This is one of my favorite quotes of all time. It resonates with me on such a fundamental level that it has become a foundational element of my life — finding the correct alignment between what I do and who I am.
Before I had my big “ah ha!” moment, I constantly struggled at work with things I “was supposed to be good at” or “should be able to do,” simply because of societal expectations or what was considered the “normal” path up the corporate ladder. It didn’t seem to matter to my previous employers that I added significant value through things at which I was innately good, and was very rarely empowered to focus on those things. Instead, I was constantly in trouble because I couldn’t get the changes to a 50 page contract quite right or because I’d missed an email in my queue of 600.
Being consistently reprimanded because I wasn’t good at the things “I should be able to do” made me question my own capacity to do great work and severely impacted my self-confidence about advancing into the career I ultimately wanted to build. Was I good enough to pursue the path I wanted to pursue? I started to doubt it. I knew I would excel in a creative role, but I kept hearing “if you can’t do this, you could never do that.” I lost my motivation to chase after my own personal dreams because I was compelled to work on things that didn’t align with my natural skill set, and after what seemed like endless trial-and-error (mostly error), I didn’t think I’d ever be able to improve.
To be clear, I’m not blaming anyone but myself for this predicament. I didn’t really know what I was good at professionally, how to develop and apply the natural skills I had, or how I intended to pursue my “great career,” I just knew I wanted one. I did a bunch of random stuff and learned many random skills, but never really discovered an occupation that made me tick and captured my mind. It took time (years, actually) to realize that my path to success had been in front of me all along — all I needed to do was “follow my feet,” or walk down the path I always returned to, regardless of what my role actually was at the time.
My “ah ha!” moment came when I decided to follow this path instead of forcibly walking down another one because it was what I was “supposed to do;” consequences be damned.
Suddenly things were different for me. I was inspired every day. I looked forward to my working hours and the things I delivered brought me actual joy. I pushed myself to make up the time I’d lost floundering around in middle-nowhere and worked on as many relevant projects as I possibly could without collapsing. I found that because I was working on things I loved and were inspiring to me in my free time, I could deliver far more than I ever expected and actually found ways to incorporate my new experience into my “day job” and add value with them as well, which lead to more and more of what I loved doing being incorporated into my day job. I realized that who I am, what I was good at, and what the world/my employer needed from me were 100% aligned with each other. To me, the overlap of these three things is success.
In many ways, I consider the quote above to be Einstein against the world. Even though work-life alignment has been proven to create happier, more fulfilled and loyal people, the common practice we continue to follow is a classic corporate path, the traditional “pay your dues” mentality. Do stuff you may or may not be good at to get the privilege of perhaps one day calling the shots on your own career. Rinse and repeat for the next set of kids out of college or vocational school. I draw issue with this approach. I believe there are ways to accelerate your professional growth in a meaningful way and buck the traditional path. I absolutely believe in paying dues, but I believe in paying the right dues.
I also believe everyone has something unique at which they can be amazing, given the right tools and motivations to get there. Einstein was a subpar student, but when exposed to a way of learning that suited him, he blossomed into one of the most brilliant minds to exist. Einstein is correct that any fish being judged by how well they climb will feel stupid; we must begin judging fish by how well they can swim and aligning natural talents with work.
If you don’t feel fulfilled and aligned in your work, or you feel like you are being judged for the things you simply do instead of the things you do best, I challenge you: throw it off! Buck the old system and give a new way a try. I’ve found that websites like Idealist.org and Craigslist are invaluable for finding experience in the industries in which I want to work without needing to commit full-time; giving the flexibility necessary to experiment, fail fast, and apply new knowledge quickly.
To help, I’d like to share with you my own personal “am I on the right track?” thought exercise. It’s helped me identify some really interesting insights about myself and what I truly want to be doing professionally.
A quick exercise:
- When you were a child, what things did you excel at? Were you good at math? Art? Do you still work in those major areas today?
- What do you do in your free time?
- What is the defining characteristic of your life? If you could choose 1 word to encompass the greatest pieces of your life, what would it be? (Example: my word is communication)
- How do you define success?
- What would you spend 40 hours a week doing for free for the next 5 years?
- At your current job, what is your favorite responsibility? Why is it your favorite?
- Do you find fulfillment in your current role? If not, what could push that needle for you?
- Do you feel empowered to pursue new areas of interest or focus in your current role?
- Do you feel in control of your working environment? Do you feel like you are moving toward an end goal?
- Do you actually care about what your company is doing in the world? Does it fall in line with your own values?
- What are the common themes in your responses to the above questions? Where do your answers overlap?
- Think creatively about how you could apply these themes to your work life and then look for a small project you could work on to test your theory. Rinse and repeat!
What do you think? Is work-life alignment something you think is necessary and important? Or is it a box of air? Let me know if the comments, I’d love your perspective!