Want a Career That Doesn't Suck? Start With Your Values

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Seek Values, Find Work

There's a lot of articles out here in the interweb hinterland about finding a career you love. This topic is very popular because a lot of people a) hate their career, b) are bored AF by their career, and/or c) are so stressed out in their career and by trying to do all the things that they're willing to take advice from internet strangers on what the hell to do about it. My article isn't so much about the finding as it is about the seeking. Specifically, allowing the seeking of value-driven work to be the starting point for moving into a fulfilling career. Here's what I mean.

Finding implies a destination. You look, you find, you're done. Seeking implies a greater purpose, like a quest or discovery (“hide and seek” notwithstanding). When it's verb-ing, to seek means "to make inquiry." So the act of moving into a love-worthy, fulfilling career starts with asking yourself what matters most? and continuing to ask that same question every day.

Your values change over time. Yeah sure, there'll be common threads, but the shit that's important to you will change because you will change. My values at 23 were NOT the same as my values at 33 or now at 43. These days I go to bed at about the same time I used to leave the house for the night. Hello Netflix and snore, goodbye bar life. So in the context of your career, finding something you love to do (like actually) is not a linear, one and done process. It's an ever-evolving quest.

"No Frodo, Mordor is THAT WAY.”

"No Frodo, Mordor is THAT WAY.”

When Work Stops Working

When I started working in film and television production, I had all the feels. I get to think about stories all day! I'm learning about producer stuff! I'm gonna make movies and shows! As someone obsessed with storytelling and armed with random movie trivia as well as a plethora of business and people management experience, the idea of working up to eventually 'making stuff' cued the hallelujah chorus in my head. But about 18 months in, I felt these little rumblings of discord - what I called "work-quakes.”

They crept in slowly, the rumblings. The feeling that to be successful I always had to be "on", and if I wasn't working all the time or working on my own stuff during off-hours I must not love it or want it bad enough. The time off that wasn't actually off or which took so long to sink into that by the time I did it was time to go back to work. The phone beeps, emails, and "just one sec" during dinner or movie night or family gatherings. Feeling guilty and lazy when I took a sick day or left work to pick up my son from school and didn't turn my computer on again that night or over the weekend. I worked with nice, talented people who cared about me, but the quakes were still there. They were hanging over my head like a big balloon emblazoned with you're not cut out for this.

And I felt it, harshly. Getting out of bed every morning was like pulling teeth. I was tired all the time. I became increasingly irritable at home; snappy with my family and friends and full-on angry bird while driving. My disengagement from projects and people grew as my self-worth diminished. I complained a lot, about all the things, and was resentful when work messed with life or timing didn't contrive to go my way. A lot of time I behaved like this:

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When Values Collide

It wasn't a sustainable way to live, at least for me. I felt like shit. Something had to be done, but the industry wasn't going to magically change just for me. After hitting rock bottom one cold weekend, crying on the couch to Perry about how I couldn't stand myself anymore, I decided to focus on changing something I could control - my health.

After researching various programs and stuff I could do on my own with limited time (because I am nothing if not pragmatic and loathe any kind of exercise class), I began exercising. This morphed into fully dorking out on fitness, nutrition, and overall health. After a few months I was regularly practicing a whack of healthy habits to protect my energy and lower my stress. I literally felt like a new person. But the quakes? Yep, still there.

After several more months of self-questioning, trying to love my job, and spending way more time reading Strong Fitness Magazine than The Hollywood Reporter, I had to admit it. As much as I adored storytelling, the industry and I just didn't fit.

I wanted to make things. Have all the drive and chops and hutzpah it took to kill it. To walk the Croisette in Cannes like a stiletto-wielding mo-fo. Except that I didn't. The simple truth was, I just didn't care about that stuff as much as I cared about other stuff, namely my family, my health, and my personal development. I didn't care about the business of storytelling; I cared (and still do) about the stories themselves. The interests that drove me in the direction of production in the first place were not enough to sustain my career course.

