Don’t Wanna Work

Cranky Buttercup by sharyn morrow (flickr)

Do you ever feel a deep-seated resistance to work? Some say we Americans live to work rather than work to live, but what about those days when your body and psyche rebel? I offer here a few things to consider so you can do a quick inventory and find a way to get going again.


Why it might be happening: On certain days of the week we call it “The Mondays” because of those previous two days in which we got to relax, kick back, and enjoy ourselves. If your weekends (on whatever days they may be) are sedentary, with feet propped up in front of the TV or with a book, then motivating yourself on your next day back can be extra hard.

Something to try: We learn Newton’s laws in high school physics class or a helpful documentary along the way, including this one: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. A couple of years ago a helpful pharmaceutical commercial emphasized just how much this applies to human bodies as well as bodies in space.  With this in mind, the remedy comes into focus: One way to stop having “a case of the Mondays” with such predictable regularity is to increase your activity over the weekend. Sports, DIY projects, volunteering, or other active past-times with family or friends can keep you engaged with life and moving forward with purpose, so by the time Monday rolls around you can actually feel refreshed and energized instead of motionless.

“Employee Disengagement”

Why it might be happening: The Gallup Organization has identified twelve reasons why people lose engagement at work. When these start to falter, our interest in our work falters along with it. Take a look at the Gallup Q12 and ask yourself how you would respond to those statements. They can point you in the direction of what needs your attention in order for you to re-engage.

Something to try:  After you review the Q12 list, identify the items that seem important to you. Some of them may feel like they are out of your control, such as “In the last seven days I have received recognition or praise.…”  However, if you truly feel that this is what you need to re-engage, look for opportunities to make that happen for yourself.  This takes creativity and some emotional fortitude, but basically you just have to ask–and maybe ask a lot.

If it’s something you really can’t influence (“the mission of my company makes me feel my job is important”), make a note of that for something you might need to make a change around.

Feeling unworthy

Why it might be happening: Sometimes we disengage to protect ourselves from feelings of unworthiness, which can be overwhelming.  This can happen to anyone, and it strikes in a variety of circumstances. I’ve listed just a few below:

  • New job or career;
  • Lost a job;
  • New role in the same group of people;
  • Performance reviews;
  • A harsh comment;
  • The people you care most about don’t acknowledge how important something is to you.

There are so many more.

This feeling of unworthiness can go by many names, including impostor syndrome, shame, nerves, or anxiety. If we don’t have a name for what we’re feeling, it might manifest as a hollow or wired feeling, jealousy, intense pain that gets channeled into anger or makes us withdraw, or feeling “down” or tired.

Something to try:  If this section is resonating for you, you can actually take some action to heal. The research done by Brené Brown on wholeheartedness and vulnerability offers some guidelines to learn and put into action:

  1. Recognize what you are feeling and name it. Acknowledge the pain it is causing.
  2. Recognize that it comes from believing messages that suggest you aren’t worthy. Those messages may be coming from sources you trust, but they aren’t realistic or correct.  You are allowed to choose not to believe it.
  3. Find someone to talk to, but choose this person carefully. Select someone who has earned the right to hear your stories by listening with empathy. They don’t try to fix it for you, but can just listen and understand how you feel about it.

Just as it takes wisdom to find the right person to talk to, it also takes courage to talk about these feelings. But talking about them–simply sharing the story with an empathetic listener–transforms the story from an episode that separates you from others into an experience that connects you with someone else.

Knowledge is power. We need each other, and we also need to recognize our opportunities to act on our own behalf. If you find it hard to get going–whether it’s a Monday, a Wednesday, or a Friday–do a quick inventory. Have you being going slower and slower instead of keeping up an active pace? What does the Gallup Q12 suggest to you might be going on? Or, are you believing messages that suggest you aren’t worthy of belonging?

If you take some steps to take care of your own needs–including reaching out to ask for what you need from others–you can return to a more engaged, productive, and enjoyable life.  What is one thing you can do for yourself today?

Edited To Add: This week a friend pointed out an element missing from this list: Perfectionism. Perhaps this comes under the heading of feeling worthless, but I think it’s more associated with fear. When we procrastinate, it’s frequently because we’re afraid of doing a poor job. For myself, I’ve learned that it helps to seek feedback from someone who isn’t caught up in my fears. What works for you?

What’s holding you back

Fear of heights

The difference between dreaming and achieving is frequently the way a person thinks and talks about themselves. If you are on the road to nowhere, get back on the right path with a little time and effort.

