The Done Right Podcast
Authentic Ambition: What it takes to have a fulfilling career
Welcome to the Done Right podcast. I'm Jordan Staples and over the past decade and a half, I've been studying how people live successful and satisfying lives, both in and outside of work. And here's what I've learned. People in the workforce who are successful and satisfied are the ones that show up, pitch in, and make an impact in their companies. They are the ones who know how to get stuff done but do it right. So our mission for this podcast is to deliver insight and inspiration to fuel the way you show up at work today.
I'm here in Lehi, Utah at work for a headquarters and I'm grateful you are here to join me for today's episode on authentic ambition: what it takes for a fulfilling career.
Now I'm going to just get out of the way that this is not an easy topic. This is not something that is going to happen overnight or as a result of listening to today's episode. But I really think that through some stories and some research, hopefully, we can deliver some level of value that helps you to get on track with having a career that is meaningful to you.
I want to start off with the story about my brother and I. Years and years ago we went on a hike to Thurston peak--it's the highest peak in Davis County, Utah. It sits about nine thousand seven hundred and six feet in elevation. So, my parents' house which was just a few miles away--just to give you some context--they’re at four thousand five hundred feet. That's kind of where the valley is here in Utah. So it's a 5,000-foot climb...like that was a lot of work. But let me just tell you how dumb we were on this hike. He and I, I mean, we’re young and we really think that we can take on really most challenges, but that day we decided to go hiking--early spring so there's still snow on the upper half of these mountains in Utah. And we go, we rent some crampons which are the spikes on your hiking boots, we got some hiking sticks and literally we bought a rotisserie chicken--like a whole chicken--threw it in our backpacks, threw some Gatorade in our backpacks, and we just thought, you know what? We're good, we're good.
We did a little bit of research. We knew that we could get the hike done in about 10 hours: six hours to the peak and about four hours to get back down. Now when you go hiking, I'm not any sort of professional hiker or mountaineer of any sort, but there's this tactic that you use called “turnaround time” where when you're going on a long hike, and especially if you're going to hike to a peak, you decide a time where if you haven't gotten to that peak by that time it's your signal to turn around so that, in our case, we didn't run out of daylight. Now if you're an intense hiker and you're an intense adventurer, things like Everest, this is a life and death decision. Well, we just decided ok, at 2 o'clock--we wanted to make sure we were back by 6 p.m.--so that we didn't have any issues with being out after dark because we knew it would get really cold, and we just didn’t want to take a ton of gear. Like, we literally did not take flashlights on this hike just to give you some context of how intelligent we were that day.
So we go off, we're on this hike, it's absolutely beautiful. I'm out of shape, but it was an amazing hike. And as we're going through this hike going through these canyons we get up to this ridge, and we’re hiking basically along the spine of this ridge that's taking us up to this peak. We're about, I don't know, a good 200-300 yards away. And it was two o'clock and I was absolutely spent. I was just exhausted. But there was no way that he and I were going to turn around. We hadn't gotten up there yet because what we didn't anticipate was how much “trailblazing” we were going to have to do. There was snow and there was ice. There were no marked trails. We were just going up the spine of this thing, it was a lot of steep terrain and it was a bit more intense than we had anticipated and a bit more precarious than we’d planned.
So we were behind schedule. It was two o'clock and it wasn't even a question, we just wanted to keep going; we could see the peak. So this is what you call “summit fever”. This is when hikers become incredibly dumb and they go against their plan and they decide to continue on anyways in spite of all the risk that is there with them pushing past that turnaround time. So, we push on and it takes us another two hours to get to the peak. This is just a few hundred yards away. That's how crazy the terrain is and that's how exhausted we were. I'm not going to say that this was Everest, but it was absolutely gorgeous.
Getting to the peak was very intense. It was like every step for that last 200 yards was this mental battle to just keep on moving. We get to the peak and my brother is doing ok. I'm totally wiped. I'm completely exhausted--a bit frustrated that I didn't turn around earlier--but you know it was satisfying to be there at the top. So we're sitting there pounding down our rotisserie chicken and chugging our Gatorade, and we both knew we were going to be in trouble. We were exhausted and we had a lot left in front of us to get back before dark. We also knew we didn't have flashlights or the winter gear to stay warm. The stakes started to elevate, our blood pressure was starting to get up there. We didn't really spend much time at the peak at all, and we head back down and we're really going down about as fast as we can. Now for all of you hikers, and even for anybody that goes downstairs, you're gonna know this: your thighs are pretty much the muscles that you use--particularly your quads--when you're going downhill. So after some time of going down steep terrain, your muscles become exhausted.
