To quote and freely adapt Socrates, the unexamined career is not worth living.
Many articles reflect on happiness at work. Important topic undoubtedly: no one wakes up in the morning wishing to have a miserable day in the office. Yet, does being happy at work guarantee the fundamental worthiness of our professional pursuit? And what criteria should we use to determine whether a career is “worth living”, beyond the immediate day-to-day satisfaction it provides?
The pursuit of a deep and lasting sense of accomplishment goes beyond our personal enjoyment. For a large part of the world’s population, just having a safe, regular job to support one’s family can be a luxury. But senior executives, because they have choices, must be held to higher standards. And with choice comes responsibility.
Picture yourself on the proverbial death bed surrounded by your loved ones. After reflecting upon your life, would you also say: “It was a career well worth living”?
I asked this question to several senior leaders and these are the answers I received.
1. I excelled at my job and helped others along the way.
Are you good at what you are doing, and are you helping others excel too?
Many of us are good professionals but we see our colleagues as competitors. Internal politics get in the way. Firms break down into silos and we start playing the us vs. them internally. We would like to help others but we get too busy. Occasionally, even with the best intentions, we respond to pressure by cutting corners, hoping that customers, colleagues, or regulators, won’t notice.
A career worth living is one where our actions are not motivated by mere self-interest and we can act with generosity, patience, and tolerance. We are respected for our competence. We mentor junior colleagues and deliver to our bosses. All together, we believe that external competition is stressful enough and we don’t need to add infighting. And we never resign ourselves to mediocrity.
2. I felt proud of the institution I worked for—because I knew it cared for the next generation.
Does your firm treat customers, suppliers, competitors, and employees fairly; does it manufacture products that are not harmful; does it respect the environment and regulations; does it use information transparently? Is your moral compass “at peace” when you step into the office? Are you building a better world for tomorrow or leaving behind a trail of misery?
As consciousness expands, many respectable firms and brands need to dramatically change their practices. Virtually no industry will be untouched – banking and insurance, food and beverage, airlines, natural resources, healthcare, technology, even governments. We can’t hide behind the CSR section of our annual report anymore.
A career worth living is one where we work for a company that sees beyond the next quarter and shareholders’ interests. Or we can take it upon ourselves to start changing the system from the inside and raise our institution’s level of consciousness. This is what executives must do to deserve being called leaders.
3. I integrated my personal and professional lives.
Do you feel that you can pursue your professional agenda without conflict with your personal one? Does your personal life allow for a richer career and vice versa—or is it a zero-sum game?
Often, pursuing a senior career comes at a personal cost. Perhaps we miss seeing our kids grow. We disconnect from our partners. We lose touch with friends. We put our health at risk with stress, lack of sleep, and travel and only find consolation in the fact that all the money we’ve made will help paying the hospital bills.
A career worth living is one where we make time to stay connected to those important people in my life; we develop spiritually and intellectually; we take care of our health; and I have satisfying leisure time. And we bring positive energy from home to work, and from work to home.
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It is a long journey and the criteria are just meant to allow you to start your own inquiry into a “career worth living”.
I would love to hear your views.