Find Your Happy Work
To find your Ideal Work you will want to find the Intersection of 3 things: Love, Skills, and Market.
Here’s this “Holy Trinity” of Work Happiness as a graphic:
Without The Three Legs
People often make the mistake of taking an outside-in approach: for example seeing that there is a market for something in the world, and they have or can acquire a certain skill for it, and therefore think it’s what they should do. It’s logical but it doesn’t work over time. We are not machines that can be forced to do things forever. One way this inharmonious approach can happen is when we think an object—in this case more money—will make us happy, so we start with the object (more money) and work backwards. But when in harmony with ourselves at a deep level, life evolves naturally from inside-out.
Without the three legs of love, skills, and market, what happens? The stability isn’t there. I’ll show examples from my own life. I’ve been self-employed for over 25 years and have been on a journey of discovery.
Skills are what is acquired. Love and talent are what is innate.
Why did I not include “talent” in my formulation? For several reasons (I’ll use the example of art-making since I have experience with that field and the word “talent” is often used there):
1. Talent is closely tied to skill. A talent for something is a deep-seated “bent” that makes it easier to express and acquire skills in a certain direction. For example we may be born “wired” for making art more than some other people. However I have observed that it’s not necessary for success as an artist, because one can acquire enough skills if there are the other two legs of love and a market (and how good or bad one’s art is is always up for debate but is irrelevant to how happy and successful one is doing it in this culture). And, we can still acquire skills in an area if we have a love and motivation. Most importantly, I’ve also observed that people use the concept of talent to limit themselves. They will try something they are interested in, such as fine art painting, find it very difficult, look at what they did and judge that it’s not very good, and based on that criticism conclude they have “no talent” (even though they are relative beginners), and give up before acquiring adequate skills and confidence. On the other side of the same coin, I’ve seen people with little talent at drawing for example, become very successful painters, firstly because they were able to bypass the need to draw detailed renderings, and secondly they had great drive and love for painting, and a market for their work. Likewise, extremely talented artists—those who seemed to be born with a knack for it such that acquiring new skills and making good art came easily—sometimes give up because they didn’t find a market, were not self-promoters, lacked confidence, and found other means of making a living. Also, countless times I’ve seen someone who has been doing art since childhood and developed great skills such that their art-making seems effortless called “very talented”. So who is to say where “talent” leaves off and “skill” begins? These are the reasons the concept of talent has limited usefulness, and it’s more useful to talk about skill.
1. Only Love and Skill:
If you have love for a subject and skill for it, you might have some great output to show for your time, but of course you’ll have a hard time making a living.
Example: I loved making art, and thought I could have a career as a painter. I took to it like a sponge, gained lots of skill fast, and made some great abstract and realists paintings during this time, but didn’t have a market (wrong city in part) or a marketing bent or drive or interest in self-promotion. Thus I only sold a few pieces over the years. I wasn’t making a steady living at it and relied on my computer consulting and other means (but I have some nice paintings for my home! No regrets).
I also tried my hand at photorealist painting because I thought realism would be more marketable, and I was fascinated by the examples I saw, and wanted to have great realism as a tool under my belt. I got very good at it, and learned how to be extremely focused (which served me later as a programmer) but it was extremely arduous to construct these artworks, and time-consuming, such that I ran out of time, lost my studio, and had to find another way of making a living. I still loved many aspects of it, such as the creative ideas that flowed, the energy of being inspired, the visual emphasis, and the right-brain holistic perception experience, and the interesting people I met, and so forth.
At one point I tried deliberately making more marketable art (for eBay)—a more commercial and decorative product—but it quickly started to feel forced, and just didn’t work for me. I thought I” might as well go into real estate or banking, which paid better, if I was going to work this hard and didn’t like what I was doing!” (I started doing web design and development). In short I had the skill and market but no love for commercial painting, which brings us to the next:
2. Only Skill and Market:
If you have some some skill in a field, and a market, but little or no love, you can make a living for a while, but you will be heading for burnout, frustration, stress and struggle. This is not sustainable, or if sustainable, leads to health problems (mental and physical), addictions and dis-ease and stress on relationships. It’s not a happy situation and often affects the quality and/or speed of the work, which in turn affects the client’s feelings and your ability to make a living.
Unfortunately a lot of the world works this way, and our intellectually-oriented schooling and career testing feeds the underlying misunderstanding and the misuse of the mind and body.
