Your brilliant (next) career
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The puzzle: a successful woman who felt that something in her life was missing—but what, precisely? The answer: Marcus Buckingham, an expert in what works at work, believes that the power to transform your life is much closer than anyone realizes. O reports on a surprising (and profound) lesson in getting unstuck and on track.
One day at work, the computer system Kylie (not her real name) depends on to get her job done collapsed in a total meltdown. The tech support people, five states away in Virginia, wouldn't pick up the phone. Kylie's colleagues wouldn't get off her back—they were literally hanging over her shoulders, demanding to receive what she had no way to give them until the system started up again. In the end, she was glued to her chair for six unbroken, miserable hours. For Kylie, who grew up in Midwestern farm country, who loves to hike and ride horses and work with her hands, this six-hour imprisonment in her chair was the worst thing of all. At home that night, she felt as if she'd been beaten up. "I looked ahead at the next 20 years and thought, 'If it's more of this, I'll slit my wrists.'"

More alarming was that lots of days felt like this. There hadn't been a single last straw, Kylie realized; there were haystacks of them. At some point in the past two or three years, the job Kylie had worked at for more than a decade had become not just unsatisfying but intolerable. Something had to change. But what? Kylie was well into an online master's degree in psychology because she'd always loved helping others through transitions in their lives. Yet the course wasn't helping her transition at all. It was "geared toward research and academia," she says, and that wasn't her style.

On the surface, Kylie's life looked pretty great, even glamorous. She owned her own apartment in Manhattan. She had a job at a newspaper, working in design, an activity she'd loved ever since she was a teenager making her own jewelry. She wasn't one of those women who are afraid of change: She'd had success singing jazz and the blues before switching to news. She'd been married and divorced. She'd moved from her native Midwest to California, then to New York City, then to California again, then to New York City again. "I guess that might sound kind of flaky," she worried.

Marcus Buckingham could not have disagreed more. "She's so specific, so focused, it's great," he confided to me, not long after O magazine brought him and Kylie together to try to figure out what she should do. A former Gallup Organization researcher, Marcus is a management consultant and the best-selling author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work (a handbook for improving performance to achieve maximum success in the workplace); most important, he's devoted his life to helping other people decide what to devote their lives to. He recently completed a 26-city tour, where he spoke with hundreds of executives and human resource professionals about what he's learned from years of researching people who've excelled at their careers.

"I was so afraid," Marcus added, "that I was going to be working with one of those people who, when you ask them what they like, say 'Ooooh, I don't knooow.' What do you wish you were doing? 'Ooooh, I don't knooow.' What interests you? 'Ooooh, I don't knooow!'" Marcus was making me laugh, but he was also making a point. Kylie did know what she wanted and needed.

For all his success helping people refocus their lives, the most crucial materials he uses—the clues for solving the mystery of anyone's unhappiness—are never furnished by Marcus but by the people themselves. One of his fundamental beliefs is that all of us, even at our most confused and unhappy, like Kylie, have very good instincts about what we should be doing. Even the person who, when asked what she likes, wails "I don't knooow!" does know, in her gut. She's just not noticing, amid all the dispiriting moments when she feels overwhelmed or unsatisfied or bored, those other moments—perhaps less numerous, but far more significant—when she feels good. Absorbed, so time flies. Excited. Everyone, Marcus maintains, has such experiences, even during the worst sort of week. Kylie felt completely out of her element, miles off course from where she was supposed to be, but Marcus believed that she was actually in the vicinity of real happiness. Her instincts had led her to the ballpark, but she wasn't hitting homers. She was wandering around in the stands, or stuck in line for the restroom.

What was keeping her there was that she'd forgotten, or maybe she'd failed to discern from the start, what she was passionate about. Most people, Marcus says, make the mistake of speaking of their passions in overly general, grandiose terms. "I'm passionate about making the world a better place." "Well, who isn't?" Marcus would say. He calls this kind of vague talk "skywriting"—it's way up there, far from the specific conditions of our lives, and it tends to melt away. Marcus prefers a more concrete, muscular way of discussing our passions: in terms of strengths.

