Are you doing what you actually want to be doing? Maybe. Maybe not? Who knows? It is one of the toughest questions we’ll grapple with in our lives.
When was the last time you were completely honest with yourself and thought about it? If you’re like most people, probably not recently.
“I’m a big believer in evaluating where you think you are in your life about once a year,” said Art Markman, a psychology and marketing professor and author of the book, Bring Your Brain to Work.
A full-time worker will spend about 80 000 hours at work over the course of his/her working life. Setting aside the fact that that can account for a majority of your waking hours, consider the intangible costs. If you’re in the wrong career, it could mean tens of thousands of hours spent devoted to something you don’t even really care about, much less that you feel is your passion.
That said, passion alone isn’t necessarily the best indicator of whether you’re in the right career and sometimes it can lead you down the wrong path. But one of the factors that might be a deciding one is thinking about your values.
We all have core values that help define us. Maybe you put a priority on achievement, helping others, doing good, having structure in your life or just plain happiness.
Whatever your core values may be, putting time into genuine, honest introspection to figure them out can help point you in the right direction when deciding whether the work you do aligns with your values.
In fact, people with high levels of this type of self-awareness have stronger relationships, perform better at work and are more creative.
If you’ve never put much thought into it, one helpful way to identify your values is to stop asking “why” questions about yourself, but start asking “what” questions. For example, when you’re thinking of a situation that caused you to feel bad at work, you might ask yourself: “Why do I feel so terrible?”
It may seem like an insignificant word swop, but you might be surprised at the different answers you arrive at or how those answers have changed over time.
“When you look at that set of values, you may realise that the path you’re on is never going to lead to the right level of satisfaction, because you’re not actually doing something that fits that core set of values that you have,” said Markman.
So, what do you do?
Our work identities are so wrapped up with our personal identities that we sometimes fail to differentiate between the two, and that’s a trap that can keep people in careers that don’t make them happy. Certain job titles come with certain connotations and assumptions. Leaving one role for another can shake a person’s identity and confidence to their core.
But instead of tying those connotations to the person, he suggested looking at job titles a different way such as verbs, rather than nouns.
“When you go to a party, one of the first things you ask someone is, ‘What do you do?’ because of that belief that it tells us something deep about who they are,” said Markman.
“One of the things we have to do is to really try to treat our career more like a verb than a noun. There’s a lot of research on nouns that shows that as soon as you give a label to something, you come to believe that somebody or some object has essence of that thing. A cat – why is a cat a cat? It has essence of a cat. That’s true not just for biological categories, it’s true even for professions.”
So what does that mean for you, the potential career switcher? In essence, your job title doesn’t define you. It is just one slice of your identity; changing one for another doesn’t change the core of who you are.
But that’s not all.
Maybe it is the main – or only – question on your mind: what about the money?
Unfortunately, no one can answer that except you. Considerations like family, location, age, debt load, savings, relocation plans, retirement goals and other factors come into play.
It is true that some studies have showed that money starts to offer diminishing happiness returns, while other studies have found different results. However, something you should try to weigh is that you can’t spend your way out of doing something that makes you genuinely miserable.
“Doing something you feel is satisfying can actually increase that level of happiness in ways that no amount of money will,” he said.
The pursuit of happiness, all things considered, can sometimes lead you down surprising paths.
“I’m a big believer that we shouldn’t be the ones who edit our life story. We should allow the world to edit our life story,” said Markman. “Take advantage of opportunities, try things, give a job a shot. There’s very little cost to putting yourself out there.”
This article first appeared on The New York Times.