What Unites People Who Do Work They Love?
Unsurprisingly, most people are really clear on what they don’t like about their careers but haven’t got a clue when it comes to identifying what it is they’d like to do instead.
The questions for so many of us then are this:
- What are we actually aiming at?
- What would it feel like to do work we loved?
- What should we do to reach a place of deep satisfaction when it comes to work and our careers?
Like with so many things in life, we need role models. When I look at people who do love their work, I see a few unifying characteristics. Analysing people who are genuinely successful and fulfilled has really helped me understand what it is I am looking for in my work. If you want to find work you’ll love, it might be helpful to do the same. Find people who you admire – people who are having an excellent time doing whatever it is they are doing – and assess the characteristics that have got them to a place of fulfilment.
These characteristics are by no means a final list, nor are they mutually exclusive… (for example – #1 excellence often requires #2 a niche and #3 patience). This is a list of prompts for you to compare against your own past and your immediate future. Consider how these ideas might feature as ingredients in one of your many potential future options. How might you consciously cultivate these characteristics as you take the next steps in your career?
What unites people who do work they love?
1. They pursue and attain excellence.
People I admire who love their work are excellent at some aspect of it. Excellence often leads to autonomy because the better you are at something, the more likely you are to be able to do it on your own terms, to command higher fees, and to have greater control over who you work with and what you work on. Think of any impressive TED speaker – their particular and unique excellence is what has brought them to that stage and it is probably one of the main factors in allowing them to do work they love too. There are no shortcuts. You’d like a life on your own terms? You’re going to have to get damn good at something.
2. They have a clear niche.
There are many roles for generalists throughout the economy (and indeed, portrayed the right way, being a generalist could be a niche in itself). However, people who excel at something often seem to have narrowed things down for themselves. This could be in terms of industry or location or customer segment or service. We live in a complicated, chaotic world and trying to make everyone happy is a sure-fire way of making no one happy. We find this again and again with Escape the City – when we are brave and exclude new opportunities or new customer segments we find we are able to double down on delighting people around a smaller subset of things we consider are really worth pursuing.
3. They are patient.
Building something awesome takes time – be it a skill, a career or a business. Some people come to The Escape School with the expectation that there is some magic formula to work fulfilment, financial security, and happy-ever-after voila. The reality is that every single person whose life you envy or whose career you admire has got to where they are through persistence (and a good dose of luck and chance no doubt).
Check out Maria Popova (the founder of the incredible brainpickings.org). She has been writing for seven years. Like Escape the City, her idea started as a simple blog and a newsletter sent to some friends. Go check out her “About” page to see where patience (as well as excellence and a clear niche) has taken her.
People often say to me, “it’s not that I’m scared of putting in the 10,000 hours to become excellent at something, it’s that I don’t know what my Thing is and I don’t want to pick the wrong thing.” This is a really elegant trap. The only way we know what we want to do with our lives (or even with the next three years) is by getting out there and trying things. If we never start because we are labouring under the belief that one day we will “Just Know” what it is we want to do with our lives, WE WILL NEVER START.
No one really knows what they are doing when they start, they just started. The belief that you’re “just not one of those people who has a clear passion or clear interests” is rubbish.
4. They make active choices.
If you have read The Escape Manifesto you will have heard us talk about “The Accidentals” – those of us who wake up one day and realise that whatever career path we are on wasn’t really of our choosing. People who succeed (in any walk of life – be it investment banking or building schools in Africa) make active choices. They bravely and deliberately exclude options in order to actively choose ones to proceed with. They have their eyes open and know why they are doing what they are doing and what they are getting out of a given situation. There are certainly such things as good choices and bad choices, but believing that there is simply One Choice that we have to take is a trap. If we delay starting until we have found the Right Thing, we’ll never start. You don’t have to quit your job or take big risks, just pick up a rope anywhere and see where it leads.
