This last winter, I conducted a survey to my awesome community probing a number of critical life and career questions. 700 people have responded so far, and their answers have been fascinating to read. It’s not that I don’t ask these questions of my clients and my course members – I do. But what’s so intriguing to me is that it’s becoming more and more obvious that the things we humans desperately long for today are not only universal and timeless, but also have become even more elusive and impossible to sustain, even as we “evolve” and develop in this tech-frenzied, time-crushing world.
The key question this survey probed was this:
“If you could say in one word what you want more of in life, what would that be?”
Of all the things people indicated they want more of, the following were the 10 most frequently mentioned. Here’s my take on what’s missing in life and work today, and why we can’t get enough of these precious ingredients. (The quotes below are from actual respondents, about what they perceive to be the biggest challenge in the way of what they’re longing for):
Biggest challenge: “Not knowing what I want to do.”
The #1 mentioned missing element – Happiness — has become so hard to achieve, and even harder to maintain. In my work with professional women, I’ve seen that happiness continually escapes them because, first, they don’t really understand exactly what will make them happy. They just don’t know themselves well at all. Secondly, they search outside themselves for happiness – in a job, a husband, a family, a title, a paycheck, a fancy house. As a result, Happiness is constantly out of their control and a perpetual moving target that never stands still long enough for them to grasp. I’m not saying that these things don’t bring happiness – of course, they can. The key point is that if everything you’re searching for remains outside of you, you’ll always be scrambling and chasing.
Biggest challenge: “Not having enough money or time to accomplish the things I want to do.”
I’ve worked with millionaires, as well as people who earn mid-six figures and far, far less. Isn’t it fascinating that no matter what we earn, we somehow feel we never have enough? I know people with literally over a million dollars in their retirement accounts, yet they live in such a constant fear state around money that they never have a moment’s peace. The question is: how much money do you really need to bring about the life experiences that will truly fulfill you? And if you want more money, do you understand the key principles and behaviors required to generate it?
Biggest challenge: “Having the freedom to find my ‘true purpose’ or being lit up by the day-to-day at work.”
Ah, freedom. We all want it, yet so many people I meet are resistant to doing what’s required to get it. They want to “feel” free, yet are scared to muster the courage to do what’s necessary to “become” free.
What is necessary to experience freedom? I’ve seen that it requires making yourself right (not wrong), following your own authentic values and beliefs, and building strong boundaries to protect yourself from what others will tell you is right for you or try to force on you. And it takes forging your own path in life and work, despite the challenges and the nay-sayers. It requires BOLDNESS and courage to make yourself your own highest authority on life and work, and that’s no easy thing today. Sadly, most of us aren’t taught or trained (particularly women) how to stand up powerfully for what we want and believe in, and to go after it with undying passion and commitment.
Biggest challenge: “Lack of clarity about who I am and my purpose.”
We long for peace, desperately. Peace from noise, chatter, pressure, responsibilities. We also want peace from the pain and thumping inside our own heads – the conflicts and strain we inflict on ourselves every minute to be better, stronger, smarter (prettier, thinner, better parents, _______ [you fill in the blank]).
Peace, I’ve found, doesn’t come from being better at anything, or even figuring anything out. Attaining peace is a practice that we need to cultivate and commit to. Peace today will never just fall in our laps – it’s too chaotic a world. We have to carve out space within ourselves and in our lives to bring forward the experience of peace, then do the work to expand peace as a feeling and experience that we’ll commit to daily, regardless of what’s around us. You don’t have to know your purpose to be at peace – you just have to commit to being at peace, and building daily practices that will support you in that commitment.
Biggest challenge: “How to find the right role or position for me now that will bring joy in my work.”
