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Why finding your “why” at work changes your life

26 April, 2021

As I’m writing this, I’m now almost 40 years old and in my third career. Looking back, each one has been a key stepping stone to helping me find out what I want to do with my life. When I was younger, I was fortunate enough to go to university in the UK, however at 18 years old, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I focused on what I was good at and what I enjoyed – art and design. This led to an early career in graphic design. It was exciting – I got paid to create things and make them look good. Three years into this career, I kept hearing an internal voice ask the question, ‘Is this all there is?’ ‘is this how you want to spend your life?’ Something I’d never really asked myself before. I didn’t take notice straight away, and I dismissed it if I’m honest; I mean, “who was I to think I needed more?” I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

This voice didn’t go away, and I didn’t know my ‘why,’ so I started to mix things up a bit by creating my art – even to the point of exhibiting and volunteering for a children’s charity. These non-work hobbies helped and filled my time with things I enjoyed, but ultimately I was feeling stuck in life, and I started to feel low even to the point of seeking medical advice for depression. I felt ashamed to feel this way because I had accomplished so much. I had support and encouragement from my parents. I had no reason to feel this bad. I honestly believe the doctor I saw that day started the transformation in my life. Instead of prescribing me drugs, he gave me a book on meditation – he could tell I wasn’t medically depressed; I was sad and lost. I had never heard of meditation, but I always wanted to please and was ready to change something; I gave it a go.

Meditation allowed me to slow down and acknowledge my inner thoughts and start giving myself the time to answer the questions. I didn’t have all the answers, but I had a sense of calm and this calmness helped me be open to other possibilities of what I could do with my life, and I started to get curious.

I took an evening course at a local college to see if teaching was something I could do. I was completely outside my comfort zone, I felt nauseous every time I had to stand up and say something, but I was starting to feel happier. Going back to university to get my PGCE was a bold move. I quit my design job and chose to go into teaching design and technology. (I didn’t know it at the time; I was following the enrichment model. Utilising the skills and perspectives gained in one role in another – I had design knowledge and experience from working with the children’s charity which made it easier for me to teach and connect with young people.) The PGCE was hard. I remember repeatedly failing the essay assignments, constantly feeling nauseous before teaching a lesson, and sometimes completely intimidated by the 16-year-old sat in front of me! During my 9-year teaching career, I took on additional roles; research essays, leadership & development training, facilitating adult training, and teaching teachers, but I spent most of my days in the DT workshop. My days started to feel repetitive, and I started to hear that internal voice again, “Is this all there is?”

I started to question my ‘why’ again. I let this unanswered question stay with me until reaching burnout. You see, burnout isn’t about being overworked; it’s a consequence of prolonged stress at work where you reach a point of exhaustion. You start to lose enjoyment and fulfillment with your work and question your own ability to do the job well. The stress of feeling disconnected from my ‘why’ and not knowing what to do next was taking its toll. I was crying daily without really knowing what was wrong. Getting out of bed in the morning was the hardest part of the day. Everything I ate triggered bloating. Alongside this, I was constantly feeling tired, hopeless, and lost.

This time around, I went to a health coach instead of a GP. I knew I wasn’t depressed, and I needed to figure out what was next for my life with someone else’s support because how I was feeling was stopping me from doing anything about it. This time there was a lot more to ‘lose,’ and I wanted to take my time and talk to a professional about what I could do next. The side effects of burnout are low self-esteem, low confidence, and a lack of zest for life.

First, I focused on resetting my non-work life, especially putting the basics back in place such as diet, exercise, and taking the time to journal and talk about my thoughts with my coach. The results positivity spilled over into my work life; I had more energy, felt more positive, and was more productive. It also helped me gain clarity on my values and priorities, and I was able to start setting some work and non-work goals which helped me feel excited and hopeful about life again. These were the first transitional steps I took towards transforming almost every aspect of my life.

It took a good 18 months to feel like myself again; at this point, I was the happiest and healthiest I’d ever been, and life looked completely different. I even looked different! I decided it was time to take another bold move and left my teaching career. This time I wasn’t entirely sure what my next career would be, but that didn’t matter. You see, I changed my definition of happiness and success. I had broken my cycle of career equals success and happiness. I finally answered my question, “Is this all there is?” I finally had clarity on my ‘why.’

Seven years on, I can still say my work doesn’t define me; I enjoy the work I do, it aligns with what’s important to me, I work hard, use my strengths and prioritise living life. I live with much more curiosity, possibility, and the resilience to keep going. No matter what comes up, I have my internal compass set, and the internal voice now asks, “is ‘this’ aligned with your why?” The answer is easy – yes or no. It’s not that life is easy now, and there are still many ups and downs, but I always have hope and a positive outlook compared to the hopeless, lost feeling I had before.

Knowing my why has made life more interesting; even during the mundane, it keeps me focused and a life fuelled with purpose and meaning.

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