The Secret to Being Happy with Your Job

Spoiler alert: It's not "follow your passion"

apw-squarespaceHappy necklace on career change seeker

One of the biggest complaints I hear about all the “follow your must,” “go for your dream” career change advice is, “What if there isn’t that magical ONE THING that I have to do?” Um, hi, hello. That’s me to a T.

A year ago today, I was in the process of styling what was to be the last lookbook of my high-end womenswear line. I was burned out. I’d been running my own hustle for two and a half years, and even though it should have been a dream? It was sucking me dry. I couldn’t explain why. The company was doing well by fashion standards: debuted at NYFW, been picked up by a few stores, and buzz was starting to make its way to important ears. I felt doubly shitty. First, because I was pouring time and money into something that wasn’t making me stoked, and second, because how dare I complain when my job was so… coveted?

Finally, the clothing line came to a breaking point. We either had to accept investment money, redesign our sales strategy, or fold. I chose to fold. Either of the first two decisions would have meant years of commitment and all of a sudden… I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I was anchor-less (read: deeply depressed). I’d lost a bunch of money (it gives me anxiety to think about the exact numbers), and I had no idea what to do next. I knew that all great people have great failures (thanks, Brené Brown, for that one), but how do they figure out what’s next? What was it that wasn’t working for me? How do I make sure my next move isn’t a repeat? (P.S. I ask this after every breakup too.)

Being me, I started to research. I was reading books on motivation and fulfillment, going to therapy and breaking up with an abusive ex, so I was open to… changes (and a little magical thinking). Just like my barometer for dating was clearly broken, my career standards needed an overhaul. And somehow, the answer was super clear, and ridiculously simple.

(Pausing here to say: I know I’m lucky. Even though I’m a queer, Middle Eastern, and born female, I still had two parents who were college educated—the first in either sides of their family—who strongly supported my education above any other aspect of my upbringing. And obviously everyone isn’t always in a position to choose the ideal job situation for themselves in a given moment. Often the ideal is just whatever is going to pay the bills.)

Throw out everything you thought you knew

I figured out that biggest mistake I’d been making was asking “What job would I want?” instead of “What do I want out of my job?” In other words, I needed to shift from statements like, “I want to be a writer,” or “I want to be a fashion designer,” or “I want to run my own business,” to “I want a creative atmosphere,” or “I want to work in a team setting.” Because “I want to be a writer” doesn’t actually mean anything tangible.

I’ve had forty-plus different job titles over the years, and the ones that have made me happiest were not necessarily the titles I’d thought I wanted. Political photographer? Boring. Cocktail waitress in Coney Island? Best job ever. Poetry professor? Nightmare. Vintage store salesperson? I danced around the store, laughing all day. In fact, once I looked at it, obvious patterns started to emerge.

Make a list and check it twice

I wanted to know more about these patterns I was seeing. I like data, so I made a massive list of every workplace quality that had given me joy, and conversely, the ones that made me miserable. On the joy list I had things like working in natural light, ability to take mental health days, wearing what I want, feminist work environment, ability to use profanity, non-repetitive tasks, liking my coworkers. And my shitlist was a pile of unsurprising things: commute, having to be on time, feeling my boss doesn’t care about my opinion, hard sales, red tape, workplace gossip, pretending to be more conservative than I am, not having the freedom to speak my mind. And getting yelled at? Not worth the therapy. Both lists seemed obvious when I read them over, but I’d never broken it down element by element.

Find your why

Right before the lookbook shoot, my business partner turned to me and said, “Aren’t you so proud? We finished the collection!” I was flabbergasted because I realized that for me, the celebration never came from making the product. It made sense that my business partner, who is a trained maker, gained deep satisfaction from a creation finished. But what lit me up was when people wore my designs and felt uplifted.

And it hit me: that aspect was less than five percent of my job. That was a problem.

After that, I started asking everyone about what moment in their job made it worth it. The most memorable response came from an engineer who said his happened when he “solved the problem.” Not when the product was made. Not when it was delivered. Not when it was sold. Don’t get me wrong, many people listed more than one core moment. But it became clear that I needed more of whatever it was that made me stoked. Which, for the record, was spreading compassion and uplifting folks. Be it serving them a delicious meal, reading a moving poem, writing a relatable story, or designing a stunning outfit, that personal connection is my why. And it turns out I don’t have to be a fashion designer to do that.

