What are you going to do when you grow up?

The old man reached for my bag as soon as it was placed on the airport curbside.  I was startled.  And then he looked at me and smiled.  He was wearing a uniform.  He pulled my suitcase to the trolley.  He handed a baggage tag to me and smiled.

The man looked old enough to be retired.  He moved slow.  He moved purposefully.  I wrote down my contact information on the tag, secured it on the suitcase and handed him the pen.  He smiled again. 

And I knew this was a man who enjoyed his work. 

Often when people think about work that would engage them, they can’t imagine being a luggage attendant at Tampa Bay airport. 

Perhaps the man hadn’t considered this to be his dream job. 

Most people say they found their lifework via a circuitous path that feels more like a stumble than a choice. 

But is that really true?

What I know about life in general is what may look like one choice is actually a series of choices.  Small daily choices.  That add up. 

What accompanies those choices is what I like to think of as the “curious dog phenomenon.”

The dog doesn’t really understand what is going on so it tilts its head, one direction and sometimes the other.  The dog is fully engaged, looking like it is just trying to figure it out. 

 A very curious look.

In hindsight, I see that the curious dog phenomenon was behind the choices I made.

 When I was working in a job that was an awkward fit, I found myself looking across the hall at the next department, much like a curious dog.  What was it that they were doing?  I started asking questions.  Within a couple of months, I was working in the education department.

Though I was not thinking of my dream job at the time, what I know now is I was connecting some dots.

By looking back at my work, I can see that there were not only clues about what fits for me but I was gravitating towards what intrigued me. 

On an internal level I was getting clearer and clearer about my dream job. 

And this is true for you as well.  If you look back at your work or volunteer or life experience, think of times when you acted like a curious dog. 

This will give you some good clues about work that fits for you.  Below are some questions to help the process:

1.  What did you love to do as a child?  What were some activities that you did again and again? 

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, loved to dig in the mud.  Later in his life, he reflected that what he ended up doing for his work was connected to the mud experiences – he would delve deeply into the unconscious and bring it to light. 

2. What comes naturally to you? 

Often people dismiss what they do well because they think that anybody can do it.  Think of those activities that you do with ease and when you experience “flow experience,” a term from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Flow is a heightened focus and immersion into activities.  In this video, Csikszentmihalyi outlines the flow experience:

Another way to look at what comes naturally to you is to do the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), an assessment that provides cool information about your psychological preferences.  For more information about MBTI, check it out here

3.  What would you do if money was no object? 

One of the intriguing characteristics of millionaires when they talk about their beginnings is that money was not the primary factor in what they were doing.  Money clouds our perspective.  In asking the question of money not being an object, the answer may not provide precisely what you want to do, but you can get some good clues. 

Let’s say you want to be philanthropist, spending your money and time on important causes.  The clue in that might be that you would like to help ease other people’s suffering – this is what you can bring to many jobs. 

4.  Who inspires you? 

This could be a celebrity, friend, family member or whoever has touched your life in a way that makes you think bigger.  What specifically about that person inspires you?  What qualities or contributions that they make may be connected to what you want in your work life? 

I have thought frequently about the brief encounter with the old man at the airport over the years.  What I remember is that in an instant, I saw someone who was totally engaged.

He reminded me that people doing work that enlivens them happens everywhere.  Even in a whirl of an airport. I know the litmus test of seeing someone truly engaged in their work – I want to do it too.  I am inspired.

Meeting that man taught me that finding work that matters is a personal matter and the most satisfying work isn’t about being big and grand. And perhaps grand is what you make it. 

Now it's your turn.

Who has influenced you?  How has it changed your life?  You are welcome to add your thoughts in the comments below – I would love to hear from you!!

Put Your Strengths to Work

“What do you call something you do well but you hate?”  

This question was posed by Marcus Buckingham, a man who originally worked for the Gallup Poll. He was intrigued with survey results showing only 20% of people are doing work where they feel engaged.

old growth forest - Cathedral grove, bc

old growth forest - Cathedral grove, bc

Marcus Buckingham is the author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work. 

Consider the information you put on a resume. Often the emphasis is on what you have done well in the past.  But what if you don’t enjoy doing the work? 

By emphasizing what you think makes sense to put on a resume, you may be offered a job that doesn’t fit for you.

You can probably see how you can wind up in a job that you hate. 

Climbing up the wrong career ladder happens inadvertently.  When I was a young single parent, I found work where I could.  Through a series of circumstances, I found myself in the financial area of organizations.  A large part of the job was doing detailed tasks.  Not my thing.    

In the middle of the afternoon, when I was doing accounts or payroll, I found myself exhausted. I sought out coffee or chocolate.  Or both. I continued doing the work because I needed the money and I didn’t know what else to do.

Soon I was getting referred by former colleagues and employers for openings in finance departments.

I was grateful.  I was pigeon holed. 

What I didn’t know then was that I was getting some good clues about work that fits for me.  Even those afternoons that dragged on were telling me a lot.

Buckingham says when you are doing an activity you hate, it is a weakness.  A weakness is anything you do that leaves you feeling weak. Drained. 

What a brilliant definition!  I was struck by the simplicity and logic. 

When I started thinking about weaknesses, I realized figuring out my weaknesses is an inside job.  No one else can tell what a weakness is because it is connected to feelings.

What about a strength?  A strength is anything you do that leaves you feeling strong. Energized. 

When you think of strengths in this way, you turn towards what energizes you versus what you do well.  And you are more likely to be doing work that is alignment with who you are.

If you are feeling like doing work you love, work where you are using your strengths is only for the privileged, you may want to look at employer surveys of what they are looking for in new hires.

In a survey I saw in 2012, one of the qualities employers were seeking was passion. Considering that the employee is representing the company with each customer interaction, it makes sense that the employer would want someone who were as invested in their business as they are. 

By being clear about your strengths, not only will you find work that engages you, you are more likely to find that workplace where you will be most valued.

So how do you discover your strengths?

Finding your strengths is easier than you might first imagine.  What I have noticed is there is natural inclination to do activities that make you feel strong.

To find your strengths, Buckingham suggests writing down what makes you feel energized as you go through a day.  Because by the end of the day you will forget what it was that energized you, the idea is to do it in the moment.

Don’t expect that you will capture all of your strengths in a day.  Take a week or so to write down a lengthy list. 

Once you have your list, go through each of the activities and consider what it was about the activity that makes you feel strong. 

For example, I wrote down gardening as a strength.  When I started thinking about what it was that energized me, I realized I was fascinated with how plants complement each other, how one repeals the insects that are drawn to another.  After my exploration, I determined my strength is seeing the big picture on how things work together.

This is a strength that I can bring to many jobs.  For example, as a career counsellor I look at the labour market and how it affects employment or as a nurse I may want to find a position where I am looking at the social determinants of health. 

Strengths are transferrable!

While strengths are a key element in finding work that matters to you, you don’t have to quit your job to move towards your dream job.

Find the opportunities where you can contribute your strengths.  Where, on a regular basis, can you do an activity where you are using your strengths? 

Because you are most energized when you are using your strengths, you will get noticed.  When you are using your strengths, you will work harder and develop even more skills to make you even more valuable. 

When you are using your strengths, you will be drawn to doing courses and going to conferences and learning even more.  The more you use your strengths, the more opportunities will open for you.

When you look at others who have become masterful at what they do, you will see that working in their strengths has everything to do with their success.

What are your strengths?  Where will you make your contribution?