This author spent 3 years interviewing over 100 workers—here’s the No. 1 career move that made them happier
Simone Stolzoff spent much of his 20s in search of the perfect job, only to realize that such a thing did not, and could never, exist.
As Stolzoff recalls, he didn't just want a job that paid the bills — he craved a "vocational soulmate," a 9-to-5 gig that was a unique reflection of who he was: his ambitions, interests and purpose in life.
This has become a familiar problem. Work is one of the most common sources of meaning in life for adults around the world, the Pew Research Center has found. In some countries, it eclipses faith and friends.
For white-collar professionals in particular, our jobs have become "akin to a religious identity: in addition to a paycheck, they provide meaning, community and a sense of purpose," Stolzoff writes in his new book, "The Good Enough Job."
Stolzoff shelved his earlier career dreams of becoming a diplomat, lawyer or poet to work as a journalist and designer in San Francisco. He wrote "The Good Enough Job" to answer a question he had asked himself over and over: "If we want to be happy, how can we emotionally disentangle ourselves from work? When is it good enough?"
As part of his quest, Stolzoff interviewed over 100 workers between 2020 and 2023, including ex-Google engineers, Michelin-starred chefs, burned-out teachers and kayak guides in Alaska.
The people who were happiest in their careers, he discovered, shared the same approach to work: They all had a strong sense of who they were when they were off the clock.
The importance of diversifying yourself
One of the most popular questions you might hear when you meet someone new is "What do you do?"
A lot of us have let our work and our professions overshadow other parts of our identities, as it's often where we spend most of our time.
But the more you invest yourself in multiple identities, the less likely you are to "lose your entire sense of self" to your job, says Stolzoff.
Those who understood, and practiced this belief, Stolzoff says, were the happiest in their careers and had the healthiest relationships with work.
In "The Good Enough Job," this concept is exemplified by different professionals at various points in their careers. There's the Michelin-starred chef who found greater joy, and inspiration, from cooking fun dinners for her roommates than working in a 5-star restaurant, and the political science professor who turns down lucrative speaking opportunities to watch his sons' soccer games.
Stolzoff cites research from psychologist Patricia Linville, which found that people with a more differentiated idea of themselves — what she calls having greater "self-complexity"— were less prone to stress-induced illness and depression.
"We are more than just workers, and if we are able to cultivate more sides of who we are, we are able to be more present in other important aspects of our lives and resilient in the face of adversity," says Stolzoff. "If one identity fails, the other ones will keep you alive."
Approach your self-worth like your stock portfolio, he adds. "Investors stress the importance of diversifying the stocks in your portfolio. Well, we also benefit from diversifying what gives us meaning in life, whether it's the joy you might get by being a more present parent or the excitement that comes with volunteering for a cause you're passionate about," says Stolzoff.
De-prioritizing work can help you be more productive which, in turn, can make your job less stressful.
Past research has shown that spending more time resting during the workday, and having hobbies outside of work, doesn't just stave off burnout — it can stimulate creativity, help you concentrate and make the time you spend on meetings and tasks more efficient.
It might feel "counterintuitive," says Stolzoff, but "being on the clock all the time doesn't always lead to the best work."
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