When I was at HBS, a very smart professor shared his keys to happiness in work, which I have found to be useful in understanding my own experiences. They are:
- Be good at what you do
- Be recognized and rewarded for it
- Find meaningful challenge in your work
- Do it with people you like
- Believe in a bigger purpose in your work
I won't presume to generalize for all people, but here are the ways I've felt I've fallen down in the past. If you hate your job, I suspect some of these will be relevant to you.
The first criteria requires self-awareness . Early in my career, I wanted to be "close to the action", whatever that meant. I sought out the kind of jobs that bestowed social validation, which led me to a sleepless internship with Goldman Sachs, and then four years at McKinsey. Thankfully both companies are great generalist training grounds, but certainly if I had been more self aware I could have taken a more direct path to a profession in line with my sweet spot. The things I've learned are unique about my natural tendencies: I pick things up quickly and get antsy to move onto the next thing, within organizations I tend to play a connector role, I have a high tolerance for setbacks and make mistakes often, I have zero patience for bureaucracy, I am comfortable with risk and ambiguity in my work environment, and I value autonomy above almost all else (many apologies to my former managers). All of the characteristics I mention are simultaneously strengths and weaknesses that I've learned through multiple iterations of feedback on the job and through introspection. Now that I know them, I can be laser focused within the tech startup ecosystem on what is the best long-term fit for me.
The second criteria for me required the right balance of humility and bravery. Part of that is situational awareness. Past success breeds the mentality that you can succeed no matter what the future context is. I've found that to be a dangerous mindset that I've seen many generalist bankers and consultants in particular fall victim to. The kind of organizational and process management skills that propel one up the food chain in consulting is not necessarily the differentiator in unstructured fast moving companies, for example. I've seen firsthand a very successful McKinsey manager struggle mightily with managing a tech team for this very reason. On the other hand, adding value and not acting entitled to the reward will often leave you open to being taken advantage of. Understanding what moves the needle, having the patience and fortitude to build the right skills to add value, and then earning the right to be entitled to reward, is in my experience a balancing act.
The third requires strong growth opportunities just enough outside your comfort zone. I'll paraphrase John Doerr here: find great challenges with less layers of people. Then you won't have to climb over others if you want to grow into greater responsibility. The addendum to that is you should sequence the challenges at a pace that doesn'y completely deflate you. The first case study taught to first-year students at HBS is about Erik Peterson, who suddenly graduates from being an individual contributor to a manager in the workplace. He handles it poorly, has a disastrous experience, and leaves the business world for good, rightly or wrongly for him. Like school, ideally you want to learn at your own style and pace, regardless of the powerful conforming effect of your peer group.
The fourth requires the kind of emotional IQ to judge people beyond first impressions. Most people are very friendly when you first meet them, and it can be hard to tell if you'll get along. In retrospect, I've been able to detect poor self-interested managers through a few tells that I unfortunately wish I had acted on sooner. Watch for small actions that tell how much your manager prioritizes managing up vs down - if you see this on small scale you can bet when rubber meets the road you and your development needs will be left in the dust. Ask for explicit examples and listen for conviction in the storytelling - it's not easy to makeup good stories if you haven't actually lived them through.
The fifth is a larger conversation that I'll write a dedicated blog on at a later date. TLDR: you have to create meaning over time through a job that connects with you on a foundational level, rather than have some spiritual "come to Jesus" moment and have your purpose click one day. I heard a powerful parable from the former VP of Product at YouTube about two women who were bricklayers. When asked what they do, one said "I lay bricks side by side". The other said "I build cathedrals". Meaning is self-constructed and deeply personal. It's not something you stumble upon one day, but is instead born out of an openness for self-discovery and an investment of time and effort that happens gradually over time. The best article I've read on this is here