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How To Thrive In a “Not My First Choice”​ Career

It may be hard to believe, most people aren’t currently living and working in a professional field that was their first choice. This of course can be for several reasons beyond the control of each individual. And the reasons vary from the number of available opportunities on the market, to accepting the first offered position due to personal or financial reasons. A 2013 Gallup poll surveyed 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries and found that fully 63% were not engaged in their work. And not much has changed today.

The trouble comes when days turn into weeks and weeks turn into years and we’ve all but given up on the dream career opportunity we’ve fantasized about since leaving school and entering the work force. Its true, there’s nothing stopping us from leaving a job we don’t like and setting of a new path whether it be with another company or starting our own. And while these “grass is greener” and “fear of missing out” options look like immediate attractive resolutions to our daily grind, making an emotional decision can end up being premature in nature, leading to more problems.

Striving for greener pastures isn’t inherently wrong, but not embracing opportunities each day has to offer right now can have an affect on your person/professional growth and overall holistic mental well being. From a practical perspective there are a few approaches we can take to help cope with the day to day grind. 

The first is attempting to connect the dots between your passion and your present. With your ideal profession in mind, think about what type of work you are truly passionate about. Is there a way to incorporate those skills in your work today that will help you meet your current role’s objectives? Before you immediately say its not possible, understand the goal isn’t to gain 100% alignment between the two points. 

For example if your working in analytics but your ultimate goal is to be a software developer, you probably won’t be offered the opportunity to create analytic software from the ground up. However, based on your coding and programing expertise, you could request to be a part of the committee that selects the software to purchase and even be a part of the implementation team. In his book The Spark and the Grind, well-known author and motivational speaker Erik Wahl insists that if we look hard enough, the can be open doors for us to explore our passions in our current work. “Within your current context lies more creative opportunities than you probably ever realized. There are no dead end streets for the truly creative.”

Another approach you can take is to unlock a personal deeper purpose within the organization. Aside from a pay cheque, personal purpose is the other motivating factor that pushes us out of bed each day. The distance between just surviving through our work and thriving in it is located in the dimensions of our personal purpose. And real, soul changing purpose is in most cases connected to the action of service to something or someone above and beyond ourselves. According to Happify.com, an organization dedicated to the science of positive psychology for the last 15 years, when we give, there’s a positive psychological response internally. We get a boost of ‘feel good’ endorphins-the same ones associated with runners high. Oxytocin floods our body, lowering our stress and making us feel more connected to others. Our brain’s pleasure centers light up as if we were the recipient of the good deed, when in reality we were the giver. Within any given organization, there are opportunities to serve in different capacities. Some are clear, like volunteering your time for community work your company is already involved in. Or you may have to step up and lead company initiatives yourself. On a smaller scale you might choose to offer your time to train new employees on the systems and culture of the company. Ultimately seeing your daily job function as an act of service to others rather than just an act of work can dramatically change the way you see your work.

While it can be challenging to do, you need to be honest about the need your job is meeting in your life right now. Let me be clear: There’s no shame in keeping a job that wasn’t your first choice for a period of time in order to provide for yourself and your family and keep the lights on. When we’re honest with ourselves about the need for the role currently, it frees us up to uncover creative and purposeful fulfilment in other areas of our lives. Certain elements of your job may be overly dry and not too exciting, but it happens to be located 15 mins from home. Minimal commute time is time that can be used for other passions in life. From a financial perspective, your current salary and benefits compensation might not only help your family, but give you the extra capital needed to make an entrepreneurial move in the near future. Shark Tank mainstay Daymond John famously lived by this principle by keeping his job at Red Lobster while he built his first multimillion dollar business on the side. Not only did he provide for himself and save capital to start his venture, he also took several business principles he learned from the way Red Lobster operated their business on a financial level. In short: when you can be honest with yourself on the current benefits of your job, it makes it easier to contend with some of the more mundane moments of daily work.

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Finally, do some homework and research stories about others who have either endured a long road to professional fulfilment or surprised themselves by thriving in a role they never thought they would. It would be crazy to assume that the people who feel the most fulfilled travelled a perfectly liner road to professional success. But we buy into that very idea in our social media culture that’s saturated with perfectionism content (To a degree, we’re all a little guilty of fueling this online). Deep down we all know that’s not reality, but we align our beliefs with the images and ideals we see the most. That’s why we must be diligent and intentional about finding and reading about what others endured over the the long journey to professional happiness.

The story of Jo Green exemplifies this. Currently in his 4th career, he’s worked in relocation, market research, fundraising for charities, and now is (naturally) a career change coach. “I felt like a square peg in a round hole in my previous roles and realized that I needed to take some time to understand more about myself, my interests, motivation and skills before moving into my next role. [Through the process] I realized I learned a lot through changing careers. I’m really interested in psychology and what makes people tick, and that I’d love to help other people to have a less stressful time than I did in finding meaningful work (quote from myadeal.com).“ When you uncover more stories like Jo’s, not only will you be inspired, but you’ll begin to realize there’s value in what you’re experiencing at your job right now. 