Define your needs

In the book Drive, Daniel Pink talks about the “trifecta of happiness”: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (you can see more on his TED talk). And he postulates that employees only need managing because they aren’t being properly intrinsically motivated. Building on the concept of core workplace needs, I took a second look at my epic list… and started to whittle down the core needs I had for my next work environment. And much of it did fall under what autonomy, mastery, and purpose looked like for me. I need

  • to be valued for my singular perspective
  • a boss that I like… and think is whip-smart
  • to laugh, a lot (at all of the .gifs, for real)
  • rotating tasks that mean I’m constantly learning
  • to work remotely, with flexible hours (because I work best after midnight)
  • enough money to take money stress off the table
  • to feel like I’m trusted with tasks
  • freedom to be unapologetically myself
  • to be surrounded by people whose values I respect (#feministoffice forever)
  • a creative outlet
  • opportunities to get really nerdy and research the Internet
  • to spread compassion

For other people, this list could look SO DIFFERENT. Perhaps purple hair isn’t as important as health benefits. Maybe you like an office you can leave at the end of the day. But your needs are yours, and only you know what they are.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

You know what identifying your core values lets you do? It lets you sift through the billion jobs on the Internet in an effective way. I opened my search wide open: media jobs, photography gigs, marketing, branding, event production… I wasn’t tied to any specific industry, or position. I just read through the descriptions to see if it hit all the marks.

It was then that I stumbled on APW’s listing in a friend’s Facebook feed. Surprise! I was very single, and had never considered reading a wedding site, much less working at one. But curiosity, and a dedication to being actually open-minded lead me to read the content manager description. And one by one, I felt the checkmarks ticking.

I read through APW’s archives and realized I liked the site. Really liked it. The vibe, the community, the glitter… I was into all of it. I felt a hum running through my system… “Yeah, this job is the one,” I remember thinking. Sure, I was the only applicant—of a zillion applicants—who wasn’t already an APW reader. But I more than made up for it in researching the archives, penning extensive writing samples, and pure hunger. I was confident going in that I wanted it, because darnit, I’d made a list. It wasn’t my dream job; it was my future job. My dream job was the one I’d just quit.

And what happened? Four rounds of intensive interviews later, I got an offer. A few months of somewhat overwhelming training and pre-maternity leave craziness, and I was full-time. I had a total moment of panic: I never thought I’d work for anyone else full time, I never thought I’d write at a wedding site, I never thought… but then I breathed. Because working at APW is everything I wanted. And still want. And if one of my core needs shifts (because hi, only human) I work in the type of place that would be willing to hear me out. And that’s the reason I’m here in the first place. I’d need that level of care from my workplace. Maybe not everyone does, but if you do, you better know it.

It seems like something we should start doing when we’re kids: paying attention to how we learn, and how we work, and designing our lives that way. But that’s not how we’re taught to set career goals. It could utterly shift your job satisfaction (aka quality of life). And if you needed any confirmation of how good a fit my job is? My recent un-asked-for raise included a note encouraging me to travel anywhere in the world and explore any side gigs I was excited about. I almost cried, y’all. Last year this time I was utterly lost, and now I’m buying tickets to South Korea and smiling to myself while working.

Turns out we all deserve to be happy, and sometimes happiness looks like working at a wedding site.

Tell us APW: are you happy in your workplace, oR ARE YOU in the rad place of FIGURING SHIT OUT? If you’re solid in your werq: How did you choose your career? Were you one of those magical people who were born knowing, or did you have to do some serious searching to get to this position? Let’s get real about what we need (other than a #feministoffice, obvi). 

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This post was sponsored by Squarespace. Throughout the year we’ll be partnering with Squarespace to bring you a series of career conversations about what it means to be a woman in the workplace in 2016. If you’re in the market for a new job or looking to explore your options, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to create home online where you can show off your work in the form of a portfolio site, an online resume, or another hub where you can display just how awesome you are. And it just so happens that Squarespace provides the creative tools that make it easy to build it beautiful, even if you’ve never made a website before and have no idea where to start. In conjunction with our career series this year, Squarespace is offering APWers a 10% discount on yearly subscriptions when you use the code APW16 at checkout. Click here to get your website started today with a free 14-day trial from Squarespace.

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