Job happiness

It was 2012 and the economy had recovered after ’08…it was actually picking up in speed. Zalando was “screaming” at us on TV, “start up” was beginning to be scorned as a money pit by one side – the one that ended up loosing large parts of this argument a few years down the road – and celebrated by the other side – which I happened to be in.

“Nooooooo! Are you serious? You have something that you like and that you are actually quite good at PLUS someone thinks it is valuable and you are earning money with it. This has been a first for you!!! You want to give that one up?”, I found myself blurting out when a friend of mine asked what I thought of her leaving her current job for something more NGO / association oriented.

And that’s when it hit me. I had had these type of conversations before with acquaintances, friends…hell, myself. But never before could I formulate my opinion so clearly.

My friend was about to leave what can be considered life’s jackpot:

  1. You like it
  2. You are reasonably good at it (competitive)
  3. The skill is valuable to others to pay for it (reasonably well given your expectations)

“Good and like it”

And she was considering a “down grade” toward “like & good at”, since NGOs seemed to be paying comparatively lower – certainly compared to her life style costs at that time.

That trade-off rarely ever works. Bills pile up or the foregone monetary “freedom” keeps you captive to cut back. I have often witnessed people turn very missionary in their effort to convince their environment that everyone else is getting “life wrong”, but them. It is a sad picture of self betrayal. Eventually, they “give in” and “sell out” in their opinion.

And then more examples in my circle of friends, family and acquaintances with issues with the intersection came to my mind.

“Good and valuable”

Before the 2008 crisis – and possibly even today – there seemed only two standard career options for business school graduates who wanted to achieve a “great career” quickly: investment banking and consulting.

Not surprisingly, I had quite a number of friends working in the consulting industry. It was great pay and they were also good at their job. Some even very good. The promotions and raises came in often just about at the time, when they were doubting their career choice. The hours, work life balance, the travel, for some the stress as well were becoming too much…for some of them especially since they were starting their own families. They just did not like the package.

Jobs like this (good and valuable but lacking any happiness in it), I have found, cannot be held without compromises to one’s lifestyle. Eventually, the imbalance shows itself in bitterness, sarcasm, cynicism, resignation or just emptiness.

“Like and valuable”

Sometimes, we really like the job and it is really valuable too. But as hard as we try, we just seem to always have to try so much harder than the rest of the gang.

I had a friend in this position. It was very early in his professional career, right after we graduated high school, that during assessment centers, it became clear that his body and mind were not cut for the type of work he had envisioned since he was just about 10 years old. There was no arguing with the results. They were crystal clear. It was over before it even began. It was heart breaking to see my friend’s childhood dream vanish in front of him.

It is traumatizing at times to self reflect and see: “You are just not cut for it”.

“Good, like and valuable”

And then there is the intersection, where the stars seem to align. You like your job, you are good at it too and hell, someone finds it valuable enough to pay you for it.

How happy can you be?

The degree of happiness in this intersection of course varies with a few things.

How strongly do you feel in each dimension?

Obviously, reaching superlatives in all three dimensions marks the pinnacle of job happiness.

But intersection is not only defined by reaching superlatives in each dimension. Some really love their job and hence can do with not the greatest pay in the world. Some are paid so much that not loving their job – but finding it “good” – is ok with them.

How high are your expectations in each dimension?

Similarly, the definition of the superlative in each dimension is different for each individual. Some are genuinely happy when their pay sustains them a modest living. Some never expected to really love their job and some may actually prefer not to love it for the sake of a healthy work-life-balance.

Whatever “well paid” for me means maybe nothing to you. Whatever I defined as “loving my job” may mean nothing to you.

So how happy are you at you job? Happy? Are all dimensions equally well presented? Or much rather “so so”? Is there imbalance? Can you live with the imbalance?

But what happened to my friend from 2012?

She did not quit to get “more meaningful” work. She did, however, go through a tough time at the job before eventually designing more meaning into her job now. She first found out what meaningful meant to her, looked at the company and found out that she could contribute in that capacity there as well. (It turns out, NGO / association work is not the only way to do meaningful things.) And the pay? That increased at the same time as well.

She moved from the outer rim of the intersection inward. Her happiness steadily increased. It was amazing to witness.


I did find out a few weeks ago, that Scott Galloway in “Algebra of Happiness” documented this way more pungent than I may be able to do.

Testimony to the fact, that almost everything half way decent most likely was said at least once before by someone else than you.

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