Do you believe in “the right one” when it comes to work?
I am talking soulmate equivalent. After 15 years of searching and experimenting, I have found that while there is no “right job,” there may indeed be “the right path” meant for each of us.
Sorting through my email archive, I found a farewell speech from 10 years ago, when I made my first big career move.
I remember trying to articulate my words while bursting out in tears in front of some 30 people gathered around my desk: the law firm partners, my peers, and even the IT guy who mostly just told me to turn if off and back on again. I was young then. And I did love these people.
“I want to thank each of you for making this such a special place. The partners accommodate and appreciate that we are all different, and give us enough space and freedom to develop and shine in our own ways. For that, I am eternally grateful. When I was a trainee, I felt like I was in a big family—we worked insanely hard but we did it together as a team, and we never left anyone alone to struggle. And as I got more senior, I continued to receive enormous care and support from you all. I have consciously tried to do the same for others and I hope my presence here made a difference and that I did my part to make this a happier place to be in.”
Leaving private practice at a law firm to become an in-house legal counsel was my first decision to go against the conventional definition of “success” in favour of, plain and simple, self-love.
I chose a better work-life balance over more zeros in my bank account balance.
From then on, I’ve experienced many more drastic career moves.
I tried on a variety of roles including digital nomad, writer, freelancer, and entrepreneur. My workplaces ranged from the corner office to hot desk at a co-working space, and from the beach to my bedroom. My employers (or people who paid for my work) included global financial institutions, social ventures, startups, and nonprofits.
Fast forward to now, I have just landed a new job that will pay me exactly what I earned 15 years ago at my first ever job.
Conventional careerists would ask, “How the hell did that happen?” However, I find myself celebrating that I’ve managed to come this far, and that I continue to find and create work that works for me.
If you have not yet decided that I am completely delusional, I would love to share my insights from a 15-year quest to find work that I was meant to do.
Because everyone deserves to find the best way to spend, allegedly, one third of our lives.
Most people say to look for this:
I propose that we speak of work, job, and career interchangeably. Even working on your own business is work, and in many ways, similar to a job (legally your company hires you as an employee, and with partners or investors in the mix, your company is seldom completely yours).
When it comes to finding your calling, different theories say pretty much the same thing in different ways. Some call it the “sweet spot”—the overlap between do well, want to do, and paid to do; Chris Guillebeau calls it the joy-money-flow model; the Japanese call it ikigai, meaning the genius zone where profession (do well), passion (what you love to do), vocation (what you are paid to do), and mission (what the world needs) meet.
So what they are all saying is to find something that:
>> you are good at
>> you are interested in
>> you can get paid doing
The difficulty I found, when I tried to apply that model, is that it is too general.
Most people are good at many things and interested in even more things. While both do well and want to do can be relatively long lists, paid to do is usually a shorter list (and even shorter if you factor in how much is paid).
With this model we are essentially finding the highest common factor among these three lists, and the money factor inevitably has an overt bearing on the result.
That was how I became a lawyer. Putting together what I am good at and interested in doing, I could have ended up doing many different types of work. But once money was added to the equation, it was clear that I could make the most money by becoming a lawyer.
So, law became the obvious choice for me. Not necessarily the right one though.
Look deeper for the real stuff:
This was my farewell speech as I quit my legal career for good.
“Thank you all for your guidance, care, and support, but most importantly, thanks for letting me be me. A lot of you have said that I am ‘special’ in that I try to venture into many other things outside of work, but I want to let you know that all of you are special! Over the years I have had the honour of hearing many of your stories, seeing different sides of you, and going through good times and bad times—you have all inspired me! For this, I am deeply grateful. I hope my presence has also made a difference to you and I have given you the same support as you have consistently offered to me when it is needed.”
Can you see several themes emerging? Three things keep popping up:
1. I need to be me. I appreciate an environment where I am accepted and be different, special, quirky, whatever.
2. I believe in harmony in the workplace. It is important for me that I am supporting my coworkers and contributing to their happiness.
