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What It Looks Like to Build Your Career Around Your Life (And Not the Other Way Around)
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What It Looks Like to Build Your Career Around Your Life (And Not the Other Way Around)

This shouldn't be a radical concept, but many of us fail to actually put it into practice: your job shouldn't be a dark cloud looming over the rest of your life. 

Whoa. Crazy stuff. I know.

Hopefully, that's not where you're at in your career. But for many people... well, they may not be so lucky. It's all too common that folks become preoccupied with thinking about work-related stress, scheming about how to get ahead and climb the ladder, or failing to prioritize their own interest and values in favor of getting by at work. 

Even if you're thinking that that's not where you're at in life, ask yourself if there have been sacrifices you've made recently because of your career. 

  • Have you missed out on spending time with a friend or family member? 
  • Have you put your favorite hobby on hold because you have a big work project that leaves you feeling drained or needs your attention after hours? 
  • How about this one: has your health suffered as a byproduct of having to eat rushed lunches, sitting at a desk for extended periods of time, or you being too exhausted in the evening to cook something healthy and delicious? 

These are all signs– trailing indicators– of your career leaking into the other areas of your life, and it can be unhealthy. It may also feel inevitable. After all, what is the alternative? Not having a paycheck? 

You Are In Charge of Your Career

Let's not rush to extremes and quit our jobs... yet. When I get that urge, I remember Elizabeth Gilbert's anecdotes in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, in which she talks about keeping her bartending job until after Eat. Pray. Love took off and became a mega-phenomenon. She had already published four or five books before then but kept her day job because it gave her stability. If she can keep her day job while building her ideal life, so can I. 

Instead of handing in your two-week notice, let's take a look at what it looks like to build your career around your life, and not your life around your career. 

Start by getting clear about what is important to you

The first step to building your career around your life is the hardest. You have to be clear with yourself about what is important to you– what you want to get out of life. 

In Dorie Clark's book The Long Game: How to be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, she recounts the story of Terry Rice, "an experienced digital marketer" who started his own consulting business. Soon after launching his business, a client offered him a $20,000-per-month retainer. 

To put it into perspective, $20,000 per month equals $240,000 per year. That's nearly a quarter of a million dollars from a single client– life-changing money. 

But Rice turned the offer down. Clark writes,

The new assignment "would have required me to commute from Brooklyn to Long Island every day," he recalls, which can take several hours, depending on traffic. "The main reason I started my company was to spend more time with my family. But with this opportunity, I would have rarely seen my daughter. Beyond that, I wasn't super enthused about the project I would have been working on. And given the time constraints, I wouldn't have been able to work on other projects I was passionate about." 

Terry did something that more of us should: he identified the key values he wanted to use in evaluating opportunities. In his case, it wasn't money (if it were, he would have said yes instantly). Instead, he prioritized time with his family and the ability to work on interesting projects. [...]

If you're like me, it may be hard to think about what is important enough to you to turn down a quarter of a million dollars. But the truth is that we all have things we want to get out of life, and money, while important, isn't the only factor in having a satisfying life. 

I recently had the opportunity to take a month-long sabbatical from work, and I spent it hiking in the Swiss Alps, floating in glacial lakes and rivers, writing in train carriages, and generally exploring Switzerland. What I realized from the sabbatical was that I have north star values and experiences that I've been neglecting in my personal life because of my focus and time investment into my career. 

I would trade some of my salary for being able to spend more time in nature, hiking or kayaking, and experiencing new places. Additionally, I'd love to be able to allocate part of my time throughout the year to working on creative projects, writing novels instead of product requirement docs. Both being in nature and spending time being creative in the kinds of quantities that I need to feel fulfilled are currently missing in my life, so I can take those north star values and turn them into a benchmark. 

With the awareness of what is important to you and how you want to spend your time, you can work backward and start to ask yourself what it would look like for those values to be central to your life and supported by your work rather than interrupted by your work. 

Another way to look at it: Are You Spending Your Limited Time On Earth Doing What You Want to Do? 

If identifying your north star values feels too ambiguous, consider the perspective of Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In this book, Burkeman outlines the fact that the average age of mortality in the United States is between 73 and 79, meaning that most people are only going to live a total of about 4,000 weeks, or 76 years, in their lifetime.

He uses the 4,000 weeks timespan to put things into perspective: our time is, in many ways, far more limited than we often realize, especially in the stress of the moment when we're fretting over our careers. 

If we put off figuring out what we hope to get out of life until the timing "feels right," chances are we'll never actually take the time needed to do so. Burkeman writes, 

The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will. The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or supplied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel ‘on top of things,’ or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done.

Burkeman and Clark take very different approaches to thinking about the long term, but we will eventually arrive at the same conclusion. It will never feel like the perfect time to invest our time and energy into the things we want, and there will always be reasons not to, but if we keep putting off trying to do things differently, things will never meaningfully change. 

Next, Establish Healthier Boundaries to Create a Better Work-Life Balance

This step is particularly important if you feel like your career steamrolls other areas of your life. To make more space for the things that matter to you, you have to figure out how to create boundaries around your work so that it only occupies part of your life and not all of it. It can also be particularly challenging if you're a chronic overachiever who doesn't like to feel like you're letting people down. 

At the end of the day, though, it's important to remember that you have autonomy in your career. Yes, there may be people at work with authority over you, and your paycheck gives your employer leverage, but you have leverage too. If you're good at your job and can articulate the value you deliver, then you have a litany of reasons for your employer to compromise with you occasionally. Always keep it in your back pocket that it's much easier and more affordable for a business to make accommodations for a good, existing employee than it is for them to recruit, hire, and onboard a replacement. 

