Written by Russell Johnson
Almost on a daily basis, I speak with people whose career circumstances are seriously misaligned with what they really want in their lives.
They are usually highly motivated and hard working. However, they’re not experiencing the career satisfaction that their commitment merits.
They usually have two other things in common too:
- Their goals are not aligned with their deeper desires, and
- They are managing their careers tactically rather than strategically.
Like the tightening coils of a python, this is gradually but inexorably narrowing their options and reducing their potential to experience what they want in life.
There’s a lot of data to show that this is the experience of the majority today, but this doesn’t mean it needs to be accepted. So what can you do if it’s your experience too?
The Right Starting Point – Deep Awareness
All too often, even high achievers “follow the herd” in regard to their paradigm of success, or allow their careers to be about meeting the expectations of others. It’s no wonder. Through advertising, for example, we can be seduced into sacrificing things that matter greatly for others of little value.
But the success that really counts is found in doing work that you love, and that in turn supports your love of life. Not just through a career that you hope will do so in the future, but one that does so now. Anything less is a sacrifice that needs to be corrected as soon as possible.
Real awareness, and the clarity that accompanies it, begins with understanding yourself, and having a motivating vision for your life, based on a valid ‘map’ for successful living.
Such a map must be based on unchanging principles of success. These are fundamental truths, such as the ‘Golden Rule’, that can provide an underlying level of guidance. Like a good map, such principles can ensure we are moving in the right direction, even when we can’t see far ahead because of the difficulty of the terrain.
Examine Your Sources of Influence
We all base our actions on influences that have become central to our lives. However, all too often we’re not fully conscious of them. Many people, for example, base a major part of their actions on influences such as the drive for security or power. For those unconscious of the effects of these, there’s never a level of either that feels like enough. This can drive a toxic set of behaviours that spread like poison through an organization.
When fundamental principles of successful living are sacrificed for the sake of short-term results, the harm that follows is always greater than the benefit.
If you haven’t read the late Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or his Principle-Centered Leadership, or if has been a long time since you last read them, I would recommend reading them, or reading them again. We can all benefit from at least occasional reinforcement of the sound foundation they provide.
Examine Your Strengths, Skills and Values
Are you fully using your strengths? Which ones do you want to use more of? And what are your transferable skills? If you don’t have the skills for what you want to do, how will you gain them?
What are your values? Where does personal autonomy fit in your values hierarchy? What about a sense of meaning in your work? How can you best ensure this finds expression? And what about financial freedom? How will you measure this, and ensure it doesn’t override other values of equal or greater importance? What about your location? Opportunities for your family? Being a good role model for your children, and even your grandchildren, when that time comes? Staying healthy? And always having time for the things that matter most to you? Being able to look back, at the end, on a life well lived?
The list can be extensive. And there WILL be trade-offs. What matters is choosing these with full consciousness of their implications.
Your Goals Must Be Right for YOU
Without deep awareness, the unintended consequences of goals are likely to become apparent only when we have achieved them.
Some years ago I worked with a colleague who in a former career as a medical specialist spent a lot of time talking with people on their deathbeds. He told me about how many of them spoke of their regrets – usually, for things not done while there was still time to do them.
The awareness he gained from those discussions eventually led him to leave his own career, prestigious and worthwhile though it was, because for him, it was not an authentic expression of who he wanted to be.
Decades ago, for fundamentally similar reasons, I left my executive career behind. As outwardly successful as it was, I had finally faced the fact that it was not an authentic expression of who I wanted to be.
If these sorts of changes need to be made, it’s best to make them early, rather than trying to give them due consideration when we are under pressure. Or worse yet, to end up reflecting, in our final years, on the life we wish we had lived.
We are all tempted to seek shortcuts to get what we want. But just as the farmer has to plant and care for the crop in order to harvest it, there’s a cycle that must be followed before real success can be harvested. In such matters, shortcuts are illusions.
Where Do Strategy and Tactics Fit?
As a quote usually attributed to Sun Tzu puts it:
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
To be effective, strategy must be developed within an approach that includes and aligns deep awareness, goals, strategy, planning, tactics and the skills to implement them.
Why We Need to Understand the Difference Between Career Strategy and Tactics
The terms are closely related since both concern the means for achieving goals. Both were originally used in military operations and are now used extensively in business because when properly used, they work together to facilitate goal achievement.
For this reason, they’re just as important in managing our careers. But to use them effectively we need to understand their meaning and the differences between them in the context of a career.
What is Career Strategy?
Strategy in general is often confused with goals as well as tactics. Broadly, a strategy is a long term, high level method or plan to achieve key goals, notwithstanding unpredictable events and the failure from time to time of more limited, shorter term plans along the way.
It’s important to understand a fundamental difference between business strategy and career strategy. Business strategy is generally designed to support achieving goals with predominantly financial outcomes. However, no such limitation applies to career strategy.
Your career strategy can be designed to support you in being the person you want to be and living the life you want. It’s thus qualitatively different from business strategy.
So let me propose a working definition for career strategy:
A career strategy is a systematic approach to achieving desired life outcomes through one’s work, notwithstanding unexpected setbacks along the way.
