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The Secrets to a Career That is Truly Satisfying

One of the complex topics to discuss is your relationship with your work. Specifically, how happy you are at work.

I am sure some of your friends would ask you that and depending on how much you think about it, you might find this to be one of the most awkward questions that you have to answer.

I probably shared a couple of times with Investment Moats readers I used to have a colleague in my old workplace who would ask me whenever he met me at the bus stop if I am happy.

It is awkward maybe because I don’t spend enough time thinking about it as I lived my hectic life.

The big reason why I find it awkward was that there will definitely be things at work that make you happy or get you frustrated. How is it possible to work in a place where nothing frustrates you? If there are these frustrations, then are you happy at all?

We don’t know how to think about work happiness and satisfaction. Or that we don’t know on a deeper level what will give us happiness or satisfaction in our work. This is probably why it is a tough question to answer.

Arthur Brooks writes a column in The Atlantic to help readers build a good life. One of his more recent articles is titled The Secret to Happiness at Work and in the article, he summarizes all the research he has come across on happiness & satisfaction related to our job to help us re-focus on finding satisfaction at work.

I find that the article put into words some of the happy and not so happy stuff we felt about our work.

Here is my summary of his summary:

  • A substantial amount of job satisfaction comes from having some form of job. Just having a job makes you happier. Unemployment breeds unhappiness.
  • Those who think that they are “very” or “fairly” likely to lose their job are more likely to say “not too happy” with their life.
  • Economist in 2014 found that a 1% rise in unemployment reduces national well-being by 5 times compare to a 1% rise in inflation.
  • Factors that affect life satisfaction have little to do with work.
    • 30% of job satisfaction is genetic.
    • Wage increases only raises short term job satisfaction. Effect decays fast.
    • Regular wage increases are better than infrequent, larger raises for happiness.
  • Accomplishment and recognition affects job satisfaction. Seligman shows that accomplishment is a source of happiness, which strongly predicts happiness at work.
  • Work-life balance affect job satisafaction.
  • Richard Hackman found that job satisfaction has a inverse relationship with leader-centricity, which refers to the social culture of leadership. We feel less satisfied in an environment where we have leaders who rule with an iron fist.
  • Decades of studies show that we are most satisfied with our work if our employer’s values and our value match. This is most so if we have some special moral, philosophical or spirital significance.
    • View work as a divine profession or they gain spiritual pleasure and satisfaction
  • CareerBliss happiest jobs, rated by those who hold them (2018): Teaching assistant, quality-asurance analyst, net developer, marketing speicalist.
  • CareerBliss unhappiest jobs, rated by those who hold them (2018): accountant, security guard, cashier, supervisor.
  • Instead of relentlessly trying to find the best possible fit between interests and specific job duties that will make you happy, remain flexible at your job while searching for the values and culture that fit with theirs. Finding a sense of accomplishment within whatever job you end up with is important for job satisfaction.
  • Volumes of research show that pursuing extrinsic rewards for work (money) actually hurts your interest in the work.
  • Pursue intrinisic goals with two in particular
    • Earned success. Opposite of learned helpnessness, which is the feeling of repeatedly enduring unpleasant situations not within their control. Earned success gives you a sense of accomplishment and professional efficacy (the idea that you are effective in your job, which perks up commitment to your job). Employers that give clear guidance and feedback, reward merit and encourage their employees to develop new skills will most likely give their staff these feelings. This is what the bosses to look for and what kind of boss you should be.
    • Service to others. This is a sense that your job is making the world a better place. Arthur believes that we can find service in almost any job. Arthur’s research shows that volunteer or work for charity does not mean it gives people more satisfaction than for-profit or government work.
      • He gives the example of a student who gave up academic work to be a waiter. As a waiter, his customers are “all important and equal”. They are the same at the table and must be the same in the eyes of a waiter… It is great to be able to serve the politician on the front page of the paper just as well as the kid browsing in the news while waiting for his girlfriend.
  • Since our satisfaction is determine not by concrete stuff like job duties or money but by values and people, it means a good job can become a bad job just as easily.
    • The Adam & Eve case study from the second chapter in the Book of Genesis

I kind of agree with his conclusion.

I find that this was a reason why I could stay in my last company for 15 years:

  • Work-life balance
  • Adequate accomplishment and recognition
  • I would say ther might be some sort of a cultural fit but not really shared values
  • Money, according to many is poor but not the main determinant
  • The intrinsic motivation:
    • Manageable level of learned helplessness and enough guidance and feeback. If you work in a company like ST Electronics, it is very often that you encounter unpleasant situations not within your control but I think the difference was that things seldom come to a boiling point. And that at least you have your supervisor to turn to for guidance and bounce things off.
    • Service to others was something I came across in one of the 1-day company courses that I attended back in ST that stuck with me. I came away identifying that service to others is something that goes down well with my value system and perhaps why I enjoy support work enough.
  • I think you ask some of your friends, they like the technical part of the work but when you marry that with supervisory work, then their relationship with job happiness becomes complicated. This explains why supervisor may be one of the most unhappiest job!