Example: I did web development and app software programming for a few years. I had some skill with computers, and had been involved with programming as a hobby and occasionally built websites for clients over the years. There was also an obvious market for software development, and I was able to find clients and work. However I didn’t have a true love for the subject: it was fun at times but it often felt like a struggle to keep on-task and focused enough, and I was never fast enough. Programmers with a real love for the subject were running circles around me. I felt a little like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. Although I could solve problems, find creative solutions, play the part, and make some sales, it was not an inside-out, grounded way to work and live. And I wasn’t fooling myself: at some level I knew it wasn’t quite right. It was stressful, extremely time-consuming, and not leaving time for my other interests and loves. There was always a certain level of doubt and anxiety, and the struggle of pushing my mind towards the solutions of problems without total confidence I was in the right field. And then there was the constant need, as a developer, to learn and keep up with an extremely rapidly changing, expanding, and complex technical field, at the same time as trying to reach deadlines. It was a lifestyle I wasn’t interested in living.
I burned out on this lifestyle, not being able to meet timelines I’d set for projects with myself and clients, running out of money, and realized I had to do something different.
3. Only Love and Market:
If you have love for a type of activity, and there is a market for it, but you lack skill, you will run into a situation of not being able to keep an employer happy, nor offer quality work to clients, and you will lose clients or not be able to find customers or clients in the first place. The good news is you may be able to gain the skills.
An example I can think of from my life is a couple decades ago, in the early days of personal computers, I was fascinated by electronics and digital computers since childhood, and felt I had a pretty good general understanding of them, plus there was a market for consultants. So fresh out of college, after the newspaper I was writing for folded, I threw myself into computer consulting, confident that I could solve problems with my general computer and thinking and problem-solving skills, and ability to talk to people. Well, some clients quickly figured out I didn’t already have the knowledge, and I realized I was stressing to find solutions too fast, when I was expected to already know them. I didn’t know as much as I thought: one really does need highly detailed and specific knowledge and can’t just fly by the seat of the paints in such a highly technical field, relying on general understanding (it seems obvious now, but I was young then!). I did eventually gain enough skills in a particular area of computer consulting, after I’d spent a lot of time working with Apple Macintosh computers (I loved Apple’s design and philosophy). I did Mac consulting for about 20 years years, while writing and making art on the side. But in the long run my love for the technical work wasn’t deep enough, and my marketing interest was limited, and my other loves, such as writing, making inventions, art, community gardening involvement, doing research, the spiritual and philosophy search, etc. was taking too much time away from business, so it was not a sustainable career path.
All Three, To Some Degree:
The resolution for me was to find and develop work where I was able to use my innate ability and love of visual art and design, plus interest and skill in writing, and an interest and background in psychology & philosophy, as well as experience with computers and software, and finding a market in the software field such that I can do relatively satisfying and lucrative work designing and consulting about design. This can involve designing and writing (consulting) on interface designs, doing graphic designs, creating software prototype, writing on usability, writing marketing copy, and occasional photography assignments. It allows me enough time to work on other projects “on the side” unpaid (for now). I also have a love and interest for inventing and philosophizing.
No doubt things will evolve as I explore, do more writing (and photography), and find ever better unfolding and match between my loves, skills and market. Work life grows and is perfected, if you pay attention and give it presence, as part of one’s life journey.
On A Calling
I have called photography a “calling” when people ask about it (I was doing tens of thousands of photos a year), because to me it was (and is) a spiritual practice, a series of Zen moments, and I do it for that intrinsic good, the love and beauty, and sharing if it, not for an external reward (such as money). The same can be said for writing, which I see often is a form of prayer or meditation. I notice a a “one-pointedness” when writing is used to enquire into truth. Whether these become paid vocations (more often, on a steady basis) remains to be seen.
I wasted many years trying to figure all this out intellectually when I was younger. I spent endless hours writing, thinking, brooding, reading books, talking to people, trying to figure it out: who was I? Was I a writer, an artist, a computer guy? Where did I belong? Did I belong anywhere in the economy or did I not fit in at all? Was I too unique or creative to be able to find a happy niche in the economic social order such as it was? I felt like the proverbial round peg trying to fit into a square hole. Part of the error here was not only a certain degree of pessimism, fear, and cynicism learned from others, but thinking too much in terms of a personal identity: as if work was who I was, or who should I become, concerned about what others might think, or self-image, or finding the perfect fit that I was “meant to do” (a misplaced spiritual search for identity). And, over all, making too big a deal out of it: this is one of the things we are programmed with growing up, especially if you come from a competitive and ambitious family of professionals (in my case architects, engineers, entrepreneurs): that we have to become something. It’s taken very seriously and as a given. There would be shame in being ordinary. You have to shine and be seen as above others somehow as extra-ordinary in your achievements. It’s a distortion of reality my the mind. It’s crazy actually. Proving something and showing others is based on insecurity. Here we are, happily living beings: as children we played without stress and without thinking, going from one activity to another seamlessly, absorbed in the love of what we were doing. It was easy. And fun. Then we are told we have to do something with our lives and become something (this whole scenario is a topic in itself).