To establish effective boundaries, start by clearly defining your limits and communicating them to your colleagues, supervisors, and clients. Clearly express your working hours, response times, and availability. This helps manage expectations and prevents unnecessary interruptions during your personal time.

Additionally, learn to say "no" when you have reached your capacity and prioritize tasks based on their importance and alignment with your goals. A great way to do this is to frame conversations with your manager about necessary trade-offs. If I work on Task A for Outcome B, then it means I won't have time for Task C with Outcome D. When you communicate your limits in terms of what impact you'll have on your employer's overarching objectives and goals, you're in a stronger position to create upward alignment and set boundaries that are not only respected but supported too. 

As the people in your professional circle learn that you're unavailable 24/7, you can take additional steps to reinforce your boundaries. Utilize technology– such as Do Not Disturb schedules on your phone– to your advantage by setting up email filters or turning off work notifications outside of working hours, ensuring you have dedicated time for relaxation and soul-enriching personal activities.

Start Iterating On Your Vision

One of the biggest lessons I've learned as a product manager is the value of iterating on an MVP. 

In product management, you learn to deliver a minimum-viable product (MVP), or the smallest version of a product that solves a specific problem. It may be a bit rudimentary and lack some features or some polish, but it gets the job done. Once you deliver an MVP and get it in the hands of your customers, you can see how they use it, what their pain points are, and what they want to do with it but can't currently. That way, you have more information available to inform the decisions you make about what to do next. 

The same approach can be taken with building your career around your life once you know what it is that you want and you've made room for it. 

Consider what the smallest version of your end goal may look like, and start playing with it. 

For example, none of my lottery tickets have paid off, so I can't leave my career behind to go traipsing through the mountains with my computer like a post-modern traveling bard. But, I can take a few Fridays off here and there to have long weekends in which I can go and explore local trails or attend regional writing conferences (ideally both!). 

It may not be the embodiment of what my end goals look like, but it gives me a taste of it, which is important for a couple of reasons. Starting with an MVP of what you see as your north star values and experiences helps you to: 

  • Refine what that vision looks like. Are there aspects you may want to change if they don't match your expectations? 
  • Stay energized. If your north star values feel far off and impossible, it's easy to get defeated and not make them a priority. By periodically immersing yourself, it's easier to stay focused and motivated. 
  • Build a network. Spending time doing what is aligned with your north star values means you're more likely to also spend time with other people who have shared or similar values. Doing so is incalculably important. Having the support of others will increase your odds of success exponentially, and when you build meaningful relationships, especially professional ones, it can open doors for you that you might not have ever even thought about. 

Iterate on Your Vision At Work, Too

Bringing more of what fulfills you into your life is non-negotiable. It's also a good framework for thinking about changes you want to make professionally. 

Remember– the goal is to have a professional life that supports who you are and what you want to achieve. 

Use your day job as a form of leverage. Figure out how to structure your time at work doing more of what you enjoy or which helps you acquire the skills and experiences needed to bring about long-term success. Don't just work for your employer; make your job work for you, too. 

In their seminal book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans put it this way: 

Here's another key element when you're wayfinding in life: follow the joy; follow what engages and excites you, what brings you alive. Most people are taught that work is always hard and that we have to suffer through it. Well, there are parts of any job or any career that are hard and annoying– but if most of what you do at work is not bringing you alive, then it's killing you. It's your career, after all, and you are going to be spending a lot of time doing it– we calculate it at 90,000 to 125,000 hours during the course of your lifetime. If it's not fun, a lot of your life is going to suck. 

Now, what makes work fun? it's not what you might think. It's not one unending office party. It's not getting paid a lot of money. It's not having multiple weeks of paid vacations. Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you're doing.

We agree. Work doesn't have to suck. It doesn't have to be emotionally and physically draining, especially when it has the potential to be something that you use to squeeze out more learning opportunities, more of the activities that energize you, and less of the mundane drudgery that you've historically accepted for the sake of just getting by. 

Be Willing to Plan in the long-Term and Act In the Short-Term

Enforcing boundaries and taking advantage of opportunities that are aligned with your north star values gives you leverage to start making gradual changes. 

This may look like investing more time, money, and energy into your hobbies. It may mean dipping your toes into a prototype of a side hustle that may be a one-off project or grow into a full-time gig. It may mean drawing firm boundaries around your work time to safeguard your identity. 

Whatever form your short-term actions take, what's important is that they introduce change. 

Change, after all, is one of the few things we can safely anticipate in this life. It happens whether we invite it in and guide it, as in creating a career that supports your life, or not. When it comes to how we navigate change, I like to look to the words of Pema Chödrön, who writes in her book The Places that Scare You: 

As human beings we are as impermanent as everything else is. Every cell in the body is continuously changing. Thoughts and emotions rise and fall away unceasingly. When we're thinking that we're competent or that we're hopeless– what are we basing it on? On this fleeting moment? On yesterday's success or failure? We cling to a fixed idea of who we are and it cripples us. Nothing and no one is fixed. Whether the reality of change is a source of freedom for us or a source of horrific anxiety makes a significant difference. Do the days of our lives add up to further suffering or to an increased capacity for joy? That's an important question. 

Building your career around your life is essential for achieving a fulfilling and balanced existence. By identifying your north star values and prioritizing what is truly important to you, you can start making choices that align with your goals. Establishing healthier boundaries, communicating your limits, and learning to say "no" when necessary are crucial steps in creating a better work-life balance. Additionally, embracing the concept of iterating on your vision allows you to take small steps toward your ideal life, even if you can't make drastic changes immediately. Remember, your time is limited, and it's never too late to start prioritizing what truly matters to you.

By taking control of your career and aligning it with your life, you can create a more fulfilling and meaningful future. So, start making changes today and embrace the journey towards a life that reflects your values and brings you true happiness and satisfaction.

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