A few years ago I was telling myself (and everyone else) a story about what was holding me back from success at work: “My boss is so picky!”

That story obscured two important truths:

  1. Who my boss actually is as a person.
  2. Why I am seeing the behaviors I interpret as a preference for pickiness.

For the short time I worked under that supervisor, I struggled with “her” expectations for perfection. Over time, however, I slowly let go of the story about her pickiness and started to realize two new truths:

  1. There were important reasons for a perfect finished product in that office, and a series of protocols designed to help the flawed humans in the office create a perfect finished product.
  2. I was capable of developing familiarity with those protocols and could help create those perfect finished products, even though I would never be perfect all by myself.

Only after my story changed was I able to accept first one promotion and then another.

We hold ourselves back in many ways, and one of the most important of these is how we think and talk about ourselves. We might say, “I’m not a creative person,” “I don’t like parties,” “I hate math,” “I’m a multitasker, and my job requires it,” or simply, “It’ll never work.”

Turn up your self-awareness

To find out if your stories are holding your back, turn up your self awareness by listening closely to yourself and the people around you, and by recording your thoughts in a journal.  Listen to the themes in what you tell people about yourself. How do you respond to invitations? To assignments? To change? Notice the phrases that come up frequently.

Listen to how others describe you, too, and what happens with those stories. If a friend jokingly refers to you as a “clutz,” how do you feel? Are you more accident prone when you’re with her? Have you internalized that description of yourself so now you describe yourself that way to others? Where did it begin? Such stories can have a chicken-and-egg quality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change them.

Make a list of the stories you are telling yourself and look at them closely

As you become aware of the stories you tell about yourself, record them. Once they  have been written down, it’s much easier to distance yourself from them so you canquestion them and start thinking differently.

The Work of Byron Katie builds on this principle. She recommends we ask the following questions about our self-limiting stories and beliefs:

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Translate the story into feelings and needs.

The process of translating these limiting stories into feelings can be extremely useful because we usually know what we “should” do, but we hold ourselves back because we haven’t worked through the feelings associated with the situation. When you have identified your needs, ways of getting those needs met become clearer.

Warning: It’s usually easier to name thoughts than feelings. To help avoid this trap, use a list of feeling words like this one. You might be able to identify your needs on your own, but I find a list of those can be very helpful as well.  I suggest one like this.

Choose a new course of action and a new story

Our stories become our behavior. My story about my “picky boss” kept my attention on blaming her instead of on me and developing my skills.

Take time to ask yourself (or write in a journal about) these questions:

  1. What do you do–what actions do you take, even in your own mind–when you believe the story you have been telling?
  2. What results do you get when you believe the story?
  3. What’s another way to tell your story?
  4. How would you behave if you believed the new story?
  5. What results can you anticipate?

Changing the story might mean changing just one word or even starting from scratch. Instead of “My job requires me to multitask,”  “My job demands multitasking” can open up a crack of possibility: The job is demanding, but many things and people are demanding. I don’t have to give into every demand.Or, if someone says, “I’m not a creative person,” they can change that to “I haven’t felt creative in the past.” Possibilities open up for experimenting with creativity now.


This last step is about trying out a new story and the new behaviors that go with it. Experiment with how it feels to change the story, going into it with the mind of an investigator. Design an experiment.

For example: Let’s say you have decided to stop telling the story about how depressed you are and instead are going to tell a story about feeling grateful. You don’t want to go around fibbing, so you decide to start your new story by keeping a gratitude journal and starting each day with a list of five things you’re grateful for. “I’m not in a hospital. I can walk. I can speak. The toilet actually flushed. My cat is alive.”

Then you decide that, when people ask you “How are you,” you will recite any two of these along with the phrase, “I am grateful.” At the end of each day you will return to your gratitude journal to record your feelings about the day with a moodmeasurement on a scale of 1-10, and notice (with your metaphorical lab coat on) what happens to the numbers over time.

This experimental design has some important elements: 1. Practicing new behavior (recording gratitude points, reciting specifics, saying the words “I am grateful”), 2. Noticing/naming feelings, and 3. measuring the result so you have as objective an indicator as possible to show a shift over time.

Listening closely to our stories and taking the time to question them may seem like an incredible investment of time, but it’s what some call “slowing down to speed up.” It takes effort to get yourself off a path leading nowhere and onto a path where you are actually moving toward the realization of your goals. It’s worth it.