A sound career strategy is a solution to the problem of an uncertain future; a flexible framework designed to maximize the likelihood of getting what you really want, over the longest possible period. It will allow you to continue moving toward your goals when plans fail, as they often will.
With the increasing speed of change, the need for sound career strategy is growing ever more acute.
What are Tactics?
When properly used, tactics are specific, short-term, narrowly focused actions undertaken in support of a strategy.
Examples could include actions as limited as negotiating a pay increase or as large as making a career move. If well-conceived and executed, either of these might achieve a short-term objective that contributes to implementing strategy.
In the absence of a sound strategy, on the other hand, the same tactics might harm your career. For example, postponing a move that’s necessary for your career growth in return for a pay increase could reduce your perceived potential and limit your advancement in the years ahead. And by creating or strengthening an image of a career that’s drifting, or by causing you to lose your way or become demoralized, a career move could have the same effect.
The Benefits of an Aligned Approach
Those who achieve alignment between awareness, goals, strategy, planning, tactics and the skills to implement them are living in accordance with principles of success. The benefits of doing so are exhibited in the daily lives of the most successful people – and now, are being validated by science.
Studies of the effects of different forms of human happiness are demonstrating the benefits of what the ancient Greek philosophers called eudaimonia. This state is translated as being about human flourishing, encompassing enduring happiness and optimal wellbeing.
In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle stated that “The life of active virtue is essentially pleasant” and that “Good character is the indispensable condition and chief determinant of happiness, itself the goal of all human doing”.
A study led by Barbara L. Fredrickson, a Professor at the University of North Carolina and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences several years ago noted that “Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of well-being: a ‘hedonic’ form representing an individual’s pleasurable experiences, and a deeper ‘eudaimonic’ form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification”.
The authors explained it as the difference between enjoying a good meal and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project. While both offer a sense of satisfaction, each is experienced differently in the body’s cells.
Powerful Benefits for Health
In essence, what Dr Frederickson and subsequent researchers have found in regard to health is that eudaimonic well-being is associated with:
- A significant decrease in inflammation associated with a wide variety of ills, from arthritis to heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, and
- An increase in antiviral activity.
In contrast, hedonic well-being is associated with a significant increase in such inflammation, and a decrease in antiviral activity.
One researcher in this field, Dr Steve Cole, a professor of medicine at UCLA, has stated that “The effect sizes that are being found indicate that lacking eudaimonic happiness can be as harmful to health as smoking or obesity”.
The indications seem to be that what matters most to general health and wellbeing is deriving happiness from doing something you believe is important or extraordinary.
The ‘Warren Buffett Paradox’
How else could a paradox like Warren Buffett be explained? Over the past 51 years he has built Berkshire Hathaway to be America’s largest and the world’s 4th-largest public company as rated by Forbes, while also becoming one of the world’s most generous philanthropists.
Yet as Bill Gates, his friend and fellow Director of the world’s largest foundation has noted, at the age of 85 Warren still lives on a diet largely based on hamburgers, ice cream, Oreos and Coca-Cola.
Further Perspective on the Subject of Health
Barbara Fredrickson, the professor quoted above, has postulated that people who experience more hedonic than eudaimonic happiness may be consuming the emotional equivalent of empty calories.
“We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ’empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically,” she said. “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.”
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
As John Stuart Mill stated: One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.
You have more power to create the future you want than you may currently believe. Don’t start by asking ‘What are my options?’ but ‘Who do I want to become?’, ‘What do I want to achieve?’ and ‘How will I do this?’
You must recognize that you do have the power to make and implement choices that will get you what you really want, even if it turns out not to be what you may currently THINK you want. All true empowerment hinges on this.
Real satisfaction lies in choosing the kind of life you want to live, and the kind of person you want to be, then implementing that vision. The motivation that flows from taking full responsibility for your future will support you in gaining the outcomes you choose.
Major change is rarely easy. Hard choices may be required, but they’re worth the trouble. It’s through such choices that real career fulfilment is achieved.
Further Keys to Developing a Career Strategy That Will Stand the Test of Time
A sound career strategy will support your satisfaction with your life – not just at the end, looking back, but throughout life. The term ‘eudaimonic happiness’ could almost be used interchangeably with ‘self-actualization’. Whatever term you may use to describe it, if you base your goals around this, and align your values with unchanging principles, then it’s not that hard to see some elements of a successful strategy. Here are several more:
- Seek Work That Excites You – and that will be increasingly relevant over time.
- Seek Work That Uses Your Strengths – and that will give you room to keep growing.
- Seek Leaders You Can Respect. If you’re going to work for or with someone else, then look for leaders whose character you admire.
A Final Reminder
If you’re contemplating a career move, don’t let yourself focus first on tactics, such as polishing your resume or applying for jobs. It’s the worst way to begin.
Your tactics must serve your career strategy. Your strategy must support your goals. And your goals must be based on deep awareness of what will serve your life.
So start at the other end. What kind of LIFE do you want to live?
And if you have any comments or suggestions to add on developing deeper awareness, sound goals or a career strategy that will stand the test of time, I would appreciate receiving them.