3. I keep saying I want to make a difference. Note that this can mean very different things to different people. But it is helpful to realise this is a must for me.
So what are the three themes in your career path? Asking these deeper, soul-searching questions may help.
1. What is your core belief system?
Buddhists talk of right livelihood. What are your personal ethics in earning a living? I once met a vegetarian who was working as a marketing executive at a steakhouse, and she was absolutely miserable—luckily, when I met her, she’d just quit and started a new job advocating meatless Monday, so good for her!
2. What is your life purpose?
This is a deeper dialog we must have with ourselves—I journaled. I reflected on what I liked and disliked in my career. I worked with a coach to distill my thoughts and feelings. Being an animal welfare activist and wanting to dedicate my career toward the cause, I thought my purpose was to fight against injustice and save those without a voice from suffering.
You would have thought that should be clear enough, but my exploration took me down many twists and turns from wannabe self-help guru to selling beauty products (do not ask).
In the process, I found that I am a sucker for efficiency (while doing all the good). So I started working for an organisation created from the effective altruism movement. Now, I check in with myself regularly to see if I am in the flow (that blissful state of losing myself in what I am great at doing), and bringing joy and liberation (the two guiding principles my coach and I came up with as being my life purpose) to myself and the world.
3. What is your dream lifestyle?
Work is a big part of how we live our lives. Most people are living where their jobs are, set their morning alarm according to when they need to get to the office, and plan their lives around their work.
Working arrangements have evolved so much in the last decade. It is no longer unrealistic to craft your work style to suit your dream lifestyle. Location-wise, do you like working at an office or from home, or a combination of both? Time-wise, do you want to have more or less flexibility? With the rise of the gig economy, your work may be completely project-based. How many hours do you want to work? How much money do you need to generate from your work to pay for the lifestyle you want?
How to dig deeper and find your work gem:
1. Know yourself (and get better at it every day).
Work is a big part of everyone’s life. To know what work you were born to do, you must first have a deep understanding of who you are.
I remember doing different types of personality and aptitude tests, even back in high school. From old astrology to enneagram, to more recent ones including StrengthsFinder, the Purpose Test, and Wealth Dynamics for entrepreneurs. What I found most useful, and I keep going back to check as I progress in life, is still the Myers Briggs (MBTI) 16 personalities test. It may have something to do with the fact that I fall into the INFJ type (supposedly the rarest personality type). I have gained a lot of clarity about why I am the way I am. The test itself and many great MBTI resources are available free online.
2. Be yourself (and become a better version of yourself every day).
Try resisting the temptation to wear a mask and conform with societal expectations. You can discover the easier path that way, but most probably not the right path for you. If you dare not show your true self and ask for what you want, it is more difficult—if not impossible—for others (including the universe or whatever higher power you believe in) to give you what you want.
That does not mean staying static. Engage in lifelong learning and experiencing. Be you, but also strive to be a better version of you.
I love the concept of “workshifting” that Chris Guillebeau introduced in his book Born for This. It has nothing to do with doing work shifts to make ends meet. He talks of workshifting our way through life using the time-and-calendar method, project-based method, or intuitive as-you-go method.
I once met an ice cream shop owner from Italy. He sells ice cream in the summer, then lives in Thailand during winter to write his novel. This is a classic example of a calendar-based workshifting.
Think: combo. Always have a side project going on. Our side projects can very likely turn into our next big adventures, but things take time to develop. And to find work that we love, are good at, and get paid good money for, we need time to play around with it to know if we want to go deeper.
I have always thought that I wanted to be an actor. My friends and I gathered a few other corporate workers, and pulled together a theater production after work. We now are not just lawyers, financial advisors, and marketing executives, but also actors and producers. From that, a friend even expanded his event management work into stage show production.
Workshifting is not easy, because you cannot just keep running on the treadmill on autopilot. It is a mindful practice in which you make conscious choices all the time to steer and refine your career path. Upside? You are also less likely to be stuck climbing a ladder or running a business that does not align with what you are meant to do.
“A job isn’t just a job. It’s who you are.”