Career fulfillment is not just a personal aspiration; it’s a condition that affects our relationships with family and friends. And vice versa; our loved ones’ success or failure in career fulfillment can influence our own lives. For years, my wife Deborah was the wildly successful Britney Spears of career fulfillment, and I was the Kevin Federline. [“No! Not Britney Spears!” she says.] For more than 20 years, she has known what she wanted to do in life – counseling others – and has sought and found opportunities to thrive in the field. I can say not just with spousal pride but also with lots of evidence of her successes that she is extremely gifted and effective. And with a clarity developed over years of work in career counseling, she reports that her level of career satisfaction stands at about 95 percent.
95 percent! Now, career fulfillment is a lot like romantic love. They are both states of excitement and contentment, highly sought after, and therefore sometimes over-idealized. Perfect employment, like the perfect relationship, is imagined as a perpetual state of effortless bliss, when in reality perfection is unattainable and even mere sublimity demands constant exertion and attention. And, as with love, sometimes we want career fulfillment so badly – especially when we see others close to us enjoying it – that we fool ourselves into thinking we have it.
So it was for me as I struggled to find my place as a practicing attorney. I felt a kind of benign envy as I watched Deborah take on and conquer a string of challenging counseling positions, always expanding the scope of her talent and responsibility and expanding her roster of satisfied clientele. Her success was not the reason I had such trouble finding my own proper path towards career fulfillment – that had more to do with the lessons I learned from my parents – but it certainly made me more inclined to pretend that I had found it. Even to myself. When you’re standing next to a star, you don’t want to admit you’re a dim bulb.
Still, sometimes it just takes a shift in perspective to change a rival into an example. Although for years I tried to convince myself, my wife, and the rest of the world that I was just as satisfied with my career as she was with hers, once I began to question that stance I looked to her to help me get a clearer sense of what real career satisfaction feels like. She never struggled with keeping her attention on her day-to-day responsibilities. She never questioned whether or not her work was actually doing a service to the world. Because I felt it was right for her to enjoy such niceties in her work, I was eventually able to give myself permission to seek them in my own.
The people we are closest to can – should – have the most influence on us. It’s up to us to choose the most positive routes for such influence.