Our relationship with work affects our perception of the financial independence, retire early (FIRE) concept.

FIRE wouldn’t feature prominently in your life if you find a lot more happiness at work. In my conversations with others, they started wondering about FIRE when they encounter numerous “pings” that their values lie away from their vocation of work, too much-learned helplessness.

A good and happy job stint suddenly became unhappy due to the company being bought out or a change in boss (the second one is damn big).

But I suspect a lot of people want FIRE because they find happiness & satisfaction at work elusive. Elusive maybe because they are looking at it the wrong way. Arthur mentioned that maybe too many of us tried to find the best possible fit between interest and specific job duties, thinking that this is what will give us happiness & satisfaction at work.

If what explains the deep happiness and satisfaction is not the job duties or the technical part of the work, then you may have to look at things in a different way (perhaps that summary will give you some clues)

If we look at happiness wrongly, then FIRE may not be the solution because I know work (paid or not paid) is an important part of happiness.

You are going to FIRE and feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction.

Arthur’s summary may show why there is a retirement lifestyle called Barista FI or Coast FI. To me, Coast FI strikes the best balance between how achievable and the most balanced way to live. You save up for your late retirement upfront so that you secured one of the costliest life goals as early as possible. Without that burden, you have more monetary and mental flexibility.

But you probably won’t find happiness and satisfaction in a lower-paying administrative role if you don’t identify with being a service to others. The intrinsic motivators in your current higher-paying, somewhat stressful job might give you more satisfaction. Or your intrinsic motivator is to lord over other people.

A better template would be, to save up and buy your financial security or your retirement upfront, be in touch with what about your job that you are more satisfied and not satisfied about, work in a company and see if you can find more intrinsic motivators and a lot fewer demotivators.

Arthur asks a question at the end that you might want to explore: When was the last time you remember being truly happy? Share with us.

Here are my articles on happiness:

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Wednesday 2nd of March 2022

Nice article Kyith. I have a question for you, what if a person is not really driven, is just plain lazy to learn new stuff. Is okay to do mundane stuff, but over a period of time it becomes boring. When we are young and are not FI yet, then money is the driver, and we kind of learn and put just enough effort to sustain ourself. When we realize that the going is okay, we drop our guard and get back to laziness and slacking. But after a point, when we reach FI, there is no strong driver anymore for a lazy person to learn new stuff and neither there is any motivation to continue doing the boring mundane stuff. If workplace allows a lot of slack, for example send a few emails a day, check a few logs, raise a few tickets, then slack on internet the remaining 90% of the time, this is like a paradise for a lazy person. But then it is not likely to sustain, so what is the option here? Just wait till FI and then quit?


Saturday 5th of March 2022

Well, in order to climb, you got to show that you can add value to the bottomline in some way. Most often, we cannot do that as someone that keeps the status quo. If you are FI and would like to do that, by all means. But I felt that over time, most will be more unhappy if they do not have something to look forward to, whether its work or in life. That is something to think about.


Wednesday 2nd of March 2022

@Revhappy, I would stay in the role you mentioned until "tiopok", hopefully the paradise and good days can last till 65 or FI, whichever comes first.

I don't think everyone is gunning for the top position with the top pay. Of course the complete opposite (lowest position lowest pay) is not too attractive either. But if the pay is not too shabby, considering hours worked and stress levels, then why not?

I have worked for 2 decades and in the first 15 years or so, I was always trying to climb, outscore, outwit, outplay, outlast my peers. The comparison about who has the better job title, higher pay, happier family and better lifestyle has been there since times immemorial. However, the scales fell off my eyes in the last 5 years when I suddenly realised 1) High pay comes with high stress levels and long work hours and often at the expense of sacrificing ethics and integrity and 2) Better be lucky than smart or hardworking ... too many external variables outside our control these days (case in point, Ukraine war was not even a conversation topic during CNY but has since became headline news every day for the past week!). Who would have thought?

IMHO, I think the quest for the ideal job is never-ending. There's bound to be something bad about any job/company but so long as the overall good outweighs the bad, I guess its good enough for me (everyone has a story here). On a different note, there has been endless debate about passion versus pay and I would am in the pay camp. I would say go for highest pay possible considering the hours and stress, work/save/invest hard for the first 15/20 years of your work life (most people are mid to late 40s by then), and then you can lift your foot off the pedal a little for the remaining 10 years of your work life (assuming retire by mid 50s/early 60s). This to me represents a more balanced life and no point working till 65 only to be plagued by all kinds of illnesses (cannot see/hear/eat/sleep/shit/walk propertly etc). If I have it my way, I plan to call it a day by 50 (latest 55 yo).

Honestly, if I divide my pay by actual hours worked (which excludes weekends and total bliss during vacations), I think my life (and lifestyle) is better than my better-paid peers. Only thing is, it is highly unstable and I could tiopok or the higher-ups shut down the whole department any day. Hence, I treat every work day as my last work day. No loyalty and no love lost.


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