What are you doing with your life?

Recently Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a Facebook posting asking this question and framing it in the definition of 4 words. Hobby. Job. Career. Vocation.

The answers were breathtakingly fresh, offering an important distinction between taking care of basic needs to doing what gives you meaning. She is clear that it is important to understand the differences between each of these aspects of being human. To read her article, check it out here

The word that I prefer over career is work. Career can be challenging as it is sometimes seen as corporate or one rung on a ladder that has a vague top step. For people whose work is more of a one-stop type, career sounds lofty and unrelatable.

Work, on the other hand, has its roots firmly planted in our history. I saw it in my grandparents' generation. I hardly remember a time when my grandmother was not working. Far into her retirement, she was cooking and gardening and doing temporary jobs. That view of work was passed onto my parents.

What my father and mother impressed upon me was a strong work ethic. They both worked hard. I doubt that my father’s trucking business was his dream career but he gained a good reputation for doing outstanding work. My mother who is 80 this year still works full time in addition to gardening and caring for her home.

When I think of my parents, I think of Fraggle Rock’s doozers, those tiny, green creatures in construction hats and work boots who are happily industrious.

Work ethic is a value that includes

  • doing a job well,
  • doing what you say you are going to do,
  • separating work and personal life, and
  • caring about what you are doing.

This value is still central to many workplaces.

The key difference in how the world has changed around work since my parents’ and grandparents’ time is the idea of doing work we love. Previously if you found it, that was a bonus. Now it is more deliberate.

And a bit of a double edged sword. For those who have not found work they love, they feel a pressure to figure it out and a sense of inadequacy for not having done so.

If this is happening for you, knowing the distinction between hobby, job, career and vocation may help. When I encounter people who are struggling with the pressure, I encourage them to explore this further – there is a lot to navigate in this new work world.

In thinking of vocation, I like the term - your life’s work. I first heard the phrase from Laurence G. Boldt, author of How to Find the Work You Love and Zen and the Art of Making a Living

Your life's work is something you do no matter what. It wouldn’t matter if you got paid or anyone else approved of what you are doing. It is fundamental to who you are.

For example, I think of my life’s work as an archaeologist. I read books on the subject, plan vacations around visiting ruins, and take courses whenever I can. I am drawn to articles written on archaeology. Once I went to a workshop on deciphering Maya glyphs, a subject that far exceeded my knowledge level.

In a way it is how I do my work as a career coach.

What you will notice about your life’s work is:

You want to know more.

  • You will be drawn to articles or books or videos on the subject. There will be a natural inclination to learn more and pass the information onto others.

You feel alive.

  • When you are doing your life’s work you will feel more engaged in the world.
  • You will also find yourself feeling energized – your life’s work fuels you. 

It will answer the question: what are you doing with your life?

  • Or another way of looking at it, doing your life’s work will stop you from asking the question, "what are you doing with your life?"

“Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.”  Thomas Merton



Year-End Review: A Gift to Yourself

As we get closer to our farthest distance from the sun here in the northern hemisphere, I think of this season’s offerings.

The dashing around for the past few weeks will soon come to an end.  It will be time to switch gears.

As a friend once said, “it is time for human being rather than human doing.” 

Victoria:  Provincial Legislative Building

Victoria:  Provincial Legislative Building

The long nights are a good reminder to retreat.  In the midst of darkness, Victoria celebrates with an abundance of holiday lights wound around trees and light standards.  Some of the white lights on the provincial Legislative Building have been replaced with red and green ones.  The dazzling display is an invitation, too, for contemplation.

I have a journal I write in once a year, recapping what I have done in the last 365 days. I do this in a free-flowing way, letting events that have weaved through my year arise.  Having a non-linear process allows me to reflect on what has inspired me the most.

I have done this for 20 years – my journal has 20 entries.  When my friend Monique introduced me to this yearly tradition of hers, I adopted it immediately.  It was like a to-do list in reverse, with all the satisfaction and no pressure. 

Later when I was helping others set goals, I realized how important it is to review progress, particularly when facing something new.  Like another year.

But more importantly, it sets the tone for what’s to come.

Sometimes I read my previous entries and am reminded how far I have journeyed and how I have worked through different challenges.  It is an opportunity for me to honour what I have done and who I am.