All the points above work best when founded on the principle of building relationships at work. Psychologically speaking we are wired for human connection. And the right type of relationships with our managers and coworkers can make even the most not so ideal career situations seem like the best job we’ve ever had. In his book The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry devotes an entire chapter to the concept of relationships. “Investing in healthy , thriving relationships yields long-term benefits for everyone involved and can be especially beneficial in allowing you to see the world from a new perspective , exposing you to unexpected creative insights and helping you stay inspired.” Its a two-fold benefit. Relationships at work give us the human social connection we need daily for personal mental well-ness and they can open doors to career opportunities we would never be aware of or think about. 

Thriving where we are right now is best initiated outside of isolation, and connecting with those we work with daily. This will then lead us to: Connect the dots between our passion and our present, Unlock a personal deeper purpose within the organization, Be honest about the need our current job is meeting in our life right now and Research stories about others who have either endured a long road to professional fulfilment. 

You got this! Jump in and begin to thrive where you are right now!

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Private Jets

In 2015 I started a new position at another company. One of the requirements of the new role was to attend training in another city. This involved travelling on the private company jet.

I obviously couldn’t wait to savour that moment and tell everyone about it. It was one of those signature moments that happens only a few times in our careers and I wanted to make the most of it.

But the reality of the moment didn’t match my anticipation. The plane felt cramped travelling with my manager and another associate. The only food served were the few granola bars I had stashed in my carry-on. But that wasn’t the worse part.

Private jets typically fly at 50,000 feet in the air, whereas commercial airline planes on average fly at 35,000 feet. Why does this matter? Because the higher you ascend, the more severe case of ‘airplane ear’ you’ll get (the ear plugging sensation).

I probably had the worse case of airplane ear in the history of its diagnosisAnd it didn’t just stop when I got off the flight. My ears were still plugged while meeting new associates for the first time at the training facility. I was talking but had no clue as to what I was saying. I sounded like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons (whomp, whomp!).

Some things aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Sometimes we’ll only find out by going through them. The tragedy occurs when instead of learning from it, we continue to chase experiences that have the appearance of success instead of success itself.

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True Compensation

A few years back I left a company I had been working at for 10 years for another position elsewhere. Though it was a more of a lateral move, the base salary the new company offered was $27,000 more than my current pay.

I reviewed minor details like the expectations of the role, daily commute, and main benefits package. It was enough for me to make the move. It ended up being the worst career move I’ve ever made. Aside from being a toxic environment, I miss calculated my compensation offer.

A chunk of my base salary was put into a mandatory pension fund and I had 1 less week paid vacation . When all was said and done, my expected $27,000 ‘take home’ increase looked a lot less.

Compensation at times is challenging to calculate. While we focus on base pay and benefits as the main drivers for our decision, it’s easy to over look other areas such as: the working environment, company core values, potential future growth and sustainability. Even basic benefits like an opportunity to participate in a pension or matched RRSP plan, and negotiating vacation should all be considered.

In the end there shouldn’t be a price tag on our mental health and wellness. No amount of compensation should be accepted in exchange for it. Doing as much upfront research as possible on a company can help avoid this from happening.

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Treat Yourself Mondays

A new survey by LinkedIn found that 80% of workplace professionals experience stress and anxiety that builds up on Sunday nights before the return of the work week, also known as the “Sunday Scaries.”

3 quick ways to combat these feelings when they arise are:

1. Take 10 minutes Sunday evening and write down the top 3-5 items, work or personal related, that you will accomplish on Monday. If work related issues are driving the biggest anxieties, create a quick action plan on how you’ll address them instead of just thinking about it.

2. Start winding down Sunday evening at a reasonable time. Listen to music, read inspirational articles or stimulating books. Remove every and anything that stimulates you in a negative way.

3. Treat for yourself on Monday. Wake up early and buy yourself breakfast or a fancy $10 coffee from Starbucks. Ultimately the idea is to give yourself give something to look forward to Monday morning.

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Like LEGO, Be Yourself

In 2003 LEGO sales dropped 35% in the US and 29% worldwide, combining to be the biggest annual loss in the company’s history.

This was new territory for a company that saw generations success decade after decade. But how exactly did it happen?

Like many other business trying to stay ahead of their competition, the iconic toy brick manufacturer attempted to pivot into an untapped market. Problem was they pivoted wrong.

LEGO tried to innovate without researching or simply asking their faithful customer and fan base what they really wanted. This resulted in a product that was very un-LEGO like. Items that were mostly prebuilt and had minimal assembly factor.

