Let the world be the editor of your life story.
By Tim Herrera, New York Times
Are you doing what you actually want to be doing?
Maybe! Or maybe not?? Who knows! It’s one of the toughest questions we’ll grapple with in our lives.
But when was the last time you were completely honest with yourself and thought about it? If you’re like most people, probably not recently.
“I’m a big believer in evaluating where you think you are in your life about once a year,” said Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of the book “Bring Your Brain to Work.”
“It could be a birthday, could be New Year’s, it could be some other significant date for you, but one of the things I’ve found,” he said, “is the number of people who waited until some significant tragedy in their lives — they got sick, or someone they know got sick, or they suffered a loss — and suddenly that was the impetus they needed to re-evaluate. And I really feel like, on a yearly basis, we ought to take stock of where we are and be willing to make a big decision if that’s required.”
He added: “Don’t wait for a tragedy to strike before you’re willing to actually think about this.”
But even if you are someone who takes time to think about your career, do you really know what to consider?
What am I doing here?
A full-time worker will spend roughly 80,000 hours at work over the course of her working life. Setting aside the fact that that can account for a majority of your waking hours, consider the intangible costs. If you’re in the wrong career, that could mean tens of thousands of hours spent devoted to something you don’t even really care about, much less feel is your passion.
“It isn’t just a matter of making it through another week or another month,” Mr. Markman said. “Those months become years. And when you recognize it at that level of magnitude, sometimes that can give you enough force to be willing to make a hard decision”
Passion alone isn’t necessarily the best indicator of whether you’re in the right career — a topic we have covered before in Smarter Living — and sometimes it can lead you down the wrong path. But one of the factors that might be a deciding one is thinking about your values.
In a broad sense, we all have a set of core values that help to define us. Maybe you put a priority on achievement, helping others, doing good, having structure in your life or just plain happiness. Whatever your core values may be, putting time into genuine, honest introspection to figure them out can help point you in the right direction when deciding whether the work you do aligns with your values. In fact, people with high levels of this type of self-awareness have stronger relationships, perform better at work and are more creative.
[Like what you’re reading? Sign up here for the Smarter Living newsletter to get stories like this (and much more!) delivered straight to your inbox every Monday morning.]
If you’ve never put much thought into it, one helpful way to identify your values is to stop asking “why” questions about yourself, and start asking “what” questions. Here’s an example from a previous story I wrote on self-awareness: When you’re thinking of a situation that caused you to feel bad at work, you might ask yourself, “Why do I feel so terrible?”
A better approach would be to ask yourself, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?”
It may seem like an insignificant word-swap, but you might be surprised at the different answers you arrive at — or how those answers have changed over time.
“When you look at that set of values, you may realize that the path you’re on is never going to lead to the right level of satisfaction, because you’re not actually doing something that fits that core set of values that you have,” Mr. Markman said. “And when you recognize that, that’s not something that’s going to get better. Your values are not likely to switch back, so you really then need to be willing to take a step to change that career path.”
So, what do you do?
Our work identities are so wrapped up with our personal identities that we sometimes fail to differentiate between the two, and that’s a trap that can keep people in careers that don’t make them happy. Certain job titles come with certain connotations and assumptions, and leaving one role for another can shake a person’s identity and confidence to their core.
But instead of tying those connotations to the person, Mr. Markman suggests looking at job titles a different way: as verbs, rather than nouns.
“When you go to a party, one of the first things you ask someone is, ‘What do you do?’ because of that belief that it tells us something deep about who they are,” he said. “One of the things we have to do is to really try to treat our career more like a verb than a noun. There’s a lot of research on nouns that shows that as soon as you give a label to something, you come to believe that somebody or some object has essence of that thing. A cat — why is a cat a cat? It has essence of a cat. That’s true not just for biological categories, it’s true even for professions.”
No job that anyone could take uses all of a person’s skills, Mr. Markman said, so rather than focus on a job title as a defining characteristic, we should instead think of a job title as merely one component of a complex person who has other skills, passions, challenges, ideas, values and more.
So what does that mean for you, the potential career-switcher? In essence, it’s this: Your job title doesn’t define you. It’s just one slice of your identity, and swapping out one for another doesn’t change the core of who you are.But that’s not all.
Maybe it’s the main — or only — question on your mind: What about the money?
Unfortunately, no one can answer that except you. Considerations like family, location, age, debt load, savings, relocation plans, retirement goals and many other factors come into play. It’s true that some studies have said that money starts to offer diminishing happiness returns once a salary reaches about $75,000 — while other studies have found different results — but something you should try to weigh is this: You can’t spend your way out of doing something that makes you genuinely miserable.
“Doing something you feel is satisfying can actually increase that level of happiness in ways that no amount of money will,” Mr. Markman said.
And that pursuit of happiness, all things considered, can sometimes lead you down surprising paths.
“I’m a big believer that we shouldn’t be the ones who edit our life story. We should allow the world to edit our life story,” Mr. Markman said. “So take advantage of opportunities, try things, give a job a shot. There’s very little cost to putting yourself out there.”
Have you ever made a career change? What was that experience like? Tell me on Twiter @timherrera.
Thanks, have a great week!
P.S. — Smarter Living is now a book! We’ve pulled together some of the best S.L. stories we’ve ever done, as well as loads of brand-new pieces of advice and guidance, to give you smart, actionable life tips on how to improve your career, your home, your finances, your relationships and your health — all wrapped up in a truly gorgeous book perfect for holiday gifting and New Year, New You resolutions.