Be The Change by Katie Papazian
This is the story of how I totally, completely sold out.
I spent the first eight years of my career working in the nonprofit sector. If I had a dollar for every person who said to me during that time, “Oh, you must feel so great going home at night knowing you did something good for the world,” I would have had enough money to supplement my nonprofit salary to match those of my for-profit friends. I loved my job – I worked with insanely smart people, and I got to work in an arts-influenced workplace where I got to throw around terms like “creative placemaking,” which meant a lot to me as a lifelong arts enthusiast and advocate for all things creative. And, I did feel good about the end state of what my work would ultimately become. But I didn’t feel great at night. I felt restless and confused.
The problem? I couldn’t connect to the work. It wasn’t meaningful to me.
Working adults today are pretty lucky. “Work” today is seen not just as your source of security, filling those bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but also as a source of energy, self-expression and yes, perhaps even joy. As an article from Forbes states, “The privilege of expecting your work to be fulfilling, or even a source of happiness is a very recent phenomenon.”
This is great, right? Yes, and it’s unbelievably daunting. The task of finding fulfilling work, meshing your innate and learned skills with your personal passions into something that will actually pay you is no small feat. This truth is so often echoed in Chapter Be interviews…people who worked their butts off, learning hard lessons along the way all while reflecting and then reflecting some more. Unless you’re super lucky, the work required of an individual to find his or her fit unfortunately can’t really be skipped over.
Landing in the work you love is usually a story of making a change. When we think about change, we usually think about moving to a new geography, taking risks, starting a new business or going back to school. But I also want to highlight another important element – changing your mindset.
I realized the importance of your mindset at a conference in 2011 during a panel made up of prominent nonprofit leaders. Each told an extremely personal story about how he or she ended up as a leader. One said, “If you think this work is about drinking a latte and being a hero, you better check yourself.” Inexplicably I started to tear up. For them, this work connected to their personal truth. For me, I was just faking it because it’s what I thought I “should” be doing.
Of course I had no idea what I wanted to be doing. That conference in 2011 started a long process (that looked like this!) leading me to today. I am an organizational development consultant for a huge global (for profit) consulting and technology firm, aka a total corporate sellout. But I can say with the utmost sincerity that I have had the most meaningful and fulfilling professional experiences in the last two years than I did the previous eight. I’ve found total happiness and flow while working on spreadsheets and sitting at a conference table chatting with accountants or bus drivers; a far cry from pondering creative placemaking.
If my future self zoomed back in time to tell my nonprofit self this, nonprofit self probably would have gasped in horror. Never would nonprofit self’s mindset have allowed her to associate the words “accounting” with the words “passion” or “purpose”.
When we cross-reference the journeys of people who are on the second (or third, maybe even fourth) phases of their careers, you’ll find many parallels. What I would like to call out is an often unnamed action, which is examining how you think about work.
Maybe it’s necessary to make a significant career pivot. I did, and may need to again in the future. But it’s worth exploring your unconscious notions of “work” first. The right path might not be what was expected, or could possibly be the job you already have. Expectations and mindset have a lot to do with how close we are to feeling fulfilled at work. Research shows time and again that the key to workplace motivation is finding meaningful work. In my case, I found that the first step in a “meaningful” direction was clearing some mental cobwebs, challenging my way of thinking and pushing old assumptions out of the way.
How to do this? Here are two tidbits I’ve picked up:
Check out your mental categories, or what psychologists call schemas. Our unconscious thought patterns help us make sense of the world. They move us through life but are worthy of examination as adults when they become their most rigid. In graduate school I was lucky to study Ellen Langer’s work on mindfulness. She writes, “When we make new categories in a mindful way, we pay attention to the situation and the context.” Figuring out what “buckets” we put the elements of our working worlds into can help us re-categorize based on the real situation and context, not what’s in our heads.
For me, nonprofit = good and corporations = bad. It took eight years and a panel of experts for me to realize that this is not really true. Categories are cultural, familial and personal. Consider HSBC’s “Different Points of Value” ad campaign, as a good example of this.
Further, when you break down a sweeping generalization about the work you do (i.e. I’m a teacher) into smaller categories or labels (i.e. I develop curriculum by studying child development, complete administrative work on behalf of my school, coach parents, and lead presentations and activities for 30 children for seven hours each day), it becomes a lot harder to say “I hate my job!” by forcing you to see it for what it really is. Which leads to…
Check out your “all or nothing” reflex. I am an optimist when it comes to the concept of flourishing at work, but I still find it helpful to remind myself that nothing is going to be perfect all of the time. I use is 70/30 rule – if I’m happy with 70% of my job but detest 30%, I’m doing great. Maybe that ratio doesn’t work for you (80/20? 60/40?) but I find going 100/0 or even 90/10 is a good way to set yourself up for imminent failure via disappointment.
And weighing elements definitely matters. It’s far more important to me to work on a great team of people than having to do a few grunt tasks every day. What can be helpful is applying this not only to what you’re doing but who you’re doing it with. Ruling out an entire industry because of a personnel archetype could lead to missing an unseen opportunity. I found more happiness working with accountants than artists, with auditors than social justice advocates. I never could have predicted that.
Risking an Oprah-ism, change starts from within. But maybe we get more creative about what that inner work looks like. Maybe instead of making change, we become the change.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Papazian is a New York City-based organizational development consultant, specializing in helping organizations manage large-scale change, develop leaders, improve culture and align human resources with business strategies. Her specific interests include employee engagement and improving the employee experience. Prior to working as a consultant, Katie worked as a grantmaker for a private foundation managing grants to nonprofit organizations in the arts, media and social services. Outside of work, Katie loves travel, her friends and family, yoga and dance.