If you feel disappointed and confused about where life has gotten you so far, listen to what you are telling people (and what you’re telling yourself).  What could happen if you changed the story?

6 ways to support a positive mood

Image by Kate Ter Haar at Flickr
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. ~Plato

I spent the last six years working with groups and teams to become more aware of the quality of their thinking, and one of the tools we used for increasing awareness of thinking is simply noticing our moods.

Take a moment to consider: When you are at your best, how do you feel? For me, I can be relaxed, confident, and just really enjoy people. Most of us tend to agree we feel pretty good when we are at our best. Take it the next step: When you’re feeling pretty good like that, what’s happening with your results? Do you tend to get better or worse results when you’re feeling good? Most of us find we get better results on those days.

Consider further: When you are not at your best (you know those days when it seems like you got up on the wrong side of the bed?), how do you feel? I get anxious, irritated, cranky. Most folks tend to agree that when they aren’t at their best, they don’t feel so great, either. Our moods tend to be unpleasant on those days, and our results are right in there with them. I become downright slothful and grasping, and it shows in my results.

However, we can’t just flip a switch to be in a good mood. I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me to “be happy,” I sometimes want to sock them in the jaw. So if we can’t just “be happy,” what can we do?

I have found that it helps to have a list of options–different strategies to draw on that, over time or in the moment, can support a positive mood.  Here’s my list:

1. Have fun, and don’t take it too seriously.  I heard this advice through Jeff Bridges, who said it’s what his mother always used to tell him.  It resonated for me because I do tend to take things awfully seriously, and yet I know I don’t have to. Sometimes “it” is me–I take myself, my opinions, and my plans too seriously. Do you do this, too? Let’s let that go. Laugh it off.  Own your own crazy.

2. Name what you’re grateful for.  I used to hate it when folks would suggest I count my blessings, “because I haven’t got one.”  But I’ve learned over time that we do have a lot to be grateful for if we just practice noticing them.  As humans we are wired to notice problems and try to solve them, but we can be too aware of our problems and become overwhelmed by them.  At times like that, we need to take a step back and realize everything that’s actually working well.  Can I breathe without a machine? Check. Can I walk without a brace or prosthetic limb? Check. Do I have a job and an income? Check. Am I suddenly planning a funeral for a loved one? Thank God, no.  Am I filling out insurance forms for my house that was just destroyed by [name natural disaster here]? Thank God, no.  Can I see anything that is beautiful? Wow… there’s gobs of it right here in front of me.  But you have to take time to name it.  Develop a practice. It doesn’t happen by default for most of us.

3. Express what you appreciate in others.  This is the exact same practice as #2 above, but for the people in your life. And you don’t just name it to yourself, you name it to them.  Are people annoying? Sure. But we don’t have to focus on what’s wrong with other people. (You can’t change them anyway. No, really. You can’t change them!)  Focus on what’s positive about them. What horrible stuff aren’t they doing? Have they done anything to take care of themselves or others? Probably.  There are so many wonderful things in other people that we can miss if we aren’t looking for them, or if we’re expecting some example of perfection. Find the spark and communicate about it.

4. Give yourself credit for who you are and what you do.  Part of what’s so challenging about recognizing the spark in others is that we aren’t practiced in noticing the spark in ourselves.  We focus on our weaknesses, our failings, our mistakes, our illness. We spend our time feeling sorry for ourselves instead of realizing that we’ve survived, we’ve grown, and we’ve made some danged good decisions!  Everyone makes mistakes, and every life has illness, but we need to cultivate awareness of our being on the right track. Start at a baseline of degradation and recognize how much better you are than that! Hey, if you’re reading this, you have intelligence, education, and wisdom that a lot of people don’t have. Recognize it, claim it, and give yourself credit.  There’s a lot of harm that comes from failing to do that.

