Picture this. You’re new to the organization and you’re asked to collect thoughts from employees to promote your company to potential hires. So, you stroll through the office and ask colleagues what inspires and motivates them at work, what gets them out of bed in the morning. You’re thinking people will say things like, “My team! I love the people I work with!” or, “The challenge. I’m always learning,” or at least, “We have our good days, we have our bad, but we overcome.” Instead, you’re met with blank looks. Some say, “Ask me later.” Others say, “You don’t want me answering that question.” One even pretends to get an incoming call.
Unbelievable? This scenario took place in two different organizations in two different sectors where I was asked to gather feedback, and both times, I found myself scratching my head. How could such successful professionals be so miserable? What was wrong? Was it the environment? Life circumstances? Attitude? What were they not getting from work that they needed?
These questions and experiences made such an impact that I wrote a book, Get Happy Dammit: Staying Inspired and Motivated in an Often-Unhappy World. Published in June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest, the book is filled with little stories like these, along with tips, exercises and short creative pieces.
Why did I bother with a book and get it published during such a trying period? First, I have a passion for writing. Second, if I can help others by using my passion, everyone wins. Third, by telling the world my truth, I was able to celebrate myself, my life and the people who have helped me along the way. But the book became even more than that for me.
Examining the core
Once the book came out, I did something I rarely do after publishing – I went back and reread the chapters. Mostly I did this to prep for a discussion group I was co-facilitating, but in reexamining what I’d written, I realized that not only had I addressed some barriers to staying inspired and motivated, two ingredients for happiness in life, but also, I had uncovered what really made me happy at work, beyond a good salary and benefits.
The chapter “Rediscovering Your Core” is all about core values, looking at personal beliefs and who we are or want to be based on those beliefs. Wrapped into these beliefs are things we think we need – core needs. I recognized that for many people, myself included, work can become an exercise in negativity if we are unable to have one or more core needs met. Beyond receiving a living wage, many of us need the ability to do the following:
Follow those passions – After reading the chapter again, I remembered that one of my core beliefs is rooted in needing to spend time wisely, the assumption being that we have a limited number of hours on the planet. If I want to spend my time wisely, I need to be able to exercise my passion at work, the place where I spend most of my time. This means, first, I must know what I’m passionate about (for me, it’s writing, learning and helping people). Second, I must find ways to put that passion to use in the workplace. Accomplishing all three is good for me and the organization. Why? When we have opportunity to do what drives us, work provides personal fulfillment. We are inspired and motivated, and we work harder. This creates a positive spiral leading to greater success and feelings of happiness.
Align with the mission – For most people, there is no substitute for holding a sense of purpose, and that purpose is also linked to core values and what we believe our higher purpose is. (At a high level for me, that means making the world a better place.) If we can connect that purpose to our work and organizational mission, we are motivated to excel. When the mission holds personal meaning, we can make a more positive impact on colleagues, the community and the world. We can go far in our careers and truly be able to make a difference.
Celebrate authenticity – This, too, is linked to core values. Like many others, I value the opportunity to be myself and show the world who I really am. (“I gotta be me.”) This is crucial because, while there must be a set of ground rules to keep an organization running, if we can’t be ourselves at work, we’ll spend our days being uncomfortable, and that gets in the way of communication, productivity and happiness.
These three core needs overlap and start to blend as they are met. For example, if we can follow our passions, we work harder, which helps meet the mission. If we can practice authenticity, we can better articulate our passions and use our talents to help make a meaningful impact through the organization. This also helps us meet the mission and gives us a deeper sense of purpose.
I’ve been fortunate to have all three of these core needs met at work. I flourish in a positive environment where I can exercise my passions for writing. I help the people I work with reach important goals that impact the organization, the community and the world. I’m consistently inspired and motivated to create, improve and grow, and I’m encouraged to be who I am. And that makes me happy.
Not everything we do at work will be motivating or inspiring, and it can take a lot of energy to get where we want to be mentally, emotionally and professionally. But that does not mean we should settle for being chronically unhappy. The key is to keep thinking about what motivates and inspires us and how we can get our core needs met. Keep sorting through the complexities and exploring new ways of looking at things. Then when someone asks, “Why do you do what you do at work?” you can smile and say, “I’d be happy to tell you.”
Copyright 2020, Katherine Gotthardt, M.Ed.