We get about two hours into the descent and we're not even halfway there, and it's dark. And I am exhausted. Like, my legs are jelly. I'm tripping over everything, and we're starting to get a little nervous so we're trying to push harder and go faster, but we couldn't go any faster with how exhausted we were. As we're going down further I hit my wall. We're about a mile away at this point. It is about 8 o'clock at night and I am talking with my brother about what we're going to do because I really can't move. We're sitting there resting and my legs are just spent and basically he's like, “well, I can go down and I can go get some help.” I think my dad was out of town. There's no one around to help. We just didn't want to make a big deal. I was sitting there thinking in my mind if I can't get out of here like my mom can't come to get me. Right? I mean that's kind of ridiculous. Like, my mom and my brother aren’t going to come and carry me out of here; it's going to be search and rescue. It was just that ridiculous.
This is when mentally, brainpower just completely took over. It was like the fear of embarrassment completely drove me to get up on my feet and to keep going. And I'll tell you the last 100 yards, there we were standing at the top of this hill, there were just a few switchbacks before we got to the car. So we're just like 20 minutes away. I literally had to roll down the hill to get to the bottom. It was just that pathetic. We got home and my mom was really upset because we were hours late, it was dark, there was no cell service, and I just passed out on the floor. My mom is freaking out because it looks like I'm going to die. My brother turns on the tub, throws me in the tub and just warms me up, and I'm fine, so nothing crazy--but it was just dumb.
Summit fever in your career:
Here's the thing. I'm telling this story because “summit fever” is exactly what we have when it comes to figuring out our careers; this whole idea of how to have a fulfilling career and how to be successful. Everyone is confused, but we're also fixated on this idea of getting to this place where we're making a lot of money but we absolutely love what we do. How many times have you heard “you've got to follow your passion, you have to do what you're passionate about”? And obviously there’s a whole financial part of this that we're going to talk about today in this episode. But we all have this expectation--and I'm saying all very generously--that we need to make a lot of money and we need to just absolutely love what we do every day for our careers to be good enough. I'm going to challenge that today because I went through the pain of making that assumption and figuring out that that really wasn't the case. I could still get what I wanted out of my career which was money and meaning--like I enjoyed what I did and I felt like it was of value to the world around me.
I don't know how many of you watch career advice TED Talk YouTube videos, but reading through the comments section you're going to get a lot of interesting stories and perspectives. There's a couple that sums up how people wrestle with this whole career thing. Here's two that side on the fulfilling passion part of my career, and I'm not saying this is a bad idea, I just want you to listen because you probably can relate to this like like I did.
So this guy says,
“I'm a gearhead. That is my passion. I'll never be rich, I'll spend my entire life covered in grease, dirt and petroleum products. I'm sore at days end, I'm exhausted and covered in filth every day. But when I start driving home from work, I turn on the metalhead rock and by the end of three blocks, I've got a smile you could see on Google maps. My advice to everyone is to find something that you can do that gives you satisfaction at the end of the day regardless of how you feel or look. Money is great, but happiness..... That is the secret of a lifetime career, and emotional stability. Jobs may blow, bosses may be pricks, but if you can smile about what you have done on your way home, you are in at the very least a halfway decent place. Amazing enough, this also applies to every aspect of your life. Think about it....”
So like, there's some truth there. Like this, this makes sense.
Here's another, this woman says,
“Is wanting success even enough if you don’t love what you do? Aren’t there plenty of successful people who are still unhappy and lack passion? SOO MANY QUESTIONS LOL!! And money isn't enough of a reason for me.”
We all wrestle with this, right? I've wrestled with this for a long time, like all of us. So what's the story here? How does this work?
I want to tell you a little bit about my career story that is essentially summit fever part two. This is not actually summit fever hiking. This is summit fever in the career, and how it played out for me. I'm going to keep this story super quick, but this is how ridiculous trying to achieve the ideal of a lot of money and a lot of passion is, like, how confusing it was to me and some of the silly things that I did.
