Apr 09

Tap-Dancing to Work

By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

A career should be a source of joy and empowerment. But too often, Sunday evening is cloaked in dread. Monday morning’s alarm hangs heavy.

While the national unemployment picture has improved, many people who have jobs are not satisfied. They work for “The Man,” sitting in a sterile cubicle, performing rote tasks, or perhaps standing on their feet all day, working in a segment of the service industry. And I know from the 20- and 30-somethings I see in my practice—those with non-tech, undergraduate college degrees, at least—that sales jobs seem to offer the most prevalent prospects. Some people may be well-suited to sales or administrative work, but for too many, those jobs are not a good fit, or worse, they are empty, mind-numbing rat-races to nowhere. To be in sales requires a certain kind of charismatic, energetic personality and a thick skin that can stand up to frequent rejection. Administrative work calls for an attention to detail and organization that is most suitable for analytical, left-brained individuals.

I tell clients to first think about who they are, what they love to do and where their skills and natural inclinations lie. Then, they must do their research. It’s true that it’s not always possible to find one’s dream job. But it is possible to search and prepare in such a way that the individual improves his or her chances of getting close.  

I am not a career counselor. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, or psychotherapist, who specializes in supporting clients in exploring a more meaningful path. Generally, this means looking inside, reading a lot and networking like crazy, finding people you admire who are making a decent living doing something they love, and picking their brains. Often, getting to where one wants to be requires some kind of certification, further training or education. It may involve an unpaid internship, apprenticeship, resonant volunteer work, or even a foray into the world of entrepreneurship.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he posits that people should look for three things when searching for a satisfying career. He states: “Those three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”

This struck home. Let’s start with autonomy: Generally, working for a big corporation or bureaucracy does not offer a lot of autonomy, unless you’re in upper management. However, even on the lower rungs, it may be possible to find a job where the individual can exert some control over how he does it. But in creative fields, smaller companies or start-ups, there is a much higher likelihood. Regarding complexity, Gladwell is saying that the work must be challenging and interesting enough to keep the employee stimulated, and invested in the work. There must be opportunities for continual learning, growth and promotion. Finally, the connection between effort and reward may prove more elusive. Ideally, it is built into certain professions, such as nursing, social work, teaching, firefighting and nonprofit work. But it can exist in other fields, even sales and service work, particularly if the individual seeks it, and orients himself in that way. Basically, Gladwell means that the effort one expends in his job results in a tangible payoff—and not just the financial kind. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the main ways to find true meaning in life is by transcending ourselves to help others.

The great investor Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for saying that he “tap dances to work.” The brilliant investor, now 83, is so happy in his career that he cannot wait to get there. Why? Surely part of the reason is that what he does contains these three key ingredients: autonomy, complexity, and connection between effort and reward. He says he felt equally passionate even when he was young and struggling, trying to convince family and friends to allow him to invest their money. 

“Find your passion,” says Buffett in Carol Loomis’ book, Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, “I was very, very lucky to find it when I was seven or eight years old…You’re lucky in life when you find it. And you can’t guarantee you’ll find it in your first job out. But I always tell students…’Take the job you would take if you were independently wealthy. You’re going to do well at it.’”

Bottom line: Buffett created his own happy destiny. And if you know anything about him, he is the opposite of a money-grubbing materialist. Compared to other CEOs and billionaires, he lives the simplest of lives, paying himself a modest salary, eschewing bonuses and driving himself to work. And all that money? He’s giving it back to society.

What we do on this Earth—and how we approach it—comes down, largely,  to choice. Why not choose to tap-dance to work?