Focus on What Matters the Most to You

I spent a good chunk of my summer travelling the country, speaking about work and how to make it fit with the rest of life in ways that are good both for companies and the people employed by them. I talked to thousands of people. I listened closely to the pulse of American business. There’s much pain. Too many people feel overwhelmed, disconnected, pessimistic, and without purpose other than mere survival. Demand for change is surely the order of the day.

As I step into my 25th year teaching at the Wharton School, I’m struck by how much about the world of work is not the same as it was when I started. For instance, it used to be that the sun’s relationship to the earth was what determined when you worked and when you didn’t. Thanks to the revolution in digital technology, this is no longer true for most people I meet. It’s now up to each one of us to decide when to turn it on and when to turn it off. New tools promise freedom from time and space, but it’s just dawning on most of us that we need to learn new psychological and social technologies, too, to avoid drowning in the deluge of non-stop pressures that come at us through the tethers we call iPhone and Blackberry.

People entering the workforce in 2008 want different things from what my generation wanted on arrival. Since I started at Wharton, I’ve been occasionally asking students this: How many of you plan to work in the same company when you retire as when you graduate? About two-thirds responded affirmatively way back when. But only two in a recent class of 65 said this was their plan; both were heirs to major fortunes.

How do we now define success? It’s more likely to be about leaving a lighter footprint than about piling up more toys, more about living a rich and full life than about beating up the other guy. Peace, love, and understanding aren’t so funny anymore–they’re legitimate aspirations people want to pursue through meaningful work. Greed and competition were ’80’s cool. Green and collaboration are ’08’s cool.

The good news is that some employers have learned that people perform better in their jobs when they are doing what they believe matters to the world in some way and they have a hand in figuring out how to get it done. The more of your life you can bring into your work–and the more you feel you can contribute to people and projects you really care about–the happier and more productive at work you’re likely to be.

What I’ve learned boils down to this: In work, as in love, you’ve got to follow your heart.
These words are so easy for an old geezer to say, but so hard for most people to enact. My research shows, however, that there are a few simple principles that can help. Be real, by acting with authenticity and clarifying what’s important; be whole, by acting with integrity and respecting all aspects of life; and be innovative, by acting with creativity and experimenting with what you do and how you do it. More good news: Anyone can get better at bringing these principles to life and so perform better in all parts of their lives. You just have to make the effort to learn and then enlist others to push and encourage you.

These are hard times. So it’s more important than ever to focus on what matters most. Doing so increases the chances that you’ll come through with both your soul and your wallet holding something of value. You’ll be spending your precious time more intelligently–better aligned with your personal values, using more of your natural talents to pursue goals to which you’re genuinely committed.

As we in the U.S. celebrate Labor Day, and as we take a moment to reflect on the work of our lives, ask whether and how your work makes sense in the bigger picture of your life, your world. If it doesn’t, take one small step toward making it so. Make a move that doesn’t require permission and that aims to make things better not just for you but for people around you at work, at home, and in your community. I’ll bet that if you do you’ll feel better, you’ll perform better according to the standards of people who evaluate you, and–especially in 2008, this year of great hope for substantive change–you’ll find others who want to help you go further.

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