Early on in college, I did what a lot of people do. I took a few classes to see what I was interested in and tried to find what I was passionate about. I love learning, so I took humanities and biology and history, and I'm loving all of it. I think it's all really interesting. But in the back of my mind I'm like, “ok, what do I know that is going to make me some money, and you know, that matches up to one of these topics? I'm interested in...oh look. Biology. Doctors, I know a lot of doctors, this is great. This seems like a great marriage. Let's get into this.” So I pursued this path toward becoming a doctor. And the further I got into it, the more infatuated I became with the idea of becoming a doctor because the idea of becoming a doctor--in my mind--was going to give me both the financial aspect of my career and the fulfilling aspect of my career: I'm helping people and making a half a million dollars doing it. I wanted to be a surgeon, and that was what I wanted to become. And it was the idea of it.
But here's what's interesting. The further I got into it, I hit this point where I loved the idea. I mean, it sounded so prestigious. When I was talking to family or friends or even dates and you know they want to know more about you and I'm sharing: “I want to become a surgeon. I’m working on getting into medical school, and one of the things I'm doing to get into some of the most prestigious medical schools is working in a cancer research lab trying to improve the methodology for measuring angiogenesis and metastatic tumors.” I mean, that's just like...I don't even know what I just said. But that's how infatuated with the idea I became. So this goes on, this “Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde” dynamic is playing out where it's this love with the idea of financial success and being fulfilled but absolutely hating what I was doing. I was not good at research and in fact, I did not enjoy it. I avoided it and did the bare minimum. The deeper I got into biology and into my major I didn't enjoy it. In fact, to take a break from my schoolwork, I changed my major which was going to add all this work to me graduating. I changed it from biology to psychology because it was gonna be a relief for me. But, I'm still infatuated with this idea.
So this goes on for years. So I go through college, and I get to this point where I'm applying to medical schools, I've taken the MCAT, we're deep into this. And my grandfather sat me down, and he's my hero. He absolutely was a mentor to me, and he knew I was dreading going into medicine. But, one of the values that were instilled in me which I absolutely still believe and ascribe to is that you shouldn't quit things that are hard. You should persist and endure those challenges to get to a positive outcome. So I'm just grinding away at this thing and he knew I was just suffering through it. He knew I was not on a good path. He sits me down, and he asked me a very simple question: “Jordan do you want to go to medical school and become a surgeon?” And I'm sitting there and tears were welling up I told him, “No. I don't. But...Grandpa, what about what my parents are going to say? Like what about all this time Grandpa? This is years that I've been spending so much of my parents' money. They were helping with tuition and the money I was making to pay for living. It's all this investment there, and for me to like leave that? Like what were people going to think? I was going to be behind my buddies who were, you know, getting into their careers, like, I like the idea of that.”
And he just stopped me and he said, “You need to do you. You need to figure out what you want to do. Everyone you are hearing in your head telling you what you should and should not do are not the ones that have to wake up every day for the rest of your life and do the work. It's on you. Own it. Just do you.”
So, grandpa was right, but here's the thing, that message to me that day didn't fully sink in. But, I've been learning that lesson over and over again in my career, and essentially what he was saying to me was, “Jordan, whatever ambition you have, it needs to be your ambition; it needs to be authentic to you.”
So that's what I want to talk about because it took me years even after that conversation to figure out how to do that. I think I've got some stuff that could help us get clarity on what we can do to have authentic ambition. Alright. So first things first, let's talk about ambition. I think that's the idea that we can all wrap our heads around first. Ambition really is this strong desire to achieve some outcome or goal. I'm going to just break our careers down, I'm going to break the ambition that we all have into something really simple. And that is that you and I want some level of financial stability or health. And we also want to not hate what we do; we want to enjoy what we do. Ok. So financial health and fulfillment. That's what we're aspiring to essentially. And if you disagree, that's fine. But I think it captures the general population here. So there's an interesting article and some research that I have seen over the last couple of years, and that is that money can buy happiness.