5. Let go of disappointments and wishes for a different life.  Wish you lived in Jane Austen’s England? Wish your big brother was Wolverine? Wish your boss was Jean-Luc Picard? Okay, these are fun fantasies, but they’re only fun as long as we let them be fun.  As soon as we start believing that we SHOULD feel the way Elizabeth Bennett felt about Darcy, we SHOULD be able to slash our enemies to little bits when they snarl at us, and our boss SHOULD be wise and humble and curious instead of what is… those expectations can kill us.  “The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face.  Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves.” (Pema Chodron)

6. Exercise, sleep, take your vitamins, meditate, and give of yourself to others.  I went to the doctor a few months back with a respiratory infection that I just couldn’t shake, and I felt so out of options.  I’d taken every OTC medication I could think of and nothing seemed to work. At my wit’s end, I asked my doctor, “What should I do? Please advise me,” I asked. “Even if you think it’s painfully obvious. I’m in the woods and can’t see the step in front of me.”  She thought for a moment and said, “Chicken soup.”  Oh, right.  Don’t forget or skip the basics.  They’re the foundation.   We screw ourselves up when we miss them.

What about you? Do you have additional ways to take care of yourself and support your own positive mood? What are they?

Image Credit: Kate Ter Haar

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

Cat sitting at an open door, considering

I can’t tell you how often I hear (from folks who are employed), “I think I’m in transition.” They are often tired of tolerating an unacceptable situation at work, and they’re hearing in their mind’s ear the question asked by The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go?”

“Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double….
The indecision’s bugging me.” –The Clash

(Disclaimer: Every week, someone asks me, “Were you writing about me?” I understand why someone would think so, but all my examples are drawn from several people–these are universal experiences. You aren’t alone.)

If you’ve been tolerating that rumble of dissatisfaction and you’re feeling itchy for a change, the temptation to leave your job might be getting stronger every day. If this is happening for you, here are some important questions that you should seek clarity on first. These are bigger than just the practical questions of whether or not you can get another job or tolerate unemployment.

They’re about where your happiness or dissatisfaction are really coming from.

I suggest you start with a blank sheet of paper with 3 columns:  First column for each of the questions below, second column for your thoughts about how your answer to the question is “yes,” and third column for your thoughts about how your answer to the question is “no.”  And that’s correct — you might say “yes and no” to any or all of the following questions:

1. Are you doing the right work?

Fit with your job is important. You need to use your strengths every day. If you aren’t developing your strengths, that makes the work hard or frustrating, which is something you would have to tolerate daily. How often do you get to use your strengths? Furthermore, have you developed all the mastery you can develop? Is it still a challenge for you?

If you aren’t doing the right work, you might be able to stay with the company but just find another role in it.


Love what you’re doing, still have room to grow, but unhappy? Keep reading.

2. Are you enthusiastic about the organization’s goals?

Does the organization’s sense of itself, its vision for the future, and its daily priorities resonate for you? Do you believe in the product? Can you get behind the company’s story about itself? Your ability to answer with a passionate “yes!” dictates your ability to stay there.

If your “yes” lacks passion, or if you feel any strength behind a “no,” then strongly consider looking for work elsewhere. That doesn’t mean you should just quit — be sure to think through the practical implications of the decision — but it is an important clue.


Love what you do and appreciate the company, but still unhappy? These next two questions address that circumstance.

3. Are you holding up your end?  Are they?

“Are you holding up your end?” is the most shocking of all the questions, but it’s important to spend some time with it.

When we join a company as an employee, manager, or executive, we enter into a contract that might be legal or might be social. Either way, there are expectations on both sides about what each will and will not do.

You want to know your employer is going to honor their commitments to you. You want to know that your teammates are pulling their weight. You need your team to follow through on their commitments. And just as important, you need yourself to be reliable, committed, and capable. If any of those are falling apart, you will be unhappy, and you will either do the work that it takes to improve accountability in your work world, or you will start planning to leave.

If accountability is suffering, there are some very real things you can do to make improvements in this area. This isn’t about controlling others or doing all the work by yourself. You can take stock, own your piece of whatever has fallen apart, and do the work that needs to be done to make improvements on your end.

If others around you are falling down on their accountability, you can clarify expectations with consistency and be straightforward and consistent about consequences.  Once you have done that, it’s up to them to decide what to do, and up to you to either deliver or point out the consequences that are happening.

If accountability is the source of your dissatisfaction, you don’t necessarily have to leave. Hold up your end. Clarify expectations. Be consistent about consequences. If your own sense of accountability is the problem, then moving to another organization won’t serve you until you get better at holding yourself and others accountable. [Of course, if you have clarified expectations and been consistent about consequences with regard to others, and they are committed to their stuck place, you may have little reason to stay.]

4. Are you taking good care of yourself and your professional relationships?

Generalized dissatisfaction can come from poor relationships with others or even with yourself. Emotional intelligence is a set of skills for understanding and managing yourself as well as understanding others and effectively managing your relationships with them. If you find that you have trouble managing anxiety, depression, or hostility, then developing an emotional- intelligence skill set is very helpful.