There is an inherent contradiction almost no one sees: on the one hand we are supposed to have an conviction about and passion and love for what we do – inner qualities – and on the other see ourselves from the outside, such as “successful” in terms of money, acclaim, recognition, career levels and so forth. In a society where we are considered to be a body and a collection of supposed objective facts about who we are (shifting “facts”, especially with instant social media), finding that conviction just isn’t going to happen the way the game is set up. I was fortunate in that I knew something was “off” about the set up, and kept searching searching and searching, willing to sacrifice the outward accouterments, while friends were building careers and families and buying houses (but I noticed they never seemed genuinely happy, content or “there yet”, always heading towards a future, despite appearances attempted).
More Notes on Skills, Love and Marketing
“I know I’m fortunate to live an extraordinary life, and that most people would assume my business success, and the wealth that comes with it, have brought me happiness. But they haven’t; in fact it’s the reverse. I am successful, wealthy and connected because I am happy.” – Richard Branson
Skills and Love are not synonymous: this is often gotten backward. One can acquire great skill and still not enjoy doing something. However if you do have a natural love and bent for something, “like a duck to water” or “falling off a log” as the old saying goes, you can more easily or quickly become highly skillful. Not only will you spend more time on it, but it’s going with the grain of your being. Some people hate writing, and though they can gain skills, they never become good or great writers. I enjoy the process of writing, and do it every day: it feels as natural to me as talking (in fact easier than talking and speaking!): like a nearly direct channel between the mind and page when I’m in the flow. It’s the same with photography: it felt like a calling, and for a few years after a breakup with a longterm partner, found myself doing tens of thousands of photos as a kind of spiritual practice (making the divine manifest).
One of the signs of love is the feeling of joy in action when one is absorbed and free of self-consciousness, in the flow. Love is a feeling natural interest and enthusiasm that cannot be explained. Flow is best found where there is a match between the level of skill and the level of challenge.
However not everything that one has skills at and love is necessarily marketable. A market means people want it and are willing to pay for it.
Often people look at what’s marketable and then try to fit themselves into that. This is a big mistake, and accounts for a great deal of unhappiness and stress in the workplace, and in people’s lives in general.
So if you enjoy poisoning your life with “toxic goals“, you are free to do that, but why not start today creating a happier world of work for yourself, to whatever degree you can?
This is not to say that there will never be aspects of ones work that are relatively boring or routine. That’s just the nature of the material level of existence at times. And, you can get help with those things at some point (for example hire a bookkeeper if you have little love or skill for accounting).
The thing is to be free to do what you love and get paid for it. There are degrees of this: it is not black and white. Engaging with pure love and pure skill and getting paid a great deal, and doing this day in and day out is achieved by very few, but nevertheless there is simply no other way that is real and sustainable. So you must aim at perfecting this “art of work” and dedicate yourself to it. Choose happiness rather than misery.
Start from Where You Are; Know Thyself; It’s Not Intellectual
Forget Myers-Briggs personality tests (though they are fun party talk subjects) and the career tests that try and analyze what categories you fit into. Forget the aptitude and interest tests. There is only one way to know what’s right for you, and that is by doing things, testing where the rubber hits the road and getting the feedback of the world. This feedback includes your own body and mind, and the feelings that are experienced. It includes the feedback of the marketplace and what people are willing to pay for what you do.
This may mean taking jobs (or volunteer) as an experiment, even if you are unsure yet if it’s right for you: this is the whole point: to find out! It’s an adventure! (the worst that can happen is that you are fired or fire yourself, and then “good riddance!”). It can be a paid job, a volunteer job, or even a hobby that could lead to future work. An example from my life was photography: I loved doing it, enjoyed making tens of thousand of photos, and got really good at it: enough that I got paid 4 figures to drive around photographing buildings for a client, using a great camera that was paid for by the work. I got paid to have fun doing what I would do even if not paid!
Do not let fear control your life. Many people stay in unhappy work out of fear of what they imagine will happen if they don’t. They think that they have to do it. They are unwilling to take risks. Our imaginations are very powerful but they are a two-edged sword: we can imagine a rocket that will take humans to the moon (Wernher von Braun did it), and build one, but we are also powerful enough beings such that we can sit in a chair and drive ourselves into stress and insanity from mere thinking. It’s up to you. (I believe some form of meditation or mindfulness training, and spiritual-psychological understanding and insight is key to much of this whole subject, but is too much to go into for this article).
Freedom and independence in general are critical to a self-realized, genuinely happy life. It works like a feedback loop: you need mental freedom enough to pursue independent enquiry into who you are, beyond fear and false beliefs; this will lead to more external freedom unfolding, and in turn allow deeper self-realization.
I wish you Peace, Love & Beauty.