In an alternate universe I spend my days messing about in boats. I’ve always loved boats and water, and since my early teens I’ve felt most myself, most alive, in the sliding seat of a rowing shell. And yet I am not a rowing coach, or a boat builder, or any of the other (limited) number of ways I could make a career with rowing. I’ve thought of making a major mid-life career change and trying to coach and teach for a living, but I haven’t done it and I don’t think I will. Why? Because in the end I don’t think it would make me happy. How do I know? I have a checklist.
Here is my list. This is a list of the things I value most about work, the things that, for this season on my life, guide my decision making. Right now, I value most, in this order:
- Cooking dinner for my family most nights of the week.
- Feeling like I make someone’s life better, somewhere, even a little bit.
- Making enough money to keep my family housed, educated, and fed.
All three of those things are essential to me. If one of them dropped, I know I would be unhappy at work and would need a change. But they aren’t all equal; I have ranked them. My job today matches well with all three of those things that are most precious to me. Making a mad-cap, mid-career shift to rowing coach would endanger #1 and would certainly fail #3 (at least for a few years). And so I row my boat in my free time and remind myself that happiness doesn’t mean doing your hobby for a living – that, to the contrary, doing something you love for money can kill your passion.
So, when career opportunities come along – promotions, jobs posted at other organizations, shifts to new technical areas – I check them against my list before I decide whether to pursue them. I don’t do that because there is some magical value in cooking dinner, but because I have learned (the hard way) that if I am working and commuting so many hours that I don’t have it in me to cook for my kid, something I love to do, I won’t be happy. Cooking dinner, for me, is a stand-in for work-life balance. And while I believe we are all able to construct meaning out of our lives – meaning isn’t inherent in any job, something I understand when I meet cynical aid workers – for me, doing work that I can link to real health outcomes makes me feel connected to other people. And the money issue? A basic level of financial security helps me sleep at night, and so I refuse to live on the financial edge like I happily did as a young woman.
At other points in my career my list was very different. Things like travel to far off places, using skills I’d worked hard to develop, leaning something new every day, opportunities to advance, all might have made an appearance on my list 15 years ago. I hope some of those will make appearances on my list again someday, or maybe I’ll come to value something I can’t now imagine being important, and my career will need to change to accommodate it.
The premise of “the list,” of course, is that a job should enable and promote your happiness, not detract from it. That happiness is a valid and good goal to have. Some people won’t be happy unless they are chasing research questions that fascinate them, or physically moving all day, or claiming prestigious awards. That’s all good – if you can make concrete those few things that are most essential to your own happiness, I think you can make good decisions about where to go in your career. What to say yes to, and what to let pass by.
Maybe “the list” is really my loose recipe for personal work happiness, rather than a checklist. Imagine happiness as a stir fry (stay with me here). You can have a broccoli and beef stir fry, or a tofu and asparagus and garlic stir fry, or an egg and noodle and bean sprout stir fry. The list is the requirement to have some vegetables, some fat, and some protein in the dish, but what kind and in what amounts is going to depend on what you like, and what your body needs at a certain stage of your life. The thing to remember is that even if you adore broccoli, you can’t make a satisfying meal of broccoli alone, at least in the long term. You can’t focus on only the broccoli and forget the oil and the beef, or you’ll go hungry. You have to include your entire list, in whatever magical proportion fits your palate.