If you find that your working relationships are what’s bothering you, take time to review your experiences with people from your last few jobs. Do you find patterns? For example: Does it seem like there’s always one person who gets under your skin? Or there’s always one person who makes you feel small? Or does it seem like you’re always the brunt of everyone else’s ire? These are patterns that naturally occur when one’s emotional intelligence skill set needs work.

If this is what you are experiencing, leaving your job won’t help. You’ll just find the same pattern recurring at the next place. You do need to work on yourself.


Once you have done the one-page exercise with three columns, look over what you’ve written.

If your answers to #s 1 and 2 weigh heavily in the “no” column, consider looking for something else. (Try for another role in the same company if your “no” is just in #1. Consider looking at other organizations if your biggest “no” is in #2.)

If your answer to # 3 is in the “no” column, consider those questions carefully before you go looking for another role. Take time to make sure you are holding up your end, including holding others accountable appropriately (and positively–clarifying consequences can be done in a caring, gentle way).  Don’t start your job hunt until you’ve made sure you have done the work you need to do here first.

If your answer to # 4 is heaviest in the “no” column, job hunting is the wrong strategy for you. You are unhappy–that’s certain–but the work you have to do is on yourself first. After you can honestly shift those answers to “yes”, then reconsider whether or not you need to make a change.

These are significant variables, and I have tried to simplify them as much as possible so you can make your decision less complicated. However, I don’t know anyone who is dealing with just one “no” to these questions. Most of us have a variety of skills to develop. With my clients, I offer a self-assessment tool that helps to break down each of these areas into smaller pieces, and it helps us uncover what they really need to work with. If you are interested in doing this work together, let me know.

And I apologize for the earworm.

Image Credit: Should I Stay Or Should I Go Cat by Craig Sunter at Flickr

Hooked by distractions? How to change if you always take the bait.

Diego Martínez Castañeda on Flickr

Suppose you start the day on a great note. You know exactly what you need to do that day.  You are FOCUSED.  Your to-do list has only the Big Stuff on it. Three or four things that are DO or DIE. And you have the energy to make it happen!

Before you know it, you’re off on a hundred tangents. The task list is all but forgotten.

Does this ever happen to you?  I experience it all the time, and based on what I’m hearing from my clients, so is practically everyone else.

At least three things are going on here: distract-ability, distraction-seeking, and displacement activity.  Here’s what I mean:

Distract-ability: A state of being easily pulled away from my goal or chosen focus. Example: you want to make a phone call, but become distracted by notifications on your phone. Relate?

Distraction-seeking: A behavior in which focus is willingly abandoned in favor of engaging in a less-desirable, low-return activity. Here we are choosing to be distracted. These activities aren’t actually fun, joyful, or life-giving. They’re just mindless–checking email, looking at social media, eating, drinking, etc. (Note: None of those things are bad by themselves, but doing them mindlessly makes them a distraction.)

Displacement activity: The act of focusing my energy on a secondary activity that is almost as deserving of attention and time. Displacement activity can be fun and productive. It’s different from distraction-seeking because there are benefits. But there are costs too, in that our primary goals are not being reached.

If you are among those of us who are distracted from our goals, try these steps to find the zen:

One: Choose a limited time to focus on accomplishing your task(s).

Have you ever noticed that your willpower runs out through the course of the day?  A friend once told me, “I start every day on a diet. By lunch, I’m done with it.”

A great explanation for this is offered by Chip and Dan Heath in their bestselling book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard: Self-control is an exhaustible resource. It’s like doing bench presses at the gym. The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh. But with each additional repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can’t lift the bar again.”

This is the story of my friend’s diet. Each day we have a finite supply of choices that we have the power to make on our own behalf, so plan wisely. Choose a short period of time in which you will devote your energy to powering through your short task list. The more difficult and important the items in the list, the shorter the list should be.

Two: Notice when you become distracted, and refocus

During the short time period you’ve set aside for accomplishing your tasks, pay attention to what’s going on with you. If you suddenly find yourself on Facebook, notice that it happened, close the window, and return your attention to your task. That’s all it is: Notice you’re distracted. Let it go. Come back. Don’t beat up on yourself–just let it go and refocus.