Our strengths are the actions that make us feel energized and optimistic, eager for the chance to do them again. We're not just good at our strengths—I'm good at paying bills, but that doesn't mean I like doing it. We're also nourished by them as by nothing else. When Marcus works with people like Kylie, the first thing he wants them to do is the most basic: He wants them to define their strengths, as narrowly and concretely as they possibly can. I feel strong when I close the deal and shake the buyer's hand. I feel strong when my explanation makes my students' faces light up with understanding. I feel strong when I've hit "print" and I see my own words in black ink on the page. Our strengths, Marcus says, are those situations in which we are intensely, happily, completely engaged. And because he believes our instincts are good—because they've gotten us into the ballpark—the place to look for clues to our strengths isn't way up in the sky but right where we're sitting, right in that office chair Kylie hated so much. Her hatred of that chair was real, but something important—some glimmering of passion—had led her to be sitting there in the first place.

Marcus asked Kylie to start generating raw material—to pile up clues to her strengths. For one week, she was to write a list of things she loved and things she loathed about her job. She was to be as detailed as possible, to pay exquisitely close attention to her own frame of mind in the course of a typical week: When did she feel energized, satisfied? When was she miserable?

Kylie's list was disheartening, if unsurprising. She could only come up with eight "loves," and she had more than twice as many "loathes." But Marcus noticed right away that six of Kylie's "loves" were in the passive voice. In other words, six were things that other people did to her. Kylie had written, "I felt strong when people sought my advice...when I was included in the planning stages...when I was given the go-ahead...when my contributions were acknowledged...when given the opportunity...when allowed to assume..." Only two were things Kylie did: "I felt strong when interacting with my colleagues one-on-one rather than through e-mail," and "I felt strong when I developed a good working relationship with a colleague that turned into a friendship."

Kylie, the former singer, had always thought of herself as the opposite of a wallflower. But now she and Marcus saw that there was something not just wallflowerish but positively wilted about her professional self. She had given away all her power, Marcus told her; she needed to start taking it back. "Marcus turned a light on," she later told me. Together they worked out a list of things she would do to make the best of this job. Even if Kylie found that she wanted to do something radically different with her life, she had to sort out the problems in her current situation. She needed to find a way to act instead of being acted upon, or she'd find herself passive and likely unhappy in the next job.

Right away, Kylie vowed never to let that chair claim her for six hours again: She was going to get up every hour and a half, no matter what crisis had erupted around her, and take a walk. She craved movement and freedom, and there was no one better to bestow it than herself. Second, she was going to stop letting herself be at the mercy of her co-workers when it came to being gainfully occupied. One of Kylie's "loathes" about her job was the downtime—it was either crisis central or the doldrums, with little in between. Instead of waiting for the next cataclysm, Kylie would go find herself something to do. Third, she was going to start connecting face-to-face. The sheer size of the newspaper meant that many of the people she most needed to talk to communicated everything via e-mail—a medium she found draining. But her supervisor had recently asked for her feedback on something, and though Kylie had assumed she should give it in writing, she realized she could respond in person.

All these changes might have seemed minor, yet each one put a little more control back in Kylie's hands and even helped her perceive that in some ways she did like her job. Marcus asked Kylie to go back to her list of loves and loathes and cast them in more active terms. She'd felt strong when her advice was "sought"; now she saw how simple—and welcome—it might be if she offered her opinion at appropriate moments. Slowly, she and Marcus hammered out descriptions of her strengths that, when Marcus read them back to her, she responded to with a flood of recognition. Kylie felt strong, she and Marcus concluded, when she took an idea of her own and made it tangible—whether laying out a page or crafting a necklace. And she felt strong when she forged a trusting relationship with a co-worker.

The more clues to her strengths that Kylie and Marcus gathered, the more Marcus' early suspicion was borne out. Miserable as she was, Kylie really was in the ballpark. She loved to design. But her job at the paper didn't afford her as much opportunity to do it as she craved. Often she was executing someone else's vision—just inputting. Now Marcus gave Kylie another assignment: to list 10 things she could do over the next five weeks to gain more opportunities to do the work she loved best. Her managers had given her outstanding performance reviews. They clearly had no idea she was unhappy. It was up to her to give them the chance to use her even more effectively by telling them what her strengths were. "One of the most insidious myths people suffer under in the workplace," says Marcus, "is this idea that we should all be team players and do what the team asks of us. It's a moral myth, but it misunderstands our moral duty. Our real moral duty is to offer our greatest strength to the team—to give it the opportunity to use us where we're at our strongest."