In working with thousands of women to build successful, rewarding careers they love, I’ve witnessed how the process of stepping up to our highest potential and honoring our best visions for contributing to the world in a meaningful way does indeed pave the way for more joy. I believe (and have lived) that we simply can’t feel joy in our lives if the work we do pains us. We’re not able to effectively separate who we are from what we do (and why would we want to?). So when you’re stuck in work you hate, with people you don’t respect, supporting outcomes that feel wrong to you, then your life as a whole can’t help but be joyless, even if your personal or family life brings you happiness.
Biggest challenge: “Balancing my need/desire for flexibility while making enough money and having the benefits I want.”
I’ve researched work-life balance extensively, and believe that it’s doable only under one condition: that you understand clearly what your top life priorities are, and you defend and honor those priorities fiercely, every minute of the day. It takes understanding your non-negotiables (what you won’t compromise on, what you won’t say “yes” to), and then living from that knowledge, and making the right decisions that align with your top life priorities. If you can’t do that, you can’t create or sustain balance.
Biggest challenge: “Utilizing my potential in the best possible way, for myself and for others.”
Fulfillment can be defined as this: “Satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s abilities or character.” We simply can’t experience fulfillment if we’re not living up to what we know is our highest and best potential. Have you ever settled for something much less than you know you want or deserve? It hurts – a lot.
But to live up to our highest potential, we have to leave our comfort zones behind, and perhaps even leave behind the definition we’ve crafted of who we think we are, and the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re capable of, so that we can become the person we dream to be. We may also have to leave some people and relationships behind (the ones that don’t support you to soar higher and grow because it threatens them).
Fulfillment is possible when you are filling up your cup, honoring your own potential, not forsaking yourself by putting everyone else in front of you. Fulfillment comes when you take bold actions that say “yes” to the future vision of you, even well before it’s “hatched.”
Biggest challenge: “Feeling like I have something to offer now, rather than feeling constantly as if I’m not ready and need more training.”
I’ve seen in working with thousands of women over 10 years that we humans only see what’s at the tip of our noses. And when we’re in situations that are hurtful, demeaning, challenging and worse, we lose confidence. We get rocked. We forget who we are, and what we are capable of, and see only the boss in front of us who’s yelling or the colleague who’s tearing us down.
It’s a tough world out there, but there are many ways we can stay true to our gifts and capabilities, and build our confidence. For that, we need support from others who believe in us without fail. We need to build our “tribe” of people who will do anything for us. And we need to believe in ourselves without fail, despite the evidence around us that says we’re not “ready” to soar.
Biggest challenge: “Figuring out what to do next, to keep me afloat and be a bridge to my later years and retirement.”
I think that some of the worst advice many of us have ever received in life falls under the category of “Do the stable, secure thing!” As one who followed the “stable” path for 18 years, and pursued a corporate life that was, in the end, very wrong for me, I know that “stable” can be the kiss of death. After experiencing a brutal layoff in the days following 9/11, and feeling as if my whole life and career came crashing down around me, I now know this – NOTHING outside of us is “secure or stable.” Only YOU are stable – your spirit, your intelligence, your capabilities, your gifts and what you have to offer others and the world. And how you choose to react to what comes your way – that’s what brings stability. These are the only aspects of life that are truly stable and secure in this world.
Biggest challenge: “Overcoming feelings of ineptitude and negativity because of career setbacks.”
Finally, passion – it seems that everyone talks about wanting to be passionate about their work. Yet passion is something that can demand a high price – the price of wrapping your entire entity around a certain direction (including risking your checkbook, your marriage and even your health) because you can’t NOT pursue it.
What people often mean when they say “I want to feel passionate about my work” is this: They want to feel alive, not exhausted, beleaguered and demoralized. They want to feel that there’s a reason they’re on this planet, a reason for the talents and abilities they were given at birth and have cultivated. They want to believe that they’re here for a purpose and finding that purpose will give their lives the meaning and passion they’re missing.
Passion can be tapped and uncorked, for sure, but only when you allow yourself to believe that your life and your work mean something more than merely existing for a paycheck, or doing the “secure” thing.