple 2×2 matrix: high or low energy, and positive or negative mood. High/positive (in the zone) or low/positive (calm and relaxed) are the spaces I want to be in as often as possible. Something I feel highly energetic and positive about is a passion, whereas something I feel highly energetic but negative about is typically a major stressor. By consciously assessing patterns that emerge, I can identify the aspects I want to adjust or recalibrate.
If you’re feeling low energy and negative but need to push through, try my solution: I head to an email folder I have labeled “Fuel,” where I save emails from grateful employees, students and satisfied customers. These inspire me by reminding me why I do what I do: to have a positive, tangible impact on the lives of students by helping them unlock their potential.
2. Actively create opportunities to reflect.
At the end of each day or each project, evaluate how you feel about the way you spent your time. You probably won’t be exuberant and energized every single day. But if you never feel that way, or regularly feel frustrated and tired, you could look for a new job—or you could draw on a deeper commitment to impact a broader big-picture goal that’s deeply and personally meaningful to you.
Reflecting in this way will help you see patterns of likes and dislikes, which will help you navigate a maze of opportunities to find the kind of future you want for yourself. In one study demonstrating this phenomenon, adults participating in a puzzle-solving game performed 18 percent better than their peers on consecutive attempts when they were given time to reflect on their past performance. This method of reflection has helped me make wiser career pivots.
Case in point: Over the course of my career, I’ve worked for six companies. During three of those five job transitions, I took several months off to reflect on my passions and evaluate whether my next job would align with them. Often, the next opportunity I pursued meant taking a reduction in pay, level of responsibility or title—all things conventional wisdom advises against.
When I left my job as a management consultant to start my own company, I traded a big salary, an office and an executive assistant for working from my apartment with my co-founder, unsupported and essentially without pay.
By reflecting on my purpose, though, I found ways to calibrate my passions with what I would be doing for a living. This understanding allowed me to immerse myself in my work without reservations, even when making a lateral move. With that kind of enthusiasm, the pay raises and promotions followed naturally.
3. Tap into your inner circle for a reality check.
Ask your partner, friends or family members for candid feedback about their perceptions of how you feel about your career and what your passions are. What topics do they frequently see you genuinely excited to discuss? When do they see you light up and get into a “flow”?
You might think everything is going fine, but our loved ones are often better at understanding what makes us tick than we are. Take advantage of their years of knowing you to find out whether they see your passions lining up with your work.
For example, say you really want to be excited about a promotion you recently earned, but instead you’re feeling wary and anxious. Your close friends might be able to help you be more honest with yourself and figure out where the disconnect lies.
Although you can’t change the world or your life every day, by integrating your passions into your work using these strategies, you can consistently take incremental steps in the right direction. If you dedicate yourself to finding your passion—and follow it wherever it leads—you’ll never leave your desk at the end of the day wishing things were different.