Career Sustainability

This article first appeared in Learning and Development in Australia, Vol 30 Issue 1, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

You might know this feeling. You're on the way to work one morning and it hits you: You no longer love what you do for a living, you're only going to work today because you have to. Time for yet another career change, another back flip or change of country, another few months or years of feeling in limbo as you try to work out what you 'really want to do'.

More and more people today are making radical changes in what they do for a living. One factor is simply the availability of choice. We are long past the days of jobs for life or of choosing between just manufacturing, banking, retail or the professions. It seems there are as many different professions now as there are people.

A second factor is the way we have developed increased expectations of our lives. Driven by a growing affluence in western society and fuelled by the media, many people now believe it is their birthright to fulfil their potential by finding the 'perfect career' for them.

Another factor that has arisen particularly in the last 5 years is the 'sea change' phenomenon. Many people are starting to place more importance on quality of life than ever before, often above financial rewards. A recent study by the Australia Institute found 23% of Australians over 30 (not including retired people, mothers or students) had taken a significant financial loss in order to improve their quality of life. That kind of number indicates a major societal shift under way and points to some serious structural problems in the design of corporate life that corporate planners need to sit up and take notice of. The Department of Education and Training in New South Wales recently did - they implemented a system of up to three months annual leave for family issues based on workers taking a small pay cut. Flexibility, and thus the ability to 'maintain a life' at the same time as working, is shaping up as a hot issue around career sustainability.

Over the last 6 years working as a personal coach I have been a sounding board for many executives and professionals as they grappled with the issue of what they need for a sustainable career. The ability to have a reasonable quality of life was always a hot spot, but there were many other very common issues that come up. These issues are probably no surprise to you, as they shouldn't be to professionals in the training and development field.

1. Using our Natural Talents

Paul (not his real name) came to me a few years ago to help him work out what he 'really wanted to do' in his career. He was a successful consultant working for a large firm but was uninspired about his work.

I asked Paul what he liked most about being a consultant; his answer was the diversity of projects, and working with people to help them solve problems. Yet the majority of his time was spent building spreadsheets for large IT projects that took months to create.

It seems we all have things that we naturally excel at, and others that feel like work. Some people are passionate about managing details, others are brilliant at complex equations and puzzles, others are visionary and fabulous communicators. Personally I am quite good at planning, but it's not what I love to do. As a result it's easy for me to forget the details when I plan.

Many people have simply not taken the time to work out what they love to do, versus what they do well, which they may have simply developed skills at over time. There are accountants who are dreary day after day because they don't like numbers and really just want to paint. Or managers in psychic agony because they hate managing people and want to 'get on with the job'.

A fundamental requirement of any sustainable career is that the day to day work is something the individual is naturally good at, and enjoys doing. Sounds simple, but in practice many people miss the significance of this issue. A good test is to ask yourself if you would choose your current type of work as a career if you had to choose again.

As a coach a simple question I often ask people is 'what are the three things you love to do'. Sometimes these seemingly obvious, dumb questions can change a life.

Back to Paul. Through the coaching process he ended up getting a new position in the same organisation in business development, where he got to meet lots of new people and work on new projects all the time. When I saw him a few months later he was like a new person. 'It doesn't feel like work any more, I just go out and talk to people and see how I can help them. I love going to work again' he told me.

2. The Need for Continual Learning

The human brain is an amazing learning machine, capable of the most extraordinary feats. It's also in some senses a very large muscle, and like all our muscles, it thrives on being stretched. Stretching, from the brain's point of view, means creating new links between our neurons, which means learning new skills, literally 'thinking along different pathways'. The converse of this is that when we keep doing the same things the same way for years on end, it's like using the same muscles hour after hour - they wear out. We need to move onto new experiences to avoid 'burn out'.

Some people have high needs in this area and can't do anything for longer than a few hours; others are comfortable learning key new skills every few years. Whatever your needs are, if you are mentally stale, you wont be able to stick at your career for long.

Knowing this fact doesn't mean you have to change careers every few years. Knowing that you need to keep learning means proactively challenging yourself - taking on big projects, trying new things, developing new skills. If this is impossible within your workplace, you can always undertake study or projects in fields that will help you see the world in new ways, for example studying history or philosophy. 

A client of mine was locked into a high paying role and felt she had lost all perspective in her job as HR manager of an industrial company. She decided to take on charity work to broaden her social awareness. The challenges she faced in dealing with street kids brought her mind, her passion for people, and ultimately her whole world alive again.

3. Expressing our Personal Values

Values are the things that we all naturally tend towards in our day to life - like integrity, honesty, fun, creativity or sharing. Values are like a set of formulae with which we use to make decisions.

While we all share many common values as human beings, we all tend to have our own specific values that we live according to. Personally I value innovation and change more than many people I know, whereas my partner values peace and tranquillity more than I do.

Many people have never taken the time to clarify what their values are. The more conscious we are of our values, the easier it is to make the right decisions day to day.  For example if the things you value highly are fun, creativity and spontaneity, working as a lawyer for a large bank may not be the place for you. 

We know that work takes up most of our useful hours, for the most productive part of our lives. What this means is we need to do work, and work in environments, that align with the values that we hold dear. Otherwise we are not living life as we know we should be. I believe that working in a career or for a company that is directly opposed to your values is not sustainable long term without the risk of real health problems, either physical or mental.

4. Knowing We Make a Difference

The desire to make a difference to the world around us is a deep human drive within all human beings. It tends to come to the fore once we have established ourselves as generally successful in life. Intuitively I guess it is something built in at a genetic level, like the desire to reproduce.

Look at the core of every great organisations' vision statement, the one's that really inspire us, and you'll find nothing more than a commitment to doing good. For Disney it's 'Making people smile' while at Merck it's simply 'Improving the quality of human life'.

For any career to be sustainable we have to know that we are doing good. This doesn't mean we all want to be Mother Teresa - it can simply mean we need to know that what we do helps others in simple ways. Sometimes all this takes is shifting your perspective to a broader view of the current situation. I had a client who ran a small recruitment firm. She was struggling to work each day. When she spent time really getting in touch with the difference she made to her clients lives when she placed them in a good job, her work took on a different hue and she was reinspired.

5. Being Part of a Great Workplace

Workplaces are communities of like-minded people doing things an individual could never do alone. People have worked together in teams since the first groups of hunters ventured out to corral large animals.

Given the right environment most people love to work. They know it is more fun to invent and create with a team of like-minded people, than it is to sit home watching television. Yet many of today's workplaces are not great places to be.

One of the issues that keeps coming up in coaching is the quality of communications at work - the lack of honesty, straight talking, openness and trust. Many workers feel today that their relationships in the office lag far behind the quality of relationships with their close friends and partners.

In Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence he states that social isolation is (approximately) twice as dangerous to our health as smoking. Open communication is what breaks this isolation. While some of the burden for this might rest on the management, I am a great advocate of the expression 'Be the change you want to see in the world.' It's amazing what one person with courage and conviction can achieve.

The other big issues around the quality of the workplace and teams are the level of fun, whether people feel acknowledged and appreciated, feel they are part of a community and that they can be creative in their work in some way. All of these factors make up being in a great workplace or not.

All this may sound like building a sustainable career is a complex affair. Really it's about applying common sense and being aware of our needs as individuals. As individuals it's a little easier as we have the choice to change careers or shift our focus. The real challenge is for the organisation to start acknowledging these issues and taking steps to address them, to ensure they can attract and keep the talent they need to succeed.

As professionals in the training and development arena I believe it is our role to be part of the solution and speak on behalf of sustainable careers everywhere we go.