In tough economic times, it may seem out of place to talk about pursuing one's dreams. For many of us, such an endeavor is far too lofty and maybe even dangerously naive when just finding a job is the order of the day. Having been out of work myself from time-to-time, I am very respectful of this view. I've also learned, however, that it is absolutely wrong. The time to get it right--the time to acknowledge and act on your dreams--is when other things are going wrong. Here’s what I mean.
The pursuit of Happiness is a key component of the American Dream. It is a right we all enjoy in this country, but one which is often misunderstood. The Declaration of Independence declares the sanctity of the pursuit, not its outcome. It doesn’t say we have a right to happiness, but instead, that we have the freedom and the ability to look for and find it. Said another way, in the United States of America, we all have the potential to follow our dreams.
And there’s the rub. You can’t pursue Happiness unless you know what will make you happy. And, you can’t know what will make you happy unless you know who you are and what you have the potential to become. To my way of thinking, that’s the definition of Happiness with a capital H—to uncover and experience the person you are destined to be. To achieve the fullest possible expression of your inherent gifts, your talents.
This view of Happiness is clearly tied to your work. It’s not that other aspects of your life can’t give you deeply positive feelings—what might best be described as Joy—obviously they can. But Happiness is different. Recent research indicates that happiness is a cognitive, not an emotional state. It occurs when we overcome a challenge we view as meaningful and worthy. In other words, we are tested in a way that produces our best efforts, that stretches us to perform at our peak and even beyond that point, beyond our own expectations of what we can do. And, the only place such challenges routinely occur is at work.
That reality brings me back to our current economic situation. I see it as a window of opportunity for you to realize your potential. For you to find the work that works for you. The kind of employment that enables you to excel. The jobs that will present you with meaningful and worthy challenges and thereby position you to achieve the excellence that will make you truly Happy.
In stronger economic times, such transitions are frenetic. Whether a move is voluntary or involuntary, we push as hard as we can to make the fastest possible shift from one employment situation to another. We don’t want to lose a minute of what the good times can do for us, so we put our heads down and race from spot A to spot B. As a consequence, we give ourselves little or no time to think about whether we are doing the kind of work we should be doing in order to execute our pursuit of Happiness. Basically, we guide our career based on an assumption rather than on a conscious decision. And, with at least one study finding that over half of all Americans now daydream at work about doing something else, it’s clear that those assumptions are often horribly wrong.
The bad news, of course, is that the current pace of hiring is much slower. The good news is that the current pace of hiring is much slower. That delay is your window of opportunity. It’s your way to test and validate your assumptions or find them off-the-mark and change them. Taking the first step through the window is the hardest. In fact, there are at least two ways you can slam the window shut and never take advantage of it:
You can spend the time you’ve been given grousing about how difficult, how unfair, how downright terrible the current situation is. That might (momentarily) make you feel better, but it won’t move you through the window.
You can redoubling or triple or quadruple your efforts to do what we have always done in the world of work. You can expend more effort, but that effort doesn’t help if you’re still on the other side of the window looking in.
So, how do you do it differently? How do you climb through this window of opportunity? For starters, use the space you’ve been given in this lousy economy to lift your head up, not put it down. Raise your perspective. Why? Because for maybe the first time in your working life, you can. You have the space to look beyond the horizon you’ve traditionally accepted for yourself. The conventional wisdom is to describe this as an exercise in “thinking outside the box.” I think it’s better thought of as a chance to remove the handcuffs we consciously or unconsciously shackle ourselves with.
Here are the three most common handcuffs:
We went to college to study X, so that must be the kind of job we should pursue. It will make us happy because we’re getting a return on our investment in education.
We’ve spent the last Y years in this field, so that must be the kind of work we should pursue. It will make us happy because we’re getting a good return on our investment of time and effort.
We made the most money doing Z, so that’s what we should continue to do. It will make us happy because we’re getting a good return on our investment in acquiring experience.
Why are these handcuffs? Because as out-of-place as it may seem in a country that prides itself on its allegiance to capitalism, the pursuit of Happiness is not an investment decision. It is something much more profound. Exercising the right to look for and find the meaningful and worthy challenges in your work is a spiritual commitment you make to yourself. It’s not about dollars and cents, but about what makes the most sense for the person you truly are.
The pursuit of Happiness is your right to build a career in which you earn two paychecks: one measured in money and the other measured in fulfillment. To do that, however, you must only accept employment that enables you to express the unique gifts with which you have been endowed. I urge you to make that commitment. Right now. While you have the chance.
Thanks for reading,