The metaphor of doing bench presses at the gym is a good one here, too. Every time you notice your distraction and refocus on what’s important, that’s a rep. Do you know what happens when you do lots of weight reps?  First, you become exhausted and your muscles fail. And then they rebuild. You become stronger.

You can use the same approach for developing focus that is used for strengthening muscles with weights and resistance.

With weight training, you do reps until you hit the point of exhaustion or failure, and then you give yourself some recovery time (about 48 hours) and try again–with more weight or more reps.

With distraction and focus, you do a rep this way: notice your distraction and choose to come back–over and over–until you’re just exhausted. The more you do it, the tougher the workout. Eventually you’ll get to a mental point where you reach exhaustion. That’s okay. Stop trying to accomplish your task, but make note of the time. How long did it take you to reach the point of exhaustion? Twenty minutes? Great–that’ll be your minimum goal for next time.

Recovery time is important. For weight-training, it’s 48 hours. For mental exercise, recovery time is one good night’s sleep. On the next day, set your timer for that minimum goal (“focus for 20 minutes”), notice your distractions when they happen, and keep coming back to focus. Keep doing reps.

Three: Make note of how the distractions happen

Are you distracted because of apps on your phone? Because of a blinking light or an audio signal? Or is it a person who distracts you? Or your expectations of what “should be”?

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I’m more likely to seek distraction if I don’t feel good about myself. For instance, when I read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, I felt so guilty about all the things I wasn’t getting done that I had to keep putting the book down so I could watch a movie! Once I noticed that my feelings about myself were part of the fuel behind my distractions, I realized I could practice some self-compassion so I wouldn’t be so hard on myself, and then I could refocus more easily.

When you can identify WHAT distracts you, you can do something about it.  You can choose which apps have notifications. You can choose where to put your phone when you aren’t in checking-email mode. You can choose to be gentle with yourself when you aren’t perfect.

Being human means being distract-able, and living in our modern society means we’re surrounded by distractions. Nobody is going to do the focusing for us, unfortunately. We each have to choose it ourselves–but we can. You can do this. And so can I.

Okay, everyone. Deep breath. Choose your time to focus, block out distractions, and get those tasks done!  I’ll be working at it, too.

Image credit: Diego Martínez Castañeda on Flickr

When the Alarm Goes Off in the Middle of your Dream Job


Don’t you just hate when the alarm goes off in the middle of a dream? I was accomplishing something! I was enjoying that! When will I see grandpa again? Sometimes after I turn the alarm off, I try to get back to sleep so I can return to that dream.

One summer awhile back, an alarm went off in the middle of my dream job: managing in a large book store. I loved this job so much that I was sacrificing myself to it every day. Sometimes I worked all night, and the result wasn’t what I expected. Instead of being seen as amazingly dedicated and passionate, as someone who should be put in charge of everything, I had become a real problem to my colleagues. They could not predict when I would be awake, when I would fulfill my basic responsibilities, or even when I might be nice to the staff.

Long story short, I got myself fired from my dream job.

By the time I recovered emotionally from the shock, that particular industry was collapsing. My dream job was ceasing to exist.

Fortunately there are lots of dream jobs. I’ve had three since that fateful summer. Dreams happen all the time, but when a dream is lost, it can be painful.

Most of us try to do a very human thing: go back to sleep. Get that role back. Resist the change. This resistance is a form of grieving–it’s denial.

Grieving is a good thing to do, and you need to give yourself some time to recover from the loss. Talk to friends who can hear your pain and anger and fear. Be honest with yourself about what the role meant to you.

Later, when the time is right, you can start to view the event as an awakening–an opportunity to figure out what the dream is telling you. What did your dream tell you about who you are?

Interpreting dreams can feel like a cross between a parlor trick and invasive surgery. Or sometimes our dreams seem laughably random. “There was a baby in the back seat and it wanted White Castle burgers but then it turned into Clancy Wiggins and used the back-seat apparatus to drive to Kansas.” What?

Our job histories can seem pretty random, too. I became a secretary after earning my bachelor’s degree. I started in retail after earning my M.Div. Then suddenly I was working with executives in higher education. What?

Here are some things you can do to try to make some sense out of it all:

Reflect on your whole life

Look at the long view, at all kinds of things you have done both at work and at home. Select at least four peak experiences (ten is better): those times when you experienced flow or being “in the zone.”  These are characterized by a sense of losing sense of time passing, full immersion in activity, experiencing delight or fun, and drawing on all of your skill to meet a challenge. Times when you were just having a blast, especially if it was a little hair-raising. Jot down a list.