5. They have a network of strong allies.
People who succeed have allies. Especially if they are on paths less travelled. The more what you are doing is unconventional, the more you will benefit from having a community around you of like-minded people on similar journeys. Speak to any entrepreneur, freelancer or independent worker and you will find that they have a network of trusted people who they use for support and inspiration. No man / woman is an island. Find your tribe.
6. They enjoy the process.
You are unlikely to have the patience (#3) to become excellent (#1) if you don’t enjoy what you do. I have stayed with Escape the City for years for many different reasons, but one of the main ones has been how damn fun it is. Getting good at something that is hard is fun. Building a business with your friends is fun. Calling the shots in your own life is fun. Either way, if it ain’t fun for you, you’re unlikely to last the course. And, if you are going to spend years getting good at it, hadn’t you better enjoy it?
7. They are self-aware.
I am fortunate to work with a lot of impressive coaches and entrepreneurs at The Escape School and I am constantly struck by the extent to which they know what they like and don’t like, what they are good at and what they aren’t good at. As a result of clear self-knowledge, not only are they able to confidently accept or decline opportunities but they are also extremely aware of where their “edge” is and what their next challenge is. Knowing what the next step is on your own personal growth journey is extremely motivating.
8. They find ways of being autonomous.
Some of these same career coaches could be working in the corporate world, earning double what they earn from working with their individual clients. However, in order to do that they would have to compromise on a hell of a lot of things – location, hours, dress, subject matter, autonomy. Ultimately they would have to compromise their independence. I’m not saying that all of us should find ways of being sole traders or independent consultants. However, the more you can find ways of being more autonomous on the work front – even if you are fully employed by someone else – the more likely you are to enjoy your work.
9. They act with integrity.
For me, acting with integrity means acting in alignment with your values. It is so depressing hearing so many people talk about being pressured into doing things at work that go against their core values. I used to worry about what I might end up doing after Escape the City and whether I would find it fulfilling. However, I have now realised that as long as I am clear on what my values are, I can do pretty much anything, as long as it allows me to work hard on things that are aligned with my worldview and my principles.
People who do work they love have a clear mission. Avoid thinking about things like job titles, industries or professions. They all involve jumping through someone else’s hoops or getting in someone else’s box! Instead get clear on your WHY. Your WHY is your north star. This is the thing you’d do no matter what job title or what industry.
For example, my mission involves helping people challenge convention when convention is unhelpful to them. I am passionate about helping people get unstuck. I believe that the more people who are free to do work that matters to them, the better the world will be. I could do this in so many different ways – through coaching, writing, teaching, community building, event production, etc, etc. My WHY doesn’t align to a job title or even to an industry – it is the main thing that makes me tick and it is closely aligned with my core values.
You might be thinking “that’s all very well for Rob to be clear on his mission, but I haven’t got a clue about mine”. A couple thoughts on this front:
1) I wasn’t clear on my mission when I left my consulting job 5.5 years ago and started working on a wild idea to help people escape unfulfilling careers – I just followed my interests towards something that felt was worthwhile, and,
2) Your mission can change as often as you need it to; it is constantly evolving. Pick something you know you care about and start doing it – you’ll get all the information you need about your values and your mission through forward action.
10. They have their own definition of success.
Last but not least, people whose levels of work fulfilment are off the chart are usually those who have rejected the need for external validation and who are happy with having defined success for themselves. We live in a world where it is so easy to compare ourselves to other people and where we are constantly bombarded with cues as to what “success” is; status, money, power, possessions, seniority, etc. None of those things are inherently bad. The trap comes when we find ourselves playing someone else’s game and chasing someone else’s definition of success.
We need the courage to decide what we want in our lives and the determination to take one step after another (without knowing the end destination) in directions that we feel matter to us. No one who loves their work absolutely knew what it is that would truly make them tick before they started. The only difference between them and us is that they didn’t let their doubts and unpreparedness stop them. They kept moving forwards until they found the thing that really made them tick, and then they doubled-down on getting damn good at it.
What about you?
What do you think typifies people who love their work?
How many of these statements are true for you?