But Marcus also could see that Kylie's current job, even with substantial re-engineering, might never make her happy. The list of "loves" had offered crucial information, but there were still all those "loathes" to confront. Kylie had told Marcus that she'd always loved jewelry making—except for one part at the very end, when the slightest of goofs, like tying a knot badly, could "make the beads fall all over the floor." Marcus had noticed that this same intense dislike of things falling apart at the last minute came up when they spoke of her job at the paper. Kylie's beautiful layouts were forever being messed up at the very last minute by events she couldn't control. And this wasn't unexpected—news has a way of changing all the time. It also wasn't likely that e-mail culture would ever reverse, returning Kylie to the face-to-face collaborative atmosphere that she craved.

If Kylie really did need to start fresh in another job, how would she know where to go? How could she both follow her instincts and avoid the mistakes that her instincts had made the last time? At this juncture, Marcus sees people fall prey to the same four pitfalls again and again. First, we're so close to our own strengths, we don't see them; or if we do see them, we don't value them. Kylie wouldn't necessarily label her love for engagement with others as a strength to be utilized in the workplace; she'd be more likely to assume everyone felt that way. Yet the world is full of people who do their best work in isolation. Second, we suffer from "should" syndrome: We should love doing layouts at a newspaper because we love design, and news is important and exciting. Or we should stay at our job because it's irresponsible not to. Third, we tend to pile our work misery into a big, mushy lump that we then allow to crush us. We don't ask ourselves the questions that Marcus was asking Kylie. We don't patiently tease apart the many strands of our daily existence, distinguishing those that actually make us happy—the lump has made us forget there were any of these—from those that we have to eliminate as soon as we can.

The last pitfall is perhaps the most complex, yet addressing it can tell us not only what's wrong with our current job but how to avoid falling into the same trap again. It's the failure to have asked, of any current or possible job, the three questions of why, who, and what: Why will I be doing these things?—the job's broader purpose. Who will I be working with? And finally, What precise activities will I be performing every day? Often people who seem to be doing something suited to their needs—who, in theory, should be happy—have nailed one or even two of the three answers through instinct alone. But such a partial fit will never feel right, no matter how much we think it should. Kylie had been on the right track when she'd embarked on her online psychology degree; she knew in her gut that she loved engaging with people. The why of that degree resonated. But the what was all wrong—the degree wasn't preparing Kylie for actual human engagement. It was preparing her to write papers on psychological theory.

Such near misses, Marcus says, are particularly baffling. He once worked with a woman who had always longed to work in healthcare. ("I have a passion for helping people," would be skywriting to Marcus: very noble and surely true, but way too vague to be of any real use.) She became an ER nurse and was incredibly unhappy. That made no sense to her—she was doing what she'd always longed to do. She loved the why of healthcare, and here she was, living it. But when Marcus pressed her to detail her passion, it turned out that what she really loved was seeing people get better. And an ER nurse rarely gets to do that; they see patients at their most dire moments, and then the patients are whisked away. The thing that made this woman feel strong—the thing she was passionate for—was missing. She found it as soon as she transferred to one of the hospital's pediatric wards.

The questions of why, who, and what don't work just in these situations. They can also rescue that rare person who really is lost. This had been the case with a copy machine saleswoman Marcus worked with. She was quite successful—always in the top 10 percent of the sales force—but at some point she couldn't bear the idea of getting up every morning, every day, and doing more of the same. How had she ended up there? Her list of strengths yielded clues. She felt strong when sensing another person's emotions. And she felt strong when she told another person what to do—and they did it! The what of selling copy machines had, in fact, played to these passions, making her a very good saleswoman. Unlike the ER nurse, she had her what nailed, but she didn't have the ghost of a why.