Write! Write! Write!

For each of these experiences, write a paragraph or two describing it. The following questions* may serve as prompts for your thinking.

  • What made this moment or time special?
  • Who else was present or involved? What were they doing?
  • What was it that you specifically did that made it so important?
  • What were your feelings then?
  • What was achieved, done or learned?
  • How did you feel about that achievement or learning?
  • What values and beliefs were you calling on?
  • What need was it serving?

You may not feel like you’re much of a writer, but writing is important because it helps you to come up with the words that you use to describe these experiences.

Print and read the paragraphs. Circle the words that stand out.

Read slowly. Pay attention to how you feel as you read. Which words feel significant? Important? Which words resonate for you as more powerful than the rest?

Find the themes.

It might help to have a friend or coach to help with this part.

Step back and look at all the words you circled.  What stands out? Do you notice any patterns or themes?

Pull the circled words into a list and start shuffling them around until you have them in piles of words that seem to go together. (For example, you might decide that “smart” and “conversation” and “participatory” go together. Your piles don’t have to make any sense to anyone else–just you.)

If you wind up with some words that don’t feel connected to anything else, explore those words further. What does that word mean to you? Why is it important? What’s the benefit or value of that element?  If you come up with other significant words, add them to your list.

When you have a few piles of words, name those themes. (For instance, for my little list above, I might name that theme “Collaboration.”) What do they tell you about the conditions in which you are at your best? When you are in your dream situation?

These are the elements of your dream job. Your next dream job.

Taking a little time to reflect on all of your experiences throughout life can be an important aspect of recovering from a single loss, no matter how significant that loss might be. When I lost my book-store job, I really felt like that was it–I was done. But my perspective was too narrow.

Take a step back. Consider everything that has ever lit your fire. You will find that you are bigger than any one job or role, no matter how much of a dream it might have been.

Come on. Wake up. You’ve got work to do.

*Questions credit: Jenny Rogers. (She has great books on job interviews and resumes to help readers make the best possible impression.)

Image Credit: MorgueFile

10 Lessons from Mad Men on Work and Life Satisfaction

Satisfied Mad Men principle characters seated around a 'Burger Chef' table
All images credit: AMC

As the AMC television series Mad Men wraps up this spring, let’s take a look back at the work/life satisfaction lessons we can glean from the show’s story lines. (Every effort has been made to avoid any specific spoilers, but general arcs and character habits are described. Even if you’re still working your way through the last few seasons, you should be safe.)

  1. donKnow Your Strengths: In the very first episode of Mad Men, we learn that Don isn’t just any old advertising      executive. He’s a creative genius who understands that advertising is based on one thing: Happiness. His entire career revolves around this central strength. Who wouldn’t like to shine like Don shines when he is at his best? He only does
    that because he knows what he can do and makes sure he does it. What’s lovely is that Roger discovers Don has this strength and decides to take advantage of it. If you are in a position of power, don’t just know your own strengths–know the strengths of others.
  2. Family Matters: We get to see all the main characters’ home lives and their families, and the measure of support each character gets from their family members makes a difference in their ability to show up at their best at work. If you and your family share the same goals, it’ll be a lot easier for you to find success. When Pete and Trudy are aligned, or when Don and Betty see the same stars, they are a powerhouse. Peggy lackes the support of family, and so winds up relying on her coworkers as family members.
  3. Look At Your Own Behavior: Pete Campbell is a great example of someone who takes his own self-loathing out on pete-campbell
    others. When we see him at his worst, he is leveling some poor person who is guilty of only what Pete himself has recently committed. Like most of us, Pete does this without one shred of self-awareness. In Leadership and Self-Deception, the folks at the Arbinger Institute wrote that our criticism of others usually begins with our own mistreatment of them, which we must then “justify” by proving to ourselves that we’re good and they’re bad. It’s a coping mechanism for alleviating cognitive dissonance that Pete lives out for us to see.
  4. Your Physical Health Matters: I was among thousands of viewers who were shocked by all the drinking, promiscuity, and smoking indulged in by our favorite Mad Men characters. And we’ve seen just how much self-care (or the lack of it) has an impact on both performance and satisfaction. When Don drowns his sorrows in a bottle he doesn’t wake up relieved or satisfied. This century we’re less inclined to smoke two packs a day but we’ll still ‘take the edge off’ with a bagel or chocolate. Either way we’re slowing ourselves down.

