What is the Right Career?
How is a career choice related to wellness? First, when I write about wellness with CF, I am not simply talking about physical health and wellness, but also emotional well being…a sense of contentment and fulfillment. Many things are related to this sense of wellbeing, and fortunately, most have little to do with physical health.
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about happiness lately. If you’ve read my column before, you probably know that I find the field of positive psychology fascinating. Essentially, it is the study of what causes people to be happy and to live rich and fulfilling lives. Happiness is a popular topic these days. You see happiness “secrets” revealed on book and magazine covers, on PBS specials, on happiness blogs, websites…you name it.
My purpose is to mine the field of positive psychology and happiness research to come up with scientifically validated ways to improve the subjective wellbeing of people with chronic illness, and of course, cystic fibrosis is a perfect example.
So what does this have to do with career choice?
The research tells us that one of the most important elements of living a good, fulfilling life, is the ability to use your strengths in a manner that serves a purpose that is larger than yourself…one that you believe in deeply and that aligns with your core values. Those people for whom work is a calling feel the most fulfilled. And there is a strong positive correlation between happiness and using your strengths every day. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could do that and get paid? You can…and you should strive to do just that.
We all have strengths, and I’m sure you have a very good idea of what your particular strengths are. It has only been a recent discovery that people who are the happiest immerse themselves in using their strengths rather than using their finite amount of time and energy to “shore up” their weaknesses. I believe that the very first thing to take into account when deciding a career path is “What are you good at?” Notice, I didn’t say, “What do you think you can handle, given CF?”
If you want to try a fun and often revealing exercise, take the VIA Signature Strengths Survey at http://www.authentichappiness.org. This is a series of 240 multiple-choice questions (it takes 45 minutes or so), and when you are done, you will immediately see which are your top five (or Signature) Strengths. I thought I knew what my results would be, and I was close, but there were some that completely blew me away. You will also get an interesting perspective on your own strengths by asking those that know you well what qualities they most admire in you. Finally, make your own list of things you love to do and that you know you do well. Try to narrow this down into five or six things in which you take great pride and satisfaction. Combining all of these methods together will give you a very accurate map of the kind of career you will find most fulfilling. It will be the one(s) where you see the need and the opportunity for these strengths at every turn.
Looking back to my decision to go to medical school to ultimately “cure cystic fibrosis,” I realize that I could have used this advice. When one thinks of a good researcher, strengths like the capacity to love and be loved, humor, zest, curiosity and love of learning, and hope/optimism/future mindedness (my top five) are not the ones that first come to mind. A great researcher would show strengths like industry, diligence, critical thinking, caution, judgment, ingenuity, and leadership (not even close to my top five). While my passion was in the right place (curing CF), my strengths were not suited well to this career decision.
Now, this didn’t turn out all bad. I loved going to medical school. My love of learning and curiosity strengths were force-fed every day for 10 years of training. I got to tell great pathology jokes. But let’s just say that sitting around diagnosing cancer (after the intellectual thrill of figuring it out) did nothing for my zest, my hope and my optimism. And who loves their pathologist? Was I happy? Not so much. When it came time to retire to take care of my children and myself, I went through a slight existential crisis (well if I’m not a doctor, then who am I?), but then settled into post-physician existence quite happily.
Now I am entrenched in career number two, coaching and training wellness to people, who, like myself, live in less than perfect bodies that often require care and attention above and beyond the norm. I use my strengths in a much more effective an ongoing way, and I am appreciated for them more than I ever was sitting at my microscope. And, I care deeply about the meaning and usefulness of my work. I feel that I am doing what I “should” be doing. Given that I have always had a passion for fitness, nutrition and stress management, I get a kick out of sharing this with other people, and love learning even more about these topics. This leads to a sense of fulfillment and contentment that I didn’t feel as a surgical pathologist.
So what can you learn from this story? First, it pays to learn your strengths and give them serious consideration when choosing your career. The same goes for following your passions, and figuring out a way to merge your core values with your daily job. But finally, what you can learn from this story is that sometimes, despite your best intention, your “dream” job takes awhile to manifest.
You may decide on one path, and find out later that it doesn’t work out as well as you had hoped. Or, you may love what you do for a time, and then physical challenges may force you to be more attentive to your own health needs than that particular job allows. All of this happens…to everyone, really. When you are first deciding on a career, in your early twenties, it may seem like you only get one chance, and you can’t afford to mess it up.
You might be making yourself crazy by thinking, I can do this now, but what if I get sick? Sure, be practical. You probably shouldn’t become a firefighter! But why paralyze yourself by imagining what may happen in the future?
Barack Obama said something in his inaugural address that stuck me (actually, most of what he said struck me…but this I remember). He said he rejected the notion that as a nation, we couldn’t both follow our values and be safe. To paraphrase him, I reject the notion that as people with cystic fibrosis, we can’t both follow our passions and be well.
Your career is obviously a very personal choice…one that you will live with day in and day out. Most people you talk to will give you practical advice: Think about your health. How stressed will you be? Will you be able to care for yourself appropriately? How healthy are you now? What can you do now?
These are obviously important to consider. But remember also to consider the following: What are your strengths? What are your values? Is it more important to you to work your tail off doing what you love, or to work at a less stressful job so that you can place more energy and attention on your own health and family? These aren’t right or wrong questions. They are just questions…to which only you know the answers.