Job Satisfaction Against the Odds

The upcoming election is largely about the economy, and the economy is about jobs. The stubbornly high unemployment rate, and the struggle of countless Americans without jobs has been an endless topic of discussion. But it isn't the only story of the Great Recession. There's also the one about the millions — perhaps tens of millions — of men and women who do have work but who have seen their professional growth stalled, their ambitions stunted, and their dreams shattered by an economy stuck in neutral. Scores of working professionals in all fields — from corporate executives to mid-level managers to recent college graduates — feel "stuck" professionally in this overlooked employment crisis. They're grateful to have a job but simultaneously frustrated that it's unfulfilling and other opportunities are scarce. The result is malaise and a nagging question: "Is this it?"

The ultimate solution to this challenge is resumed economic growth — which will create jobs for people who don't have them and increase the opportunities for those who do. But, in the meantime, there are steps you can take to chart a path to professional success and satisfaction in today's environment. In my upcoming book Howard's Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life's Work, iconic Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson and I offer a few suggestions:

  • Create a personal legacy vision. This is a holistic picture of the life and career that you want to build over the long term. We all have a tendency to spend time and effort trying to advance on our current path and remove any obstacles we come across. But, even in this economy, you need to ask yourself: "Is this the right path?" "Do I have to stay on it?" Give yourself permission to reevaluate your true goals in every realm of your life: career, family, material wealth, community. What do you need and what do you want? The picture might look very different than you expect.
  • Rethink what's "risky". Most of us are conditioned to accept society's definition of what's high risk or not. But that doesn't take into account our individual circumstances or our internal risk profile. The key to managing risk is to evaluate a risk relative to something else and to understand that there is risk involved in not doing anything. Choosing inaction to avoid a perceived risk is in and of itself a decision to continue on the current path (even if it is heading off a cliff).
  • Create an "individual board of directors," or IBOD, a collection of men and women you proactively engage to help you move forward in your career. The members of an IBOD give you unbiased feedback on your path; help you compensate for professional weaknesses; align your skills with the opportunities that do exist in today's economy; and support you as you pursue your professional goals.
  • Focus on the areas where you have the skills and competitive advantages. As I explain in the sidebar to this HBR article, any of us are "good" at numerous things. But we're excellent at only one or two things. The reality is that "good enough" skills probably aren't sufficient to achieve our professional goals in today's environment. We need to focus on the areas in which our skills are better than those that are competing for the same opportunities as we are.

The economy might be stagnant. But you don't have to be. Shake off that malaise and start thinking about the path to success and satisfaction that will work for you.

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