In a culture that makes many demands and often tells us we are not good enough, taking time to celebrate who you are is a bold act.  It breaks the rules of propriety.

We are told that talking about ourselves is akin to bragging or being self absorbed. 

But how do you move through this world if you don’t know who you are?  How do you contribute at all if you don’t understand your place?  And how do you contribute anything meaningful if you don’t know what gives you meaning?

Part of that journey is being able to explore your gifts.  Your gifts and talents are where you are going to make the biggest difference in the world. Even if changing the world is not on your to-do list, you likely want to contribute. Or help.  Or at least reduce the suffering of others. 

My once-a-year journal

My once-a-year journal

The journal is my starting place.

Before you rush off to make resolutions or major changes, consider what you appreciate about what you did last year.

Here is an 3-part exercise for your year-end review.  It can relate to the work you do or your personal life. 

Part One:  What did you accomplish?

  • What activities did you do in the last year? 
  • If you like linear methods, look back month-by-month to see what stood out for you. Remember this exercise is about recognizing yourself – focus on what you did rather than what others did.
  • What did you do in the last year that made a difference in someone else’s life? 

Part Two:  What did you learn?

  • What you learned can be formal or informal, personal or skill-based. 
  • Throughout the year, what personal growth did you experience?

Part Three:  What is your overall summary?

  • When you look back over the year, what are you most proud of achieving?
  • How would you state your satisfaction? 

You may notice this exercise does not ask what you could have done better. Although that can be informative, self criticism already gets a lot of air time.

This year-end review is about allowing magnificent parts of yourself to surface.  We are all drawn to work with our gifts and talents.  The trouble is that we don’t recognize them.  Or we diminish them.  But we are expressing them all the time.

Your self-appreciation year-end review allows you the space to move away from keeping yourself small. 

Why finding meaningful work is more important than money

What motivates you to do the work that you do?  When I was talking to the Human Resources person at one of my former positions, she told me that 90% of the reason people work is because of payroll.  Indeed, I hear people saying that the first thing they are going to do when they win the lottery is quit their jobs. 

But what is more interesting than why people work is why they quit.  This is where the clues appear for what motivates people to choose work that fits.  

What I have seen from observing people who leave their positions is that a high percentage of the decisions were not related at all to the money.   How they were treated, priority changes because of family, a change of organization direction, and personal growth work which results in a new vision of one’s life are all top reasons why people want to make a change in their lives. 

Looking at the reasons people seek new opportunities, you can see that motivation is highly personal, dependent on where you are in your life and what it is that you want.  Motivation is internally driven.

The same is true of meaningfulness.  Meaningfulness is often at the root of motivation.  It is connected to values, the importance of how you want to lead your life.   And though making money is a value, it often is not the top value.

As a part of the career exploration, I produced a values assessment where participants chose and then prioritized their values.  Frequently, money was chosen for the first round but by the third and final round, it no longer was on the list.  Why is that?  

Though money is an important consideration, it is more of a flow-in, flow-out issue.  For example, what you need financially changes over time.  When push comes to shove, you can be quite surprised by what you actually need to survive. 

In circumstances where you are making big decisions, money may not be the biggest factor.

The values that you are left with at the end of any day has to do with how you feel about yourself and the world.  At the end of trying situations, I have heard people proud and resolved that they came out with their integrity intact.  And along the way when they have been the most confused, their values are what guides them to their next action. 

It is those values that are held most dear that become most meaningful.  Though our values can change over time, they are ultimately where “the buck stops.” 

While meaningfulness has everything to do with who you are and what you want, there also is another component.  Mostwork is in relation to other people, societies and the planet.  For some people, this means working directly with homeless people and for others it means leading a corporation.   The common thread is seeing themselves as a part of making a difference.

People who experience the highest amount of job satisfaction feel like they are contributing to an issue bigger than themselves.  They may want to make a difference but their desire is to contribute in meaningful ways. 

Meaningfulness also is a driving factor in hanging in there when times are tough. 

How, then, do you find the work that provides meaning in your life?  Asking yourself the following powerful questions will help illuminate what is meaningful to you:

  1. What is meaningful to me?
  2. What do I consider to be the most important concerns, the issues that I care about the most?
  3. What really matters?
  4. If I could solve one world problem, what would it be?
  5. What are my top 3 movies of all time?  What theme do they share?

