Discover more from Origin Stories
What is good work? What is success?
Musings on the meaning of work
In between Origin Stories, I will be sharing insights related to purpose & career, and answering reader questions
One of my favourite parts of Vivian’s story is where she ponders the meaning of work, asking, ‘What is good work? What is success?’
My first job after graduation was a marketing role with Procter & Gamble. When I accepted the position, I had no idea what marketing was. But it was well paid, with a good firm, a great boss, and in an exciting location. It was the best answer I could find to the question, ‘What can I do?’
For lack of any other model, I approached my work like a school project or an academic assignment. I saw it as an intellectual puzzle culminating in a report and a recommendation, rather than a process of bringing people together to meaningfully improve the lives of our customers.
Without that connection to reality, I was wrapped up in all sorts of extrinsic metrics: Did my boss think well of my presentation? Was I doing as well as or better than my colleagues? Would I get a promotion sooner? And I felt a gnawing sense of uncertainty about my self-worth. I worked insane hours to compensate. I burned out.
I considered switching jobs to consulting, but a quiet voice in the back of my mind told me that it would be more of the same. I wouldn’t have addressed the underlying cause of my burnout. Instead, I sought career coaching at The Right Mountain with Jim Hayhurst and Michael Reddy.
Michael asked me: ‘What do you like to do? What do you do because you feel you ought to?’
I was floored. In my whole life, I had never considered what I liked to do. I had so consistently overridden my interests and preferences, in favour of what was most marketable, that I couldn’t easily identify them. This began a long process of self-discovery.
In the short term, I identified a few things: that I love to write, that I love learning about people, cultures and behaviours, and that I had extensive experience living, studying and working abroad.
One day, in the shower, these things came together: I determined to write a book about the new wave of young professionals living and working abroad. And I had experienced this first hand when P&G relocated its European headquarters, moving 2000 or so people from England, Germany and Belgium to Switzerland.
While I was proud of the publication of “GenXpat”, I was ultimately more proud of something else. This was the first thing I had done for myself – based on my own interests, on my own initiative, and certainly not for pay or glory. I had quickly learned that, ‘I used to work at P&G’ drew interest and a certain hope for my future, while ‘I’m writing a book’ caused polite coughs and changes of topic. Despite this, I felt more confident in myself than ever before. I was beginning to answer the question, ‘What do I want to do?’
Reflecting on this time, I can see that my ideas of good work and success had changed. Instead of worrying about creating a perfect presentation to impress my boss, I was thinking about content that was meaningful to my readers. Instead of clocking 8 hours and working overtime, I worked 5-6 hours a day on the things that mattered most. Instead of drawing confidence from my title and pay check, I drew it from enjoying my work, developing new physical skills, and connecting with people.
So what do you want to do? What does success mean to you?