While I was speaking at Harvard Business School last Sunday, I was asked to give the some advice on career planning to the many students in the room. My advice, in essence, was to pay close attention to the skills you enjoy doing every day, and then find a way to use them more often – ideally in a field or for an organization that means a lot to you. As I talked about the long-term value of finding joy in your work, I could sense some cynicism in the room.
There was, I’m sure, some internal snickering. Joy is certainly not one of the traditional values espoused by most graduate programs. I would have been snickering myself, had someone given me that advice in law school. I was cynical about the potential overlap of work and happiness for years. I thought of work as something to do so that I could afford what made me happy.
After two career turns and extensive research into alternative careers for lawyers, much of which is reflected in Life After Law, I now believe that happiness at work is vital to long-term health and happiness. That includes the health and happiness of your family members, who suffer or thrive in proportion to your own joy. Disliking your work and your colleagues, conversely, can lead to cynicism, incivility, and soul-crushing boredom. And if we reserve happiness for our off-hours, what happens as those off-hours diminish? The omnipresence of email accessibility means that it’s harder to have true off-hours than ever before, which is another reason why happiness at work is so important.
More people are recognizing that joy plays a vital role in a smart career strategy (not that I initially had one). Alison Rimm wrote a wonderful column for the Harvard Business Review recently explaining that joy at work is a right, and that paying attention to how often you are happy has significant advantages.
Even so, we do not pay enough attention to joy as a career strategy. Paying close attention to what had made me happy was the key to my first great career move. Realizing that using those skills didn’t make me happy in my next job, due to a number of other factors, impelled me toward my current work as a writer and business law professor, which I love.
Finding work you love may or may not coincide with finding the highest-paying work you can do, a message that may not sit well at first with students or recent graduates facing a mountain of loans to repay. But paying attention to your own joy levels can help keep you on a sensible and sustainable career track that will let you build a good life over time.