We’ve almost wrapped up yet another year: a time that naturally lends itself to reflection, looking back on what we’ve accomplished and setting goals based on that measurement. This year, take a few minutes to assess your career. Career satisfaction makes a huge difference in our overall happiness. Like it or not, you’ll be spending a huge portion of the next year at your job, and unless you win the lottery, that’s going to be the case for much of your life.
Obviously, the biggest value we receive from work is our salary: unless you’re independently wealthy, the job’s gotta pay. But don’t let cash be the only measurement of your job’s worth. Money is critical up to a certain level, but after that it quickly goes from “need to have” to “nice to have.” Studies of happiness in the U.S. have shown that, above an income of about $70,000, additional money is not linked to increased happiness: other factors start to become more important. So don’t rule out potential new jobs that pay the same or even less than you’re currently making — other benefits could outweigh the money difference.
Here are some key qualities that we find valuable in our work.
As we age, a good insurance plan becomes paramount. If you intend to get married and raise a family, these benefits can help you provide the care your family needs. In addition to vacations (to restore sanity) and visits to loved ones, generous time-off packages empower those who want to travel the world have the adventures they’ve been dreaming of. A 401(k) or other retirement plan with tax-free growth and employer-matched contributions allows you to plan for the future.
The ideal job will walk the line between being too difficult and too easy. Studies have shown human intelligence thrives when we are pushed to our limits, but not when we’re past what we can handle. Think back to the sort of summer jobs you worked as a teen, and you’ll realize that a job that you could do with your eyes closed isn’t such a good thing, after all. Without engaging work, the hours and days drag on.
There’s tremendous value in working for a company that strives to make the world a better place. The opportunity to contribute to a cause you believe in and to leave a legacy can make going to work every day a joy instead of a burden.
Many lasting friendships are formed in the workplace. Since we spend so much time there and have such a large portion of our lives in common with our coworkers, these bonds can be very rewarding. From deep friendships to a career-shaping mentor, to casual drinks after a stressful day, these connections can make leaving friends the hardest part about leaving a job.
The flip side of finding a challenging job is the recognition that you receive for doing it well. This type of praise can be as simple as an internal pat on the back for meeting a deadline, but any kind of recognition contributes to your overall sense of well-being. Superiors or even coworkers who take time to recognize and praise good work can make us feel better about all the effort we’re putting in, even if work feels crazy at times. Other sources of recognition include other members of your industry, the media, and customers and clients.
A professional foundation
Ever done an internship? Or heard someone refer to a project as great “resume material”? If so, you’re familiar with the idea of building a professional foundation. In addition to focusing on how to improve in your current job, you should have at least a broad outline of where your career is headed. Where do you want to be in a year? Five years? When you retire, what will you want to have accomplished? Your current position can be the next step in that journey. We’re not saying you should use your job as a stepping stone, but the work and skills of today become the basis for tomorrow. Working for a company that is well known or respected in the industry can be a huge jump start for your career — as can working for a well-connected boss.
For many people, this is a consideration that comes second only to money — and for some, it ranks even higher. Much has been written about work-life balance, but here are a few rules of thumb to consider. In general, fewer hours is a good thing: being hardworking is hardly negative, but 80-hour weeks lead to burnout most of the time. High-stress jobs that involve bringing work home and constantly getting called in during your free time negatively impact your life. Every job will have periods of stress that demand most of your time and energy, and there’s nothing wrong with occasionally having to put work ahead of everything else — in fact, this kind of work can actually be beneficial. But if it’s nonstop craziness and the rest of your life is suffering, you need to look at whether the benefits you get from the job are worth the imbalance.
adding it all up
So — money is the big daddy of work rewards, but it’s not the whole story. It’s important to evaluate your job in terms of the total package. Sit down with a pen and paper, and review your job in the context we’ve outlined above. You may be surprised at what you discover. And if you’re not satisfied with what you find, use that same sheet of paper to set goals for your work in 2011. It’s much easier to improve once you know where you stand, so take time today to figure out what value you’re getting from your job.