LEGO eventually rebounded and has since experienced steady growing sales, leading to several full length feature films and other entertainment expansions like streaming tv series and gaming franchises.

All because LEGO returned to their roots of success. Which was relying on their proprietary brick building system as the foundation for new innovation.

The moral of the story? When others seem to be growing in new experiences, opportunities or innovation, don’t be afraid to continue being your authentic self personally or professionally. Especially when you’ve had success doing so.

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More vs Efficient

Before many of us were mandated to work from home due to the global pandemic, entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes already had driving operational efficiencies on their radar.

Remote work and lockdown closures has unlocked another layer to what efficiency looks like in our holistic daily lives.

Case in point, my home office has evolved into just more than a space I use to conduct business. It doubles as my home gym, coffee reading area, man-cave for movies and gaming, and a fully functional studio space.

Oh, and my wife operates her business in the same space too.

The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized that more is the enemy of efficient. And the more efficient we can be in our whole lives, the more effective our impact will be in whatever we set out to do.

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Community Enhances Creativity

Perfectionism loves isolation – Jon Acuff

One of my favourite short films to watch with my kids is the animated movie Burrow. It features a rabbit who has aspirations of creating a modest one room ‘burrow’ home for himself.

When he begins digging he realizes how pedestrian or simple his plans are in comparison to other elaborate homes by other animals. The others offer their assistance in expanding rabbit’s blue prints but he’s so embarrassed by his small, simple idea that he consistently declines.

That’s where the problems start. His zeal to do things on his own and not be open to even the smallest suggestions lead him into a world of trouble, and ultimately put the other animals homes at risk. Once they realize the approaching danger, they ban together to put a stop to it. With the help of the rabbit they’re eventually successful in avoiding disaster.

The film ends with the rabbit finally being open to getting help in creating his new home.

Sharing our ideas can sometimes be tricky but being in a creative community helps in two specific ways: Communities help us expand our ideas in ways we would never think and help us avoid repeating mistakes they’ve already made.

The problem with rabbit’s plans had nothing to do with the simplicity of it. The others in his community just wanted to use their expertise to ensure it was as functional as he needed and wanted it to be.

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The Unfamiliar Stimulates Creativity

As years, decades and centuries go by, the one thing we always seem to increase in is our ability to choose. Because there’s always more available for us to choose from.

Yet we always default to the same. The same restaurants, the same genre of music or books. The same hair cut. The same daily routine.

And then we wonder why we get stumped in coming up with creative solutions on the fly.

The unfamiliar activates new neutron connections in our brain and stimulates right brain thinking, where our creativity originates from.

So the cure for creative block? Try something new. A new place to eat. New music. New literature. A different daily routine. Even a new haircut, but don’t go crazy with that one.

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Completed Cycles

Sleep cycles are an interesting topic to research in depth of you have the time. Studies have shown the quality of our sleep directly impacts our daytime productivity levels. But its information that’s universally known.

What may not be common knowledge is that we all go through sleep cycles each night and that a good night sleep hinges on us completing each cycle we start in full. For example there are 4 stages of our sleep cycle: Light Sleep, Moderate Sleep, Deep Sleep, and REM (Rapid Eye Movement).

Each stage has its own traits that we experience. We need to experience each stage for one sleep cycle to be complete. On average we go through a total of 4 to 6 cycles a night each averaging about 90 mins. The trouble starts when we wake up in the middle of a stage, leaving a cycle incomplete.

If you’ve ever wondered why you accomplished the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep but still felt groggy in the morning, you probably woke up in the middle of stage 2 or 3.

There are hundreds of other cycles in our lives I could use to backup the main point of this post which is: cycles need to be completed in full for us to benefit from them. Even when we decide to close a business, or quit a project, drafting a ‘post mortem’ to review what went wrong is good practice to ‘close the loop’.

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Guilt Free Decompression

South Park co-creator Trey Parker gave some interesting thoughts on taking time to decompress in the 2014 film Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary.

After spending hours of effort creating original content, Parker revels in going home after a long day to build LEGO sets. More specifically taking time to methodically follow instructions piece by piece. He sees is as being therapeutic because it’s the only time in any given day when he’s not pushed to be creative. 

Relaxation and unwinding will look different for all of us. Spending time in a creative workday often pushes those individuals to resting their creative energy sources to eventually be replenished. Building LEGO sets, reading, watching a film, or possibly following recipe directions all fit the bill.

On the flip side, those with a more predictable, process oriented career could be more inclined to look for creative outlets that promote free thought and imagination as a way to decompress (e.g. writing, painting, customs car design, etc.).

Of course this isn’t a perfect science. The opposite will also be true. The main point is around the need for consistent time of decompression through moments of relaxation. And most important of all, not feeling guilty for what you decide that moment will look like.

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