This was when Marcus began casting his net beyond the workplace, but with the same basic principle in mind—that we have good instincts about our needs and wants. He began asking the saleswoman a series of questions. What were her hobbies and special interests? What did she think about early in the morning and late at night, when she was alone? What stories did she find herself always reading in the newspaper—the ones about rescues? About making money? About big fancy parties? What were the last two books she'd read, and why had she chosen them? What prizes, if any, had she won in her life, and for what?

"What you're getting at is yearnings," Marcus says. "The activities that make us feel strong express these, but we can also find them through the subjects that interest us." The saleswoman, it turned out, always read the obituaries in the paper; she was especially drawn to the part at the end, where those left behind by the deceased were listed. She would find herself thinking about them—the wives and husbands, the parents and children, who had lost someone.

For the saleswoman, the eureka moment didn't come when she realized she was drawn to stories of grieving; she'd always known this of herself. But after working with Marcus she was able to look at this interest in a new way: as a unique strength that she could and should offer the world, and for which the world, in turn, might pay her. That strength summed her up at her most valuable, not just because she was good at it but because she enjoyed it—and when we enjoy doing something, we don't just stay good. We get better and better. The copy machine saleswoman, a naturally empathetic person who liked telling people what to do, knew that the grieving are often overwhelmed with decisions to make. Now she knew she might love guiding them through those circumstances.

She was right. Once she finished volunteering at a hospice, she learned what credentials were required to be a grief counselor, obtained them, and in so doing found real fulfillment for the first time in her life.

After the strengths exercise, Kylie was a step ahead of where the copy machine saleswoman had been at the same point in the process. Kylie was in a job that somewhat let her do what she wanted: bring an idea of her own into tangible form. But the why of her job, which she'd initially thought was important to her—she'd found working in news exciting at the start—turned out not to be as crucial as the what (the ability to control and complete her own designs without unforeseen circumstances disrupting them). And she learned that the who—the presence of people with whom she could speak face-to-face and form bonds—was just as indispensable.

Marcus and Kylie subjected other potential jobs in the design industry to the three questions. "You have the wisdom within you to find the place where you can be your best self. That wisdom isn't out there—it's in there," Marcus says. Of any potential new job, Kylie had to ask, "What will I be doing? Will I be taking an idea of my own and bringing it to fruition—in an atmosphere free of the sort of constant flux that messes things up?" Kylie had told Marcus that she felt strongest when deeply immersed in the work of design; at those times, she said, "it's like a meditation." Clearly, Kylie needed to be designing in a peaceful environment. Next she had to ask, "Who will I be doing it with? Will I be on a small team of collaborators who talk to each other, or will I be lost in an impersonal hive?" Finally, she had to ask, "Why will I be designing?" Now that she knew how important the what of any future job was—this was where her passion lay—the why seemed far more flexible. Kylie might find greater happiness designing a gorgeously produced jewelry catalog than pages of a hectic daily newspaper.

Wherever Kylie wound up professionally, she also had to remember that life is not work alone. The big lump of Kylie's professional unhappiness had expanded well outside the workplace, squeezing the things she most loved to the margins, if not out of existence completely. Singing was one of her passions—one of the new strengths she'd defined was, "I feel strong when I accurately express an emotion through song." Long ago Kylie's desire for order and stability had led her to leave music as a profession, a decision she didn't regret. But she needed passion in her off-hours as well; she needed to get music back into her life. Even if she did end up leaving the paper, she would take advantage of the company's resources while still there and post on a message board for fellow musicians. She was hiking as much as she could. When she was living in rural Michigan, she had loved gardening; now she noticed there were untended plots by her Manhattan building, and she was going to plant flowers in them. "I've been finding my way back to the person I was a long time ago," she told me.

Incremental changes like these, Marcus feels, are far from small. They're powerful, because they're deliberate and insightful and true to ourselves. "Even if things seem like a disaster, don't leap," Marcus says. "Build a bridge and walk over. Build it out of today. In everybody's week, there are things they look forward to." Our unhappiness might make those things seem insignificant, like nothing more than scattered planks and nails. But start hammering them together, and you'll find yourself, as Marcus says, with just the bridge to transport you from a place that you loathed to a place you can't wait to return to.


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