career: find something challenging that matters.

May 7th, 2015

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A few weeks ago, after I wrote this post, I got an email from a reader asking me to write about a different career topic, one that really resonated with me.  She asked if I had any advice for tackling those mid-career moments when you struggle with motivation and direction:

Hi Katy,

I’m a longtime reader (I found your blog via Ramshackleglam years ago!) and loved your recent post on wearing red for a confidence boost; I was wondering if you had any further advice that have helped you with your career or still follow to this day.  I’m not in the legal world but I would love to hear any tips you have on how to navigate a demanding job without losing motivation or feeling overwhelmed by everything.  Or even how you managed your time to successfully run a blog and write three books on top of being a lawyer!

My first year in my current role was fantastic as I had so much to learn, but now that I can navigate things easily I’m not sure how best to hone other ‘professional’ skills, or even show my managers I am ready to work at a higher level.  So this was just in case you had been thinking about writing more work-related posts – yes please! 🙂

I thought about this a lot, and get ready, pour some coffee, because, man, I have a lot to say.

In some ways, it’s easier to be relatively junior in many fields.  Sure, the hours are long, but in most jobs, for the first years, someone tells you what to do.

Sure, there’s a reason for that: you don’t have the training and experience to know exactly how to do everything, yet.  So your job (even in a very challenging career) initially is more task-oriented.  The downside is that you’r often working really hard, long hours, but the upside is that you have a pretty good sense of what’s on your plate at any given moment. 

But here’s the thing no one tells you: that changes.  If you stick with it for a while, suddenly you’re not the one taking orders anymore.  You’re giving them. 

That’s a little terrifying.

And it’s also completely amazing. 

Here’s the thing: it’s a scary thing to be in charge.  But at the same time, being in charge means that, suddenly, your work feels incredibly important.  For me, it marked the moment when my job became a career.  It was when my work stopped feeling like work and started feeling like a vital, integral part of my life. 

And you know what?  It wasn’t the moment that I started my own practice.  It would be easy if it were; that’s a clean story.  “All I had to do was start my own business, and then I was the boss and everyone lived happily ever after, the end.” But that’s not the real answer. 

The real answer is: it happened at moments, off and on, at different points in my career. 

Here’s one example.  When I was about three years out of law school, I worked on a case that exploded from a relatively small, discrete project into almost a year of non-stop work with dozens of people tackling different parts of it.  I was a third year associate, and found myself suddenly managing a team of a dozen other associates who were only one or two years junior to me.  This wasn’t because I’m an exceptionally good lawyer, although I’d like to think that was part of it.  It was partly luck, and it was partly because I’d worked really hard at the beginning of the case to make myself indispensable to the partners who were in charge of the case, and they’d decided I could do it.

Overnight, my role was flipped.  Usually, as a junior person, you’re the one asking all the questions.  But suddenly, I was the one answering them.  I was saying “yes” and “no” and deciding what got passed along to the partners at my firm and the client, who were trusting me to manage the small stuff myself and know when to consult them on the big stuff.  It was terrifying, and it was really, really cool. 

And I felt like what I was doing was important.  People were depending on me.  I’d check my blackberry at 3 a.m. not because I was scared that I’d get into trouble if I didn’t, but because I felt like my input mattered to the work we were doing. 

But.  You know there was going to be a ‘but’, right?

That moment didn’t last forever.  A year later, that case had ended, and I was still working long, hard hours, I wasn’t as excited about them as I’d been before.  I didn’t want to spend five more years getting back into that same leadership role that I’d stumbled into by accident.  I loved the people I worked with, and I still had the same job, same title, and yet something had changed.  It was the kind of high-stakes, demanding job that required you to give 100%, 24/7.  And there’s no way to do that if your heart isn’t there.  There just isn’t.

People sometimes hear that you should love your job, and they think it means that work should be all fun, all the time.  “I love windsurfing and I’m supposed to love my job, so I guess I’m meant to be a professional windsurfer!  Whee!

But the best job isn’t going to be fun all the time.  It’s going to be hard and challenging and sometimes require effort you don’t feel like you have.  You’re going to beat your fists against walls and feel like you have no idea how to get from where you are to where you want to be.  Those are really hard moments. 

So where do you go from there?  How do you figure out when you’re in that moment, and what you can do to change it?

When this reader wrote to me, she asked about finding career motivation and feeling overwhelmed.  But those are two completely separate things.

I feel overwhelmed all the time.  I have a career and a family and a house and two dogs and this blog.  Some days, that’s a little overwhelming.  I think it’s ok to feel overwhelmed sometimes.  And I think it’s ok to admit it. 

But the motivation side isn’t a question: it’s the answer.  I have a very demanding job.  But my career motivation doesn’t stem from winning and losing, or from the excitement of going to court, or the adrenaline of negotiation.  Some of that is part of it.  But what motivates me are two things. 

