One of my closest friends from childhood has been employed in the finance world for the past 25 years. He makes a great salary, he gets cool perks, like golf trips to high-end resorts, and he meets with powerful people who are helping to shape systems and industries.
He’s also miserable.
This last part he confided in me when we met recently to have a few drinks and catch up. I never had any inclination that he was unhappy with his career. He’d been doing it for so long and had earned all the hallmarks of success – wealth, prestige, respect – that I assumed he was happy. But there, slumped at the bar, looking tired and a bit lost, he seemed anything but.
“I’m unfulfilled,” he told me. “I just don’t find any satisfaction doing the work.”
We talked about it for a while. The money was great, he said, and he enjoyed the golf trips and the tickets to shows with which he was often rewarded. But he didn’t find value in what he did. He wasn’t passionate about it, and it didn’t inspire him in any way. “I feel like a cog in a machine,” he said. “If you removed me, there would be a slight delay. Then someone else would get plugged in and it would be up and running again.”
The bottom line, he said, was this: “I just don’t feel like a success.”
Few people who examine my friend’s career would reach such a conclusion. By traditional metrics, he is the epitome of success. Traditional metrics don’t seem to apply, however. Following our meeting, I began to consider what was really eating at him. Why, despite the fact he is clearly good at his job, does he not feel successful? After talking more with him, and doing some soul-searching of my own, here’s what I’ve concluded about how finding success in the workplace can mean something beyond the obvious.
Work that is meaningful
A key sign that my friend was struggling was when he said his work left him “unfulfilled.” I’m not in finance, so I can’t attest to the exact nature of what he does, but making money for other people, and in turn for yourself, seems as though it could be fulfilling. Evidently, in my friend’s case, that’s not so. No one can tell another person what should or shouldn’t be meaningful in their lives. The important thing is that we find it ourselves.
Most of us want to feel as though there’s some intrinsic value in what we do. Earning money is certainly important – anyone who tells you otherwise is a bit untethered from reality – but if our work lacks meaning beyond income it can be unfulfilling. No matter the financial reward, work we find meaningless can leave us searching for something more. There’s no sure way to attribute meaning to one’s work, but there are some avenues you can explore in order to get there.
I believe strongly in daily affirmations. Reminding yourself each morning of who you are, what you stand for and why you do what you do is important. There may be broad, ideological reasons, such as a global worldview or a spiritual connection. Or perhaps the reasons are practical, like a desire to build a great life for your family. Whatever those reasons, don’t lose sight of them. Connecting with yourself provides a foundation on which you can build each day.
Another suggestion is to connect with others in the workplace. Social interaction is important, and when we find people who share common interests and who are motivated by some of the same things we are, it’s fulfilling. Not everyone is surrounded by co-workers with whom we connect, and some careers don’t lend themselves to much social interaction inside or outside of the workplace. But when we make the effort to reach out and share things with those around us – personal, professional or otherwise – it can strengthen our ties and give our work greater meaning.
Work that is gratifying
Another key element to feeling successful is to find gratification in our endeavors. Some things we do because they simply make us feel good. For me, it’s cooking and exercise. For my wife, it’s listening to music. Throwing ourselves into just about anything we enjoy has obvious benefits. What about the workplace, though? What can we find gratifying about our work, especially if it can be tedious or off-putting?
One place to look is for the benefits we reap from a job well done. There is a lot to be said for doing something well, whatever that something might be. If you challenge yourself to be the best you can in your career, cliche as that may sound, it can be gratifying. Think back to any professional accomplishment of yours – a big deal you may have closed, a project you may have earned accolades for, or even a menial task you dedicated yourself to and completed proudly – and you are likely to conjure good memories and feelings of satisfaction. It can be hard to challenge ourselves to be our best every day, and at every task we must accomplish. But when we are, the sense of gratification is palpable.
After considering these things, I called my friend and we spoke about them. I shared my thoughts with him, and my sense that if he could restore meaning and gratification to his work he might feel successful again. He seemed to take the talk to heart, and he thanked me for my concern. That, in turn, made me feel good. To feel that I was helping, or to be a part of the solution and not the problem was gratifying in itself.
In the end, that’s often what success comes down to. Not material goods or praise, but how our actions make us feel about ourselves. If we can put meaning and purpose into our work, and can generate from it a sense of gratification, feelings of success will follow.