Does this job allow me to work with "my people"—individuals who share my sensibilities about life—or do I have to put on a persona to get through the day?
Does this job challenge, stretch, change, and otherwise make me smarter—or does it leave my brain in neutral?
Does this job, because of the company's "brand" or my level of responsibility, open the door to future jobs?
Does this job represent a considerable compromise for the sake of my family and if so, do I sincerely accept that deal with all of its consequences?
Does this job—the stuff I actually do day-to-day—touch my heart and feed my soul in meaningful ways?
These questions won't tell you if you should become a veterinarian, work in high tech, write a novel, manage a restaurant, or open your own advertising agency. The questions will, however, guide you once your journey has begun, their answers suggesting whether you should stay in a job and give it your all or get up the gumption to move on to something else. Eventually, the questions, which you can ask about either the job you currently hold or a position you are considering, will steer you toward the career that, like my friend's in the Midwest, turns work into joy.
These five questions came to me not as I was searching for my own perfect job (although I think I have finally found it after 20 years!) but as my husband, Jack, and I conducted research for our book, Winning. For three years, we traveled around the world talking with people in every line of work about their biggest challenges. In all, we spoke to nearly 250,000 people in hundreds of wide-ranging Q&A sessions. When we set out on our travels, we expected most of these conversations to be about the usual business topics, like customer satisfaction and foreign competition. These subjects certainly did come up, along with plenty of questions on strategy and leadership. Much to our surprise, however, the people we interviewed wanted passionately to know whether or not they were in the right job in the first place. They yearned for a way to understand who and what they were meant to be in life.
The question of who and what to be is profound, huge in its impact, and by no means limited to the young. Yes, plenty of recent college grads and MBAs we encountered wanted to know how to find the perfect job. But we also heard the "when I grow up" question from executives with jobs that looked, from the outside, to be ideal in every way. We heard it from people who had been running their own companies for decades.
And we heard it—especially—from women in their 30s and 40s who had been working feverishly for years, both at the office and at home, only to find themselves not exactly where they had hoped to be when they set out, all those years ago, to conquer the world.
Their stories were often told with poignant acceptance, but sometimes with deep sadness and confusion. How could they have run so hard and so fast for so long and ended up nowhere near where they wanted to go?
This phenomenon was so common that Jack and I gave it a name: the Everyone's Happy But Me Syndrome.
Women in this situation had arranged their days to be "good enough" at work and "there enough" at home but found they were living in a kind of purgatory, waiting for a time when their own dreams and needs could be met. They didn't dare ask any of the five questions above—the answers would have revealed a big, aching emptiness in the center of their lives.
Some of the women we met during our travels broke out of the Everyone's Happy But Me Syndrome and found fulfilling careers after a major personal crisis. There was a neurosurgeon in Virginia who admitted to herself, at age 40, that she had gone into medicine only to please her parents. That was the easy part. To realize her authentic life dream—she had always wanted to be a portrait photographer—she had to ask her husband to change his job to make up for the substantial loss of income. He made the sacrifice willingly, the woman told us, "but to be honest, I know he misses his old company and his friends there, and that has left a little hole in our relationship." Gone, too, are the vacations the family used to love. Yet, she said, "everyone in the family is happy that I am finally happy. They wouldn't go back, and neither would I."
In Detroit we met a woman who'd spent 14 years at a prestigious international accounting firm but at age 45 found she just couldn't bring herself to go to the office another day. "For one week, I stayed in bed and cried," she said. "I realized I was working to pay the mortgage on a beautiful house. The job bored me, and my life was passing by. That Friday I sent my resignation by e-mail." She sold her house, ended a long-term relationship with a coworker who opposed her decision, and took a job teaching in an inner-city elementary school. "The first year was hell," she told us. "Teaching was not the fantasy I had imagined. The kids were hard on me; I was raw and inexperienced. I missed my boyfriend a lot. I even missed my house. A day didn't go by when I didn't wonder if I'd lost my mind." She stuck it out and today runs a charter school for immigrant children in another city. "My work finally feels important," she said. "It took a while, but I have no regrets."