  5. TedUnderstand Your Needs
    : Part of the problem with life in a corporate office is that our needs become difficult to define. We start to believe that what we really need is success, or money, or a title, or to win an argument, only because these are the incentives that are the most visible in a corporate environment. We lose sight of our real needs for connection, inspiration, and contribution. When we forget those needs, we thoroughly fail to meet them. Several Mad Men characters (especially Ken, Ted, and Lane) all struggle because they get confused about what they actually need and wind up wasting their time pursuing the wrong goals.
  6. Grow up. Spend Time With People Who Expect and Encourage You to be an Adult. Don’s first wife Betty is one of the most miserable characters in the Mad Men world. She has been coddled and cooed over, and she responds to all that coddling with massive demands that everyone do and live according to her wishes. And none of it makes her happy. If she were to take responsibility for her own spiritual, emotional, and mental growth, she would earn the respect she craves and wouldn’t be quite so prone to disappointment. This describes many of us, so growing up is a simple solution. Simple–though not necessarily easy.
  7. Respect People Without Power–Including Yourself: Mad Men takes place before feminism became “a thing,” secretaries
    and Betty Draper’s misery is partly due to the limits on her growth and development that 1960s society expected of her. We also see the impact of disrespecting the powerless as the stars and executives interact with the secretarial pool. In Mad Men we’ve seen practically every aspect of the systemic disrespect afforded to the powerless, and what is most shocking is how easily it was accepted as the norm. This acceptance ranged from outright exploitation to “That’s just the way it is.” Each of these episodes illustrates how lack of respect for a person’s humanity robs them of happiness. (Who can forget Joan’s season 5 sacrifice “to secure the Jaguar account”?) Some changes happen through the course of the series, but only when individuals make the decision to respect themselves and others more than is expected of them. And it’s not just about feminism. Stan is a reasonably powerless grunt in the creative group but somehow seems to understand the power of respecting himself and the people around him. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief when he’s around because he’s reliable and steady.
  8. Be There For Your Real Family: If you neglect your spouse, your parents, your children, your siblings, things go badly. We’ve seen Don’s and Roger’s and Pete’s families fall apart in more ways than we can count. And in every case they’ve made choices to nurture some other relationship rather than their relationships at home. Their families pay the price, and the executives sacrifice their own work and life satisfaction.

  9. Don PeggyLook After Your Work Family
    . One of the things my friends always hear me say:“We spend so much of our time at work. Why be miserable?” The people we work with do become an important part of our lives, for better or for worse. Perhaps that’s where you find the thorn in your side, or the one person who actually understands you. In lots of ways our coworkers can be very much like family leaders. So just as our “real” family needs us, so does our work family. We’ve seen that the times when Don, Roger, Burt, and even Pete have been at their best are the times when they are taking up a cause on behalf of one of their coworkers. Even better: they step up to give others work satisfaction or confidence. When we give to others what we most want for ourselves, it makes things better for everyone, because we are meeting real needs and affirming that real needs deserve to be met.
  10. Know Who You Are; Love and Forgive Yourself: We’ve seen Pete, Don, and Ted sucked into the vortex of shame. Each one responded with affairs, but also very differently from each other (Pete with blaming everyone else, Don with drinking, and Ted with despair). They struggled to believe in their own value. With all those affairs they obviously thought they would find validation from their lovers, but each of those lovers were just humans with needs and problems, too, fresh out of all-encompassing assurance of someone else’s worth. None of us will ever find the validation we seek only from someone else. It’s one of the hard things about growing up, and we have seen Don finally starting to figure that out. By accepting the truth about himself, he can forgive himself for being human–which is the starting point for making his own life better.

As a series, Mad Men has drawn in viewers for many reasons: the nostalgia, the attention to detail, and the horror as we kept realizing “We used to believe that was normal!” But none of this would have drawn us in if we hadn’t found the characters so recognizable, so easy to relate to. We all kind of want to be like Don or Peggy or Roger. We all cringe inside when we realize we can also be like Pete or Betty. We see our friends in Megan and Stan and our leaders in Henry and Harry and Burt.

None of us is all good or all bad. None of them are all good or all bad. But the advantage of any story is that it gives us an experience without the costs. We can see the results of Don’s choices. We can discover the consequences of Pete’s actions. Each episode is like a parable from which we can glean lessons.

What are the lessons you see that I didn’t list?


Credit for all images: AMC