This is one of the components of the Finding Work That Matters Program.  If you want to know more, check it out here




Living In Beta

The work that a person will do after graduation is not yet invented when they enter kindergarten.  When I was a young employment counsellor, I tried to wrap my head around how that one premise affects so much of our lives. 

How do you plan an education stream when you don’t really know what you will be doing?  What do you need to know to be employed, enough to sustain yourself?  What does it mean to live in a world that is constantly changing?

How do you plan your life work?

Life is about change from our birth and death to our ever-evolving planet.  You see it every day when you open up your computer. 

Algorithms change on websites and you don’t even know about it.  Every day there are ideas about improving.

Change encircles the world.  And yet.  There is the deep desire to follow traditions and find that cushy place on the couch.  What does this say about being human? 

What is intriguing about people is the relationship to change.  I remember reading an article by Anthony Robbins where he outlined 6 basic human needs.  The first one was certainty which he describes as “assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.”  The next one was uncertainty, “the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli.”

Those both, apparently contradictory needs, play out in day-to-day lives.  It is in that interchange where you consider options, make plans and play out decisions. 

When looking at what work is going to fit for you, it is helpful to look at a new paradigm.  Living in Beta. 

In the past we saw work as a life-long decision, where you needed to choose THE career and then go down that path.  What you have no doubt noticed is that the trajectory is hardly a straight line. 

Looking forward and back

“Living in Beta” is a term I saw in Roadmap by the Roadtrip Nation people.  “A beta test is an iteration of something that is subject to continued improvement.” 

A beta test is a software term used when testing a product.  The idea is that the product will grow and evolve as they learn more about it in the marketplace. 

The authors suggest that applying that metaphor to work and approaching work by focussing on “building better versions of yourself.” 

So rather than focus on a particular job, career or set of skills, you think of yourself as a work in progress.  If at the heart of your career choices is the idea that life is always in flux, then why not make choices based on that idea? 

What does that mean? 

1.         There is only one guide – you! 

Though your work will always be at the intersection of what you contribute and what the world needs, the starting point is your own gifts and talents.  Immerse yourself in knowing what they are, expand your knowledge in those areas and consider how you can take them out into the world.   When you get lost and are questioning what to do, this is where you come back.  Your bright guiding star.

2.         Keep listening to yourself. 

In your daily life, you face dilemmas and problems where there are no easy answers.  When you pay attention to your values, integrity and ethics, you will come up with the solution where at the end of the day, you will be satisfied that you did what you could do.

3.         Pay attention.

When I was in Valencia, Spain last year, I caught the rail downtown and transferred onto the Metro.  How easy it seems to get spun around in a new city.  On the Metro, I looked at the route map above the door and realized I was going in the opposite direction to where I wanted to go.  Life is like that.  The most important part of what happened to me on that day was that I kept my wits about me.  For your life work and where you need next to be, pay attention to the marketplace, pay attention to what you are getting to know about yourself and what you have to offer and pay attention to what inspires you.  Expand into that bigger vision you have of yourself.

4.         Reroute when necessary.

This is the idea behind “Living in Beta.”  Since everything around you is subject to change, grasping the idea that you too are involved in the experiment will keep you rooted in the right place.   The focal point is your strengths.  As William Bridges in Jobshift emphasized, there is plenty of work though there is a decrease in jobs. 

In thinking of education, the question is about how to prepare students for a world of such vast change.  In the resources below, check out the Ted Talk by Molly Schroeder for an innovative idea of how students are engaged in their learning.  See the link to her talk below.

Molly Schroeder also talks about Google and how all of their products are released in beta.  Some succeed and some fail.  Throughout the process, what Google has learnt has changed the world. 

Living in beta is where I learn too.  When I think of raising my children, I was living in beta, a different version for each of them.  What worked for one did not necessarily work for the other.  There were experiments that soared.  There were ideas that fell flat.  The ones that worked the best were built on a foundation of love, values and understanding. 

What is the best way to prepare for Living in Beta?  Your comments are welcome!  Click on the Comment button below. 


Here are resources mentioned in the text above and some great food for thought!

Living in Beta – Molly Schroeder – Ted Talk BurnsvilleED

The 6 Human Needs:  Why We Do What We Do by Anthony Robbins


Inspired by the question:  What should I do with my life?  Roadtrip Nation:  Define your own road in life