Let's not fool ourselves. Here's the thing, a large analysis published in the Journal of Nature: Human Behavior used data from the Gallup World Poll--a survey of more than 1.7 million people from 164 countries--to put a price on optimal emotional well-being. (I'm reading from an article from Money magazine.) They identified the optimal emotional well-being happens between $60-70,000 a year. That aligns with some other research that's happened in the past which found that “people are happiest when they make about $75,000 a year.” This does not mean that you are less happy if you make more than $75,000 a year. It means that if you're making $200,000 a year you're not any happier than those that are making $75,000. And this is not a discussion about what the number is.
Financial stability, financial security, and financial freedom:
It makes the point though, that: yes, money does equate to happiness. It is an elitist privileged point of view for you to think otherwise. I know it's kind of me getting all preachy here, but it's just the truth. When we think about having fulfilling careers, the financial piece cannot be excluded from it. So here's what I want you to do, I want you to rate yourself on how much financial health you are looking for.
There are really three levels. There is financial stability, which means that you can make ends meet. You can pay for your bills, you can get by and you don't have any issues in terms of knowing where your next meal is coming from.
Then there is financial security, which is when you can pay your bills and you probably have the ability to build a little bit of a nest egg and to do some investing to grow your wealth.
And then there's there is financial freedom, which means that you are at a place financially where you can do what you want with your money. You have that much discretionary income to live the life that you want. So just decide or identify what level you want to be at. Now I identify with--especially when I was going through school and figuring out my career--I've always wanted to be very well off, so security if not freedom for me.
Having a fulfilling career and a fulfilling life:
Ok so on the other side of that: the fulfillment. Let's think about the scale for having a fulfilling career and a fulfilling life. Let's rate where we want to be on that scale. This is coming out of Penn State. They identified there's really three roads you can go down to have a happy, satisfying life.
1. The Pleasant Life
The first is the pleasant life. The pleasant life is where you are really good at experiencing pleasure. I mean it's pretty straightforward. So yes, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and even mindfulness. But those things that fire off the pleasure center of your brain. That's what we're talking about.
2. The Good Life
Now, the second road to happiness or road of happiness is the good life. And this is where it gets interesting. I don't know how many of you have heard of this concept called flow. If you haven't heard of it, it's fine, it's this psychology term that describes when people are completely absorbed into what they're doing. How many of you have either been in a conversation you've been doing some activity maybe it's video games or, I mean who knows what the activity is, but you've just lost track of time? I think we all can relate to some sort of experience that way. That is “flow”. Here’s some great and super interesting information about flow. But the interesting thing about flow is that it is not escapism. Flow is this state of you applying your signature strengths to the needs in the world around you. We have this thing where it's the opposite of escapism, we are completely and wholly present in the matter in front of us, the challenge that we are facing.
I'm not going to go into all of the deep psychology around it, but here is the possibility of what can happen when you are in flow--essentially fully absorbed into the task that you are doing. When you're fully focused and concentrated, there is this sense of what they call ecstasy. Ecstasy means you have left the everyday reality that you're dealing with because you're so present in the task that you're engaged in. There's great inner clarity. Now listen to this--and this is from the research--there are seven characteristics of what it feels like to be in flow.
Great inner clarity, or knowing what needs to be done, and how well you are doing.
I want you to think about that for a second. What kinds of moments in your life do you have this great inner clarity? Like, you are engaged in something where you know what you need to do and as you're applying that effort you're understanding how well it is or isn't working.
I think of my wife. She likes to cook, and it's this same kind of thing. She knows how to approach baking or making food, and as different things are happening, say that she tastes the food and there's not enough of something in there, she understands what that is. She's got the skill to identify that it needs more salt. I didn't know that in sweets, salt was a really good thing. But she knew that; she's got the skill to taste the food and understand how much of that you need in there. That dynamic of being able to taste something and then correct that, that is this great inner clarity. We love that dynamic playing out in the work that we're doing.
So then the other things are knowing that the activity is doable, so you're kind of getting this theme of confidence.
Then they say this sense of serenity, where you're not worried about yourself but you're just engaged in growing beyond your own boundaries, which is really interesting. We talked about timelessness, when you're totally absorbed and hours seem to pass in minutes. And then they talk about how whatever produces flow--whether that's cooking, or it's art, or it's conversation, or the work that you're doing--becomes its own reward because it's producing this intrinsic motivation. Really interesting stuff, but just think about that.
I was hesitant to use the word ecstasy because it's not that we're trying to go for euphoria, but there is this sweet spot where you are in flow when your skillset or your strengths are meeting a challenge that is pushing you. We love that. That's when we are at our best.
