Are leaders who enjoy their work the lucky ones, or do they make better choices?

Human nature is to feel a bit of envy for those who do work they love. The majority of us were taught that work isn’t meant to be fun—it’s supposed to be hard or stressful. In fact, we are meant to feel lucky just to have a well-paying job, regardless of whether we like it or not. Because these standards are so low, we don’t even look for work that would fulfill us. Instead, many just try and win the rat race.

Take the case of “Sarah.” She was Chief Marketing Officer for a Fortune 500 company. She had many years of experience, a loyal staff, and was extremely dedicated – she worked long hours and brought her work home most weekends.

“My boss loves our strong results,” she told me at the time, “but my budgets are squeezed whenever the firm needs to tighten its belt.” She was forced to lay off some of her valuable staff, even as the technology budget was cut repeatedly. “It's not as if I have the money to automate the work of the staff we had to let go.” Despite this pressure to work miracles with dwindling resources, she, like so many senior executives, was being held accountable—and even liable—for every aspect of her organization and its people. She made an excellent business case for resources, and yet her boss repeatedly told her to “suck it up,” “work smarter,” and “do more with less.”

What happens when such a dedicated person with great experience and skill is faced with an impossible situation? She told me at the time: “It’s official: the lunatics are running the asylum.” Sarah was miserable because she had won her rat race and found herself hating working for a rat. Something snapped in a good way: she recognized her situation for what it was and found the strength to face it head on. Indeed, when pain gets bad enough, we become ready and willing to make a change. It is, as people in addiction recovery circles might put it, like hitting bottom.

She updated her resume, put out feelers for Chief Marketing Officer jobs, and landed another one. Now for the bad news: without reflection, changing her priorities, and sticking to higher standards, she replicated many stressful aspects of her situation elsewhere, and was miserable once again.

I asked her what she would choose if she thought she could do anything at all. It took some reflection, as she hadn’t been consciously considering a change. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had always thought she might end up being a travel writer. That’s exactly what she did.

How many people, like Sarah, would leave their jobs tomorrow if they gave themselves permission to pull the trigger on a bad situation?

Many if not most people, according to career coach Robin Ryan: “30 million people go to work every day to jobs they hate.”

Why?

That we have big jobs doing stressful, meaningless work is as simple as this: we find only what we seek. Since we unconsciously comply with the stories we were taught about work (it’s not meant to be fun, and you’re lucky to have a job), we don’t even try to look for work that is both meaningful and satisfying.

Instead, so many of us settle for so much less – sometimes for a year, and many times, for an entire career.

Yet people who do work they find meaningful and satisfying are not the lucky ones. They are more purposeful in what they choose. They realize they need to set different standards for the work they are willing to do and stick to them.

For example, take the case of Jack Taylor, founder of Enterprise Rent-A-Car. He told me in an interview: “Just to give you a little background -- I was a terrible student in school, and I hated school, and Monday morning was always the worst day of the week for me, I knew the teachers were going to go on me, and I wasn’t prepared and so forth. Then I went into the Navy, and when I got out of the Navy, I said ‘When I go into business, when Monday morning comes, I’m going to want to feel good about going to work. I want to go to a place where I enjoy it and where I look forward to it.’”

He continued: “And when I started the business that’s what I said -- I want to get up every morning, and go to work and feel good. I want the people to be happy. I want the customers to be happy, and I want to be happy. What could be worse than getting up on Monday morning and having to go to a place of work that you don’t like it…I mean [expletive deleted] … digging ditches would be better than that.”

It was as simple as that—Jack (he likes to be called by his first name) created a situation for himself and his people that was fun, and stuck with it. At 80-something he is a billionaire, philanthropist, and a warm, funny, kind person. He is truly rich.

In fact, a fulfilling work life is not a luxury or indulgence – those who do work they find meaningful for themselves, those they lead, their families and/or society, are better overall leaders. They work harder, are more productive, creative, and effective, even as they tend to be happier and healthier. And face it: if you would rather work with or for someone who is happy in their professional life, then you have the answer.

Meaningful, interesting work is in the eye of the beholder. I encourage clients to reflect on what they were meant to do (their core purpose for being here), set high standards for work based on their most important values, and dare to stick with it no matter where it takes them. Finally, I ask them not to let nay-sayers rent too much space in their head.

Like those who told Jack Taylor he was crazy to start another car rental company, people are invested—whether consciously or not—in their own professional misery. They will unintentionally try and dampen your dreams too, so your tenacity and courage are required to follow your heart. In a sense, your “hero's journey” as a professional is to align your head and your heart, making your way through the dark forest of conventional expectations and old echoes that tell you work is not meant to be fun.

Holding yourself to higher standards – that is, only choosing work you find meaningful and energizing, whatever that may mean to you -- is simple to understand, yet harder to do. But what a payoff -- by changing what you are willing to accept, you see the professional world through new eyes. Opportunities present themselves not out of some magic, but because you have shifted and sharpened your own ability to perceive new possibilities.

As I said, we find what we seek. You deserve to be in a meaningful, rewarding professional situation. You will achieve it only if you persevere, climbing over the obstacles and setbacks that will come along.

How do you set standards for your new professional life? Consider your own values and aim high!

For example, I have five:

1. My work is in sync with my life purpose.

2. My work is energizing, and makes me say to myself “I can't believe I get paid to do this.”

3. My work is of service to others.

4. My work is financially rewarding.

5. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would continue doing what I'm doing.

Most of us know instinctively that we “should” be able to have work that meets high standards, but comply with what they were taught (e.g., “I'm lucky to have a job, and work isn’t meant to be fun.”)

What will motivate you to make a change and set new standards for your work?

For Sarah, the pain of what she was doing became intolerable. Pain is a great motivator for change. For Jack Taylor, and others like him, they need not “bottom out,” but simply open their mind and heart enough to turn hope for a better future into action.

In my executive coaching practice, I work with leaders who aim high. They make their standards explicit, challenge conventional thinking and doubts (their own and others,) and stick to them tenaciously. They also seek and find help to support them on their journey.

By setting new standards and getting help to stick to them, your own odds for a meaningful, happy and energized professional life become very favorable indeed.

If terrorism, war, and disease have taught us anything about work life in the new millennium, it is that our time here is sacred and uncertain. We have only to wake up to the fact that we have choices about our work, and choose work with meaning.

Author's Bio: 

David Peck is the president of Leadership Unleashed (http://www.leadershipunleashed.com ) a San Francisco-based leadership coaching and management consulting firm that helps individuals, teams, and corporations achieve specific, meaningful, and sustainable results. Sign up to receive free Monday LeaderTips by e-mailing leadertips-subscribe@leadershipunleashed.com.