THE BLOG
11/26/2013 07:33 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Getting the Math Right

Too many of us hate our jobs and live in fear. Even the super-successful. And it's our own doing.

I had lunch with a super-talented guy recently. He has a resume to die for - blue chip schools, top tier firms, big titles. Amid his success he had been bounced out of companies a couple of times, as people do when they play at senior levels. Even though he has been incredibly successful, I sensed a deep worry about whether he had ruined his career, about how many opportunities he had missed. The smell of fear mixed with the aroma of the pasta. I walked away feeling badly for him but also frustrated. This happens to so many of us. Why do we strive and achieve and yet still get chased around by the barking dogs in our heads?

Maybe it's because a lot of us work for goofy reasons. Oh, I know that most of us have to work. We weren't born into a fortune. We like to eat and eating costs money. But most of us aren't driven by the need to eat. Not if you're reading this on a screen somewhere. If you were really fleeing starvation, you wouldn't have time for this kind of rumination.

2013-11-26-Mathequation.jpg
As smart as we are, a lot of us have gotten the math all wrong about our work. We think that if we're super successful and we don't totally lose our souls in the process, we'll be happy. The equation goes something like this:

Success + Being a Decent Person = Contentment

Only, that equation doesn't really work. If it did, I'd have a parade of lunches with people who had silly, contented smiles on their faces because I regularly mix with really accomplished, decent people. Instead, too many smart, high-achieving people are secretly lost. In fact, their happiness is too often inversely proportional to their visible success.

The problem isn't that they aren't successful enough, whatever that means. The problem isn't that they aren't decent enough, though we could all amp up our decency without hurting anyone's feelings. The problem is that the equation they're living by is just flat wrong.

What would happen if my friend lived with this equation in mind?

Being who you're created to be + Contentment = Success

Simple, I know. But in a culture that actually glorifies dissatisfaction as a noble trait, think of the implications of switching your emphasis:

  • Instead of letting achievement, acquisition, and the quest for clout control my happiness, I'm clear that wealth, notoriety, and influence don't define my life. My character and my impact on those closest to me does.
  • Instead of being under the grinding pressure to "win" no matter what hand I was dealt, I do the best I can with the hand I'm dealt. I shun the cheap happiness of comparison in favor of joy.
  • Instead of always looking over my shoulder at what might happen or what might have happened if only..., I look at what's right in front of me and enjoy it for what it is.
  • Instead of seeing today's work as a stepping stone to something really good, I see today's work as really good in itself because it just might draw the best out of me. It might even make me better. It might be a class I have to pass to become more of who I was created to be.

Don't think for a minute that conventional wisdom will make sense of this. Our world trades in fear, insecurity, and scarcity. It knows that you can motivate people to buy and sell anything - even their very happiness and souls - when motivated by those barking dogs. The purveyors of dissatisfcation equate contentment with resignation. But they're wrong. Resignation says that things aren't that good and they're not likely to get better. Contentment celebrates that things are actually quite good, and that - in the grand scheme of things - all is well.

So this Thanksgiving, think about your life and work.

  • Are you doing something - at least a decent chunk of your day - that flows out of who you're created to be? If so, give thanks. If not, ask yourself: Where can you make a slight shift in thinking or action that would change the game and play to your sweet spot? Or can you shift your attitude from thinking your work isn't good enough for you to thinking it's a gift just waiting to be unwrapped?
  • Does your work give you the opportunity - and by "opportunity" I really mean "difficulty" - to grow your character or to make a positive impact on someone else? If so, give thanks.
  • Is there some limitation you face that forces you to be creative, to overcome, to be abnormally resilient? If so, give thanks.
  • Have you had a good laugh or better yet that moment of joy in your work where you're engaged, switched on, or even righteously angry? If so, give thanks.
  • Does your work provide you with an opportunity to provide for and care for those you love even if it's not your rock and roll fantasy? If so, give thanks.

Maybe you just realized that you had the math wrong and you've decided to work from a new equation. That's worth giving thanks for too. Because it all starts with getting the math right.

Being who you're created to be + Contentment = Success

Be bright. 2013-11-26-NoondaySun.JPG