The Secret to a Happy Career

ann dalyLike many of my coaching clients, Mary (a pseudonym) is facing a crisis of confidence. After years of success, the feedback from her new boss has turned sour. She’s frustrated, and second-guessing herself.

My immediate goal, as I consider how to begin Mary’s first session, is to help her remember how good she is at her job. Once she regains her perspective, she will be able to objectively analyze the situation with her boss and make a reasonable decision about her next steps.

I’m not interested in how good other people think Mary is. I’m interested in how Mary feels deep down when she’s working at her optimal best. That’s what I want to help her remember. So here’s how I decide to open:

“Tell me about a time — specific or typical — when you were ‘in the flow’ at work. When you were so engaged by the challenge at hand that you felt out of time and out of space. All distractions dropped away. You fully enjoyed taking your skills to the limit (and even beyond) to solve a problem. And it happened without apparent effort.”

There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity.

“Flow” was a term coined back in the 1980’s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wanted to understand when and how we feel happy. He began by researching creative people like artists and scientists. Since then, he and his colleagues have conducted more than 8,000 interviews with all sorts of people – from Dominican monks to CEOs to Himalayan climbers – who enjoy their work.

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“And regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow,” says Csikszentmihalyi. “There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

Flow is that zone where we feel at our best, totally absorbed. We bring all of our self to bear on an activity through intense focus. The activity has to be difficult enough to keep us challenged, but not impossible to deflate us. At that perfect intersection between challenge and mastery, we love our work for its intrinsic pleasure, not for the paycheck.

This, I believe, is the secret to a happy career: know where you find your flow and then find a job that matches. So the next time you’re feeling demoralized or doubtful about your talents or your career, step back and ask yourself this question: “Where do I find my flow?”

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