My work is challenging and I think what I do is important. 

That’s it.  That’s the secret to loving your job.  I can give it to you in five words.

Find something challenging that matters.

It doesn’t bother me that the work is difficult; I like hard work.  But that work has to matter.  It doesn’t have to matter to anyone else.  It doesn’t have to be high-paying or glamorous.  But it has to matter to me. 

For me, those two are enough.  They’re where my heart is.  When I check those two boxes every day, I feel good when I go to sleep at night.  Even when I’m stressed out or overwhelmed or unsure of what to do next.  And on the flip side, when I’ve gone through moments in my career without those, I’ve lost motivation. 

When I started thinking about this post, I thought that my answer was going to be: I can’t tell you what motivates you. 

But, actually, I think I can. 

Find work that’s challenging and that matters.  To you, not to anybody else.  Look deeply into your heart and your gut and if you don’t like what you’re doing, then change something.  And then change something else.  Keep going until your vision is crystal clear.

It doesn’t mean everything will be easy.  In fact, it probably means the exact opposite.  You will work harder if you approach your career this way, but it will be because you want to.  It will be for yourself (even if you aren’t the boss).  You will be choosing it because it matters to you. 

Almost six years ago, I ran a marathon, and I used to joke that the secret to marathon training was this: You get to the point where you want to stop running.  And then you just keep running.  And pretty soon, you’ll have run a marathon. 

But I think I was a little bit wrong.  Sure, that was part of it.  You can’t run a marathon if you stop after a few miles.  You have to keep running.

And yet it was more than that.  I came across a moment in life when I wanted to run a marathon, and I chose to run a marathon.  The motivation to keep running was completely secondary: the choice was to run the marathon in the first place.  After I made that choice, all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.

In a lot of ways, running that marathon was the best piece of life training I’ve ever gotten. 

And I think it’s also the best advice I can give.  Commit to your career like you’re choosing to run a marathon.  Turn left or right, slow down, ice your knees, hobble along, sprint for a little while and then crawl if you have to.  But just keep running.

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Photo credit: Kate Robinson



Tags: life · work



26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 marissa // May 7, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    You shine in this post.  Couldn’t agree more as an internist!

  • 2 irene // May 7, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    Wow! So true! I couldn’t have said this better.

  • 3 Stephanie // May 8, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Such a solid and inspiring post!

    Thank you for sharing!

    Stephanie
    http://ishowedupinboots.com

  • 4 Liz // May 9, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I hope you continue to write more career posts. As a really type-A 20-something, seeing career advice/reflections from other women is really really helpful to me (and I’m sure so many other people).

  • 5 Adeline // May 18, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Thanks so much for this – fantastic advice! It’s such a relief to hear that you also went through those doubts. As the other posters said this is a really inspiring post, I love hearing your take on those career topics!

  • 6 one more thing… | Sugarlaws // May 18, 2015 at 11:20 am

    […] ← career: find something challenging that matters. […]

  • 7 yet one more factor… | TiaMart Blog // May 18, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    […] guys a lot on your fantastic responses to my most recent career post.  I talked about find out how to discover mid-profession motivation if you’re at a […]

  • 8 one more thing… | Shopping.xcuz.me // May 18, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    […] you guys so much for your wonderful responses to my most recent career post.  I talked about how to find mid-career motivation when you’re at a crossroads, and it […]

  • 9 Jacob // May 26, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Find something challenging that matters>> you…nice one!

  • 10 the shape of things to come… | Sugarlaws // Dec 27, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    […] ago, I wrote an essay in response to a reader question about my career.  My advice was simple: Find something challenging that matters.  Since then, I’ve thought about how that applies to other areas of my life, and the one […]

  • 11 the shape of things to come… | Shopping.xcuz.me // Dec 27, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    […] ago, I wrote an essay in response to a reader question about my career.  My advice was simple: Find something challenging that matters.  Since then, I’ve thought about how that applies to other areas of my life, and the one […]

  • 12 the shape of things to come… | Dating Galz // Jan 15, 2016 at 8:19 pm

    […] ago, I wrote an essay in response to a reader question about my career.  My advice was simple: Find something challenging that matters.  Since then, I’ve thought about how that applies to other areas of my life, and the one that I […]

  • 13 Runabees // Mar 12, 2016 at 3:07 am

    You are totally right. Looking inside you and finding something that really matters to you and is also challenging makes all the difference!

    Committing to run a full marathon also rings a bell. For me, committing to my first marathon was the most challenging, yet fulling experience to date. It was hard. I committed to run every day for 6 months no matter what and I kept this promise. Now I know that I can achieve anything I set my mind to

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