3. The Meaningful Life
The third road to happiness is what we call the meaningful life, or the road of happiness is the meaningful life. And it is where you take your signature strengths, and you apply them to something you believe is bigger than yourself.
So let me break down the differences in the good life and the meaningful life. Both are great. Both are incredibly satisfying, and both are in the direction I need to go, but I wanted to distinguish the two. So when you are applying your strengths to a need in the market or to the needs of your kid or whoever, whatever it is...that need is their need. And the more important you believe that need is to some greater cause, the more meaningful it becomes. That's when you go from the good life of just enjoying using your strengths too, I'm using my strengths for a bigger purpose. So that's the difference there.
Here's the bottom line with this whole conversation about rating yourself on where you want to be with financial health, and where you want to be from a fulfillment standpoint. It is a very rare occasion where you have a meaningful career. But, the satisfying career where you're able to use your strengths in your job whatever the company is, that is something we all can have. And if we do that, that is exactly how we make money. So, the road to both financial health--whatever that level is--and to satisfaction, is going to be on using your strengths towards some need. Because you can engage--I know that a lot of us do outside of work--you can engage your strengths towards something that you believe is bigger than you; it might be in a religious context, it might be non-profit, it might be for the environment, it might be for whatever it might be. That is something that you can have: a satisfying career, a fulfilling life, and financial health. But it all comes down to using those strengths toward a need.
The last piece that I want to add to this conversation--then we're going to get to your best next actions to be done for this episode--is getting to that road of the good life or the meaningful life. I'm guessing that that's what you want to go toward. It takes work to get there and to stay there.
Angela Duckworth is a researcher that I was fortunate enough to listen to last year at my company's user conference, and she's the one that made famous this concept of grit. But I wanted to share a couple of things about it. So yes, grit by definition is the sustained application of effort toward a long term goal, and it is a predictor of lifelong achievement. She has a book by the same name, and she talks about how achievement happens when you apply effort to your talent, because that's going to give you skill, that's going to give you these strengths, so talent times effort equals skill. And then she says skill times effort equals achievement.
Essentially, you're putting in double the effort against your talents and skills to reach this achievement. She's saying that using grit to enhance your talents, efforts, and skills while adding in purpose: that is success. It's this satisfaction, and the bottom line and the punchline in terms of what you need to do about all of this, is this she talks about this concept of deliberate practice. We have to deliberately put ourselves out there. Right? Do the skill and then see how it goes. And get better at it. You need to practice applying your strengths to the opportunities and needs around you, and in particular, the best way for you to find those needs is going to be through empathy. And I don’t want to get off on that topic, but you've got to really be focused on what the actual need is, not what you want it to be, because that's what you have to calibrate, what are your strengths? Is it meeting a need? And you have to know what that need is.
Today’s best next action:
So here's your best next action for today. I want you to use a signature strength to meet a need you find interesting. And to do this, I want you to list out your strengths. You can do this in a variety of ways. I would go off the top of your head and reflect on it and outline what your strengths are. Do not get into this world of I'm no better than anybody else. This is you. What's your best stuff? What are your signature strengths? And you can list out whatever--if it's at work, if it's at home--list them all out. Get as many as you can out there. Talk to those people you're closest to, they'll give you some honest answers. Ask them. There are online tests that you can take. Don't take BuzzFeed quizzes, that's not going to help you out, but go in and list out those strengths.
And then I want you to do this: I want you to list out the needs of your boss, customers, your company, your team, pick those things that are right there around you in your current job. List out those needs. And if you can't list out what those needs really are, like if you don't know your boss, your customer, your company, your team well enough. Either you're confident that this is what it is because they basically told you, or they're showing every single sign that this is the case, or you don't know what their need is.
And we'll get into this topic of empathy in a different episode, but go and list those out, and then start connecting the dots. That's how you're going to find your strength and apply it to an opportunity, and see how it goes.
Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. You can find more information about the topic and continue the conversation at donerightpodcast.org. The Done Right podcast is hosted by me, Jordan Staples, the show is produced by Workfront. Our team includes Jeremy Tippetts and Marc Hansen.
Thanks for listening. And if you like what you hear, rate and review the show, it helps other people find us. See you next time.