A joyful career starts with your expectations about work.

What are your expectations about work? Have you ever thought about that?

An expectation is a firm belief that something will happen. Unmet expectations—or any version of something going differently than how we anticipated—lead to frustration.

Sometimes it’s not really our circumstances that cause us to feel unfulfilled. Instead, it is how we react—or what we had set ourselves up to expect—that matters most to us. You’ve heard it said that nobody can hurt your feelings unless you let them. If you don’t like your results, change your responses. It’s not just a cliché. It really is possible.

A lesson on perspective from Victor Frankl

Consider Viktor Frankl and his courage and endurance during unthinkable circumstances. A survivor of the Holocaust, Frankl was a prisoner at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He experienced the squalor and terror of the death camp, where people around him died in gas chambers. Frankl later recounted in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, how he and his fellow captives suffered.

He survived through by placing himself mentally and emotionally beyond his circumstances and focus on something greater. For him, it began with thinking of his wife and his love for her. Frankl wrote that he had learned that love is the highest goal to which a man can aspire.

A lesson we can take from Frankl is that even under the worst conditions, we can choose to respond differently. We can find something in ourselves more powerful than what is happening around us.

In Frankl’s words, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Defining your expectations about work

One way this concept relates to work begins with your thoughts and expectation about work. How do you view work in relation to your worth, your identity, your happiness, or your general fulfillment in life? This is really a multi-part question.

For example:

          Do you define your worth by your work?

          If yes, do you define your worth by whether you have work to do?

          Is your worth tied to a specific type of work?

Do you identify yourself as someone who is committed to working hard to provide for a family?

Is it also important to your identity that you work in a specific field of interest or level of status?

What do you think? What is work to you?

Many people have told me they would only feel fulfilled in certain types of jobs or environments. A few have told me they don’t care what they do, if it gives them certain results. They may desire an opportunity to be creative or the ability to help people. Still others have come to think of work as their core identity—and their view of self-worth. This can become a lot to expect of work.

A job, even a distinguished career, is not who you are. It’s not the sum of your value or the sole variable in your ability to find fulfillment and happiness. Trying to place all that into your career will probably give you the opposite of what you expect. If your expectations about work are unrealistic, disappointment awaits.

You can be a fulfilled person, even if you can never find a job you really like. I’d be happy you find fulfillment no matter what kind of work you do. I want you to also find work that you love doing. I am a coach because I want to help people achieve their goals and get where they want to go. If you desire a certain career that matches your well, I want you to find success in that career.

I also know that there is more than one career possibility for you. And more ways for you to find joy than through work. Other flexible career options are more readily available today. People everywhere are starting side hustles through blogs, online stores and remote freelance projects. Some are doing it for extra money or a chance to ease into a new career. Some are simply doing new things because it brings them joy or fulfillment.

The key is to separate the various aspects of work; and not conflate work with specific jobs or careers. Work, in general, is broader than a job. It can also be something you do for someone else or something you do solely for yourself.

Work is not always something we think of when we think about joy. The word “work” is often associated with the things we must do rather than the things we want to do. The absence of work, however, can severely threaten our ability to experience joy. Having access to work brings feelings of security and accomplishment. It is just as often associated with our ability to purchase necessities. If our family has work, then we can have the things we need to survive.

You may not have allowed yourself time to give much thought to your expectations about work. You are more likely to just think of it as something most people in society do. I venture that most of your thoughts about work are focused on particular jobs and not your lifelong vocation or calling.

But it really is worth pondering what you think about work.. How do you view work? Is it a blessing? A curse? Something in between? How are you best able to serve others through work?

Your answers to those questions may direct how you would answer questions like these: Is all work valuable? If so, what makes work valuable? Is all work pleasant or unpleasant? If money were not a factor, would you work?

I believe that all work is valuable, but I didn’t always feel that way. It’s not that I felt the opposite; it’s more that I had not given it thought. My perspective broadened when I took the time to consider what I thought about why work exists. I believe that work is God given, just like the talents we each have. Work gives our lives meaning and structure, and that is true of any type of work.

How you view work may be different from my view. I am sure that knowing what you think about work will give you greater focus. Armed with an understanding of your belief about work, you can get clear about what you really want.

If all your focus and expectations about work center on specific jobs or careers, your circumstances may limit you. If, however, you have a sense of your calling and a compatible vocation, you’ll have more freedom to vet a broader array of career possibilities.

Knowing what you expect from work is a good first step to understanding how to build a joyful career.

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