And that's because, at the heart of it, my values were causing the bump. Interest (and skill, obvi) can take you pretty far. But if what you're doing has little meaning to you or rubs up against your belief systems the wrong way, you're going to be very uncomfortable. And let's be honest, definitely not doing your best work.

These kinds of bumps are signs that you and your work aren't lighting each other up. Your weird snappiness is a sign. Lack of engagement is a sign. Not wanting to get out of bed is a sign. Feeling like a truck ran over you all day is a sign. Regularly posting TGIF and "Mondays Blow" memes on Instagram is a sign. Dreaming, deep down, about doing something else is a really big sign.

Seriously, WATCH IT.

Seriously, WATCH IT.

How to Define Your Values

If you don't want to fiddle-fuck around doing work you can't stand or worse, hate yourself for, you've got to be willing to get a little dirty and figure out WTF is really important to you. Your CORE values. The things that get you up in the morning (or would if you let them). Stuff you base big decisions on and get you riled up when they're threatened or compromised.

These core values will become the basic decision-making matrix for your work and life, so be honest with yourself. Choose your top 10. Then top 5. Because if they all matter, none matter. Core values are THE BIG ONES. And don't think about values in terms of work vs. home. The should reflect you as a whole; they're about shit that's always a big deal no matter what.

Because, hello, we are the same human at home and work. Elastagirl and Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman don't change out of their respective supersuits at the end of a long day to become totally different people and neither should you. And if that's what's happening, you twisting and turning into someone entirely different at work, I'm willing to bet that's a big reason why you're so damn unhappy in the first place.

If you're not sure what your core values are, start by getting in the habit of regularly asking yourself reflective questions. When you feel conflicted or triggered or jazzed or have to make a choice between what to spend your time on, get curious.

  1. WHY does this bother me or excite me so much? Like really?

  2. WHAT do I believe that's incongruent/congruent with what's going on here?

  3. WHY do I feel pulled towards thing A more than thing B right now?

  4. WHAT value did that choice I just made exemplify?

  5. WHY am I drawn towards this person? WHY is this social issue such a big deal for me? WHY do my politics tend to lean this way and not that way?

By putting the answers together you'll notice some patterns. In my case, the triggers and conflicts fell, for the most part, into one of four categories: family, health, service, and what I'll call "ethics." My "awesome" triggers fell roughly into the same categories. When I was feeling great, it was usually because I was fully present with family, focusing on my health, providing a tangible, valued "something" to someone else that also held great meaning for me, and/or being in integrity (sticking to my guns with honesty and tact). When I wasn't, the opposite tended to be happening. Makes sense right?

After awhile of paying close attention to my patterns, it became abundantly clear that I couldn't continue living with these conflicts on a daily basis if I wanted to be at my best for myself, my family, my colleagues, and pretty much anyone I else I encountered. I embraced the idea that in terms of my values, compromise was a no-fly zone. For me, the next step was painful but clear. I created an exit plan and eventually left my job.

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Using Values as a Starting Point

Values aren't small things. They show up everywhere (if you look out for them), as conspicuous in their absence as much as their appearance. Values work a little like Newton's Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every deeply held value you have, there is a pile of crap that builds up when you're pushing against it.

Values are a compass. Practically, they act as a guide and decision-making framework. Each day you make choices about where to allocate your time and energy vis-a-vis your values. Your quest, which never really ends FYI, is basically to keep deciding what's important to you and be resolute in pursuing it. Your values, not an online assessment or your degree or your résumé, are the beginning of a path to a fulfilling career and life. Choose them wisely.

So if you want to love what you do (mostly) or find a fulfilling career or feel good about how you spend the time of your life (hey there Green Day), figure out what your values are. Only then can you start exploring jobs, companies, people, interests, processes, and all the other minutiae that comes with "finding a career you love" with any kind of clarity.