Years ago, I remember watching a random episode of Undercover Boss: Canada that took place at the Toronto Zoo. It was a pretty unremarkable show, but I was obsessed with the one employee, an elderly janitor who absolutely loved her job.
While up to her elbows in a toilet, she described how much she enjoyed cleaning the zoo because it made her happy to be able to create a nice environment for all the patrons so they could better experience it.
At the time, unemployed after a recent move, I was desperate to find a job that would feel like a better fit than my last. But despite my attempts to thoughtfully consider what I wanted, follow all the career advice I could, and get a handful of decent interviews, nothing was feeling right.
Partly, that was because I was borderline depressed. Unemployment and feeling lonely in a new city was getting to me.
But as I sat watching that show, I couldn’t help but envy the janitor for getting to do something she loved and fantasize about the simplicity of a job like that (which, ok, prompted a brief internet search for open janitor positions at the San Diego Zoo).
The funk that generated that delusional thinking lasted longer than I’d care to admit, but eventually, when the fog cleared, I found a job that I didn’t hate, and eventually a career that allows me to feel engaged and make a meaningful impact.
Here’s some advice that helped me get there:
1. Get a job, any job.
If you have ever spent any amount of time unemployed, you know the weird mental toll it takes.
So if you’re not currently working, and you’re struggling to find your dream job, consider just taking something to pass the time and earn a paycheck. If you’re currently working, and you’re searching in vain as well, consider staying in your job.
I speak from experience here. When I was feeling really low and disconnected back in San Diego, it would have done me some good to take a part-time job, even as a janitor. I would have met people sooner, felt more useful, and maybe developed contacts that would help me get something more permanent down the road.
When I finally started working, I immediately felt better. I got to see people every day, had a reason to wear something other than dirty stretch pants, and I felt like I had a purpose. It didn’t matter it wasn’t my dream job.
When I decided to start my own business, I went against a lot of advice and did not keep my day job. I won’t say it was a mistake. My work situation didn’t really allow for me to do both, and I made that choice mindfully.
But research shows that having a steady job can help keep your mental health in check by providing routine, regular contact with others, and a sense that you’re contributing to something larger than yourself.
You need to keep your wits about you when you’re planning to undertake a career move so if you feel slow insanity creeping up maybe keep (or create) your security net.
2. Don’t focus on a job that makes you happy; create a happy life.
Ok, so the title of this post may have been misleading, but that’s because many people are drawn to the idea that if they found a job they loved they would be happier.
The problem here is that, first, finding something you love to do and turning it into a career can be illusive. Most people love to do many things, but they don’t necessarily equate to careers.
Plus, in the end, our jobs don’t affect our happiness all that much. According to Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, what really contributes to our happiness is having steady, close relationships to others.
I used to feel overwhelmed that I didn’t know what I loved to do. It made me feel boring and lost. After I stopped putting so much pressure on my job being THE job, and finding what I LOVED to do, I felt more free to just enjoy my life.
I tried a lot of new things like Toastmasters, different types of yoga, and teaching. And I gave myself permission to openly pursue areas I was curious about like positive psychology, coaching, and mindfulness without knowing the end game.
Along the way, I made new friends and developed a sense of community among all my like-minded people.
I felt happier and slowly the universe began to reveal to me what I loved, which was, among other things, genuinely connecting with others.
3. Rather than finding work you love, find work that aligns with your strengths and values.
As anyone who has had a long and illustrious career will tell you, it’s not usually a linear path.
So at some point, I realized I had to find a way to be happy and engaged in the present, doing whatever I happened to do for work now, and trust that would lead me toward a more fitting career, even if I took some random twists and turns.
To begin this undertaking, I read my all-time favorite career book, and reflected on what strengths I bring and what I really valued in an ideal working environment so I could do something that represented me more fully.
When you know what you do well, and what motivates you, it’s much easier to find opportunities to become engaged in your work (even if your current job feels like a bore).
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the feeling of losing track of time while we’re completely involved in doing and enjoying an activity as “flow”. He explains that feeling happy in what you do boils down to mindset.
When people create goals that challenge them and allow them to be totally immersed, whatever they do feels enjoyable. Basically, it’s how some people seem to draw so much out of seemingly mundane jobs.
There are people who creatively look for ways to generate flow like that employee being timed as he quickly makes up pizza boxes in the Domino’s commercial.
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed when confronted with finding what you love to do, or you’re stuck in a job that feels draining, know that it’s totally normal. Then, try to quit taking it all so seriously.
Find something fun to do outside of work, look for ways to pull more of your strengths into your current job (even as you look for another), and build connections instead of fixating on your career.
Remember it’s our relationships that makes us happiest (and they’re usually how you get better jobs anyway).