As children, we intuitively follow our “why”. Whatever makes us happy, we do – whether that’s riding a bike at breakneck speed with our legs in the air or fleecing homemade mud pies to reluctant family members. It’s only as we get older that we start to lose this innate sense of purpose. Instead, we become obsessed with categorising people into “whats”. “What do you do?” is a question we’re hooked on in this country (in fact, it’s often only when you travel elsewhere that you realise not everyone shares this fascination).

What you YOU do?

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We somehow need to box people into job title, salary, prospects: as if knowing that they were a doctor or a cleaner tells us who they are. And gradually, we start to fall into this trap ourselves, playing out our careers over a relentless linear progression that answers the “what” – this is what I do, ergo who I am – without questioning the “why”. We may have shiny careers that tick off all the dinner party questions; but do they reflect who we are?

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Many of us never even pause the race to think about it. But if we do, it’s a dilemma that is thrown into sharp relief  – as barrister turned HR business partner Rachael Robinson discovered recently. Having worked for years to gain success and status in her career, Rachael took eight weeks out this year for the first time ever. She spent her time off volunteering at a surf camp in Portugal, and has written a blog about the lessons she learned that’s fast gaining interest on LinkedIn.

A slippery slope

single in your 40s

One of the biggest wake-up calls for Rachael during her time off was the realisation that she needed to base her career around why, not what, for fulfillment. “Pushing myself has always been in my nature,” she writes. “I have come to believe that for society to validate who you are, success means you have to fight through life and work hard. Successful means aspiring to have a full time job, a clear and accelerated career path, a credible job title and a good salary.

“There have been moments on my trip when I have been faced with a huge pile of dinner dishes of some forty or so guests at the surf house and I felt an air of worry that people would look at me and think less of me ,” she says. “I even sometimes fought the urge to blurt out, ‘I’m actually a qualified barrister!’, to perhaps verify I’m not just a pot washer.”

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But, Rachael adds, with the distance of her career break she came to see that, “I lost my why”. “I studied law because I wanted to help people like my mum when she was going through divorce,” she says. “When I found HR, I knew this was much more suited to my WHY. I feel a deep sense of reward by seeing results of my work through others. Whether that’s helping someone find their dream job, get their dream promotion, coaching someone to be a better leader, seeing people have fun at work or as cold as making a process more efficient for others, I love helping things be better. That’s my why, it makes me feel fulfilled and it’s really important to me. Not the status of a job title or the money it gives me.”

Filling a void

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The problem with focusing on “what” at the expense of “why”, is that your job won’t necessarily marry up with your purpose. Is what you do the thing that drives you, that gets you up in the morning – does it answer your why? If not, your sense of self starts to erode, as you work harder and harder, sacrificing more hours without actually feeling happy. If this sounds familiar, maybe now is the time to take a step back and reflect. As Rachel discovered, a happy career isn’t about racing up the ladder and ticking off targets – often at the expense of time with your loved ones, doing the things you enjoy.

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Instead, it’s about why: the aspect of your job that chimes with you are. And part of this is looking at your job within the broader context of your life. Does it drive your “why”? Is it giving you the time and freedom for the things that make you happy overall? Your job title and salary are only important if they directly form part of your purpose. As Rachael says, “success means achieving what you set out to do and enjoying what you do along the way”. Take a hike back to childhood and find your instinctive “why”. Only then will happiness take care of itself.

Read Rachael Robinson’s full blog post here

Photos: Shutterstock