Success won’t make you happy at work


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By Jeremy Moses

'How can I be happy in work?' is one of the most important questions the average Londoner is asking about life. Our generation has higher expectations of satisfaction and fulfilment in our careers than any before us.

For most of my life, I assumed the answer to this question was success. I thought if I was successful in my vocation, then I would be happy and fulfilled. However, shortly after finishing university my friends and I witnessed an event which told a very different story. 

Soon after completing my final exams I received the shocking news that Anjool Malde (‘Jools’ to his friends), a fellow Oxford student from a few years above me, had tragically taken his own life, just days before his 25th birthday.

Jools was one of life’s high achievers. He first attracted my attention when, shortly before starting at university, I read he had been named runner-up in the ‘UK Graduate of the Year’ awards for his involvement in an unusually large number of extra-curricular activities whilst studying. By the time of his death, he had achieved huge amount for his age. He worked as a trader at Deutsche Bank in London, he had founded a successful events company, co-edited a book, and still found time to volunteer for a charitable trust. Weekends were spent at his recently-purchased flat near Marbella in Spain [1].

Jools’ death was particularly poignant for me because I had looked to him as a role model and had sought to model my time at university on his example. Like him, I threw myself into a huge number of clubs and societies and even started my own business. All of this was an attempt to build the perfect CV, achieve a top graduate job and be as successful as possible. Just like Jools.

Shortly before his death Jools got into some difficulty at work, which would have probably led to him losing his job [2]. The coroner reported that it appeared that this possibility of failure was too much for him to bear:

We shall never know why at that precise moment he decided to do it. This young man had everything to live for, talent, liked by everybody, worked hard for his friends, and came to an untimely end in July last year. He was a high achiever who set very high targets for himself and it’s possible that faced with this accusation, even if it was untrue, that may cause him to lose his job or suffer some ignominy, he might think it was a terrible thing to suffer. [3]

I realised that Jools’ life is not one to be emulated.

Perspective

For me, Jools’ death was a timely reminder that the sole pursuit of success is not the solution to finding happiness in work. If you’re only driven to achieve or succeed it won’t satisfy you – there’s always another target or the threat of a fall. We need perspective. We need to understand that our work is not the central point of the universe, to believe that there’s more to life than work. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves making unnecessary costly sacrifices and may end up destroying ourselves in the process.

Yet to be happy in work requires more than a good work-life balance and the knowledge that work isn’t the most important thing in life.

Alongside perspective, we also need purpose in our work. We need to feel that our work matters.

Purpose

Over the past few years, a number of social scientists have highlighted the importance of purpose as the most essential building block to satisfaction at work. Annie McKee, advisor to Fortune 500 companies and UPenn academic, describes the power of understanding your purpose:

We can experience work as a calling not just a job. When work is an expression of our values and we have a positive impact on something we care about, we are motivated from within; we don’t need others to push us or beg us to do our jobs, and we can withstand challenge or turmoil. [4]

In my professional life, finding a purpose in my work helped me enjoy my work much more. In my second job in London, I was working for a large American satellite TV producer. I wasn’t enthusiastic about TV in general or the company’s purpose in particular. As a result, I wasn’t energised by the work and I didn’t enjoy it very much. After two years there, I moved to an education start-up business, soon after it was founded. It was much harder work, less pay, more challenging, and yet I enjoyed it much more. Why? Because I had found a purpose I could believe in. I was motivated by the company’s social mission to help pupils improve their attainment in maths and consequently improve their life chances. Finding purpose in my work made work much more satisfying.

The people who are happiest at work are those who have found purpose in their work i.e. those who see that their work matters and yet, also have the right perspective about work, those that know it isn’t the most important thing in the world.

But when you take these two things together, there’s an inherent contradiction which needs to be resolved. If you embrace purpose, it’s very easy to lose perspective. If you embrace perspective and prioritise hobbies, rest and family above work, your work can easily become boring and feel pointless.

So how do we resolve this tension? How can we find a worldview which combines both? This was a pertinent question for me as, like Jools, I was someone who pursued purpose and lost sight of perspective. After racking up a series of achievements at university, I realised that my newfound success didn’t satisfy me like I expected it to.

Purpose and perspective in following Jesus

It was that lack of satisfaction that made me look elsewhere. I found the answer when I became a Christian.

Bizarre as it might sound, I found following Jesus transformed the way I see work. He gave me a profound sense of purpose and a liberating freedom for my work.

For many of us obsessed with our work, we’re doing it to justify ourselves – to prove our worth with our list of achievements which is, quite frankly, exhausting and stressful. There’s always someone new to please or someone better than you. Jesus speaks right into this exhaustion and stress, when he says,

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke* upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. [5] 

He’s saying ‘Come to me, let me be the boss of your life, let me have control’. He’s inviting us to come and work with him but as we do that we find real rest and relief. We’re no longer trying to justify our existence but instead working under Jesus’ gentle and humble leadership.

Work still exists when you follow Jesus, but now you’re ultimately working for a new master. This changes everything. I’ve found a more significant purpose than anything I could create for myself because my purpose comes from outside of myself, from God. It doesn’t depend on how I feel – it’s existentially true whether I feel it or not. 

But following Jesus also gives me liberating perspective. My work is no longer about justifying myself or proving myself to the world. When I understand that I am working for the kindest master, who already unconditionally loves me, I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Instead, I find my value and significance in how he feels about me, now and for all eternity. This is the ultimate antidote to that restless pursuit of significance and desire to justify ourselves that we’re all prone to.

Within us, there is a longing for purpose and a need for perspective. Only in Jesus do we find the true purpose we were made for and the liberating love of God which gives us ultimate perspective that frees us from becoming slaves to our work.

*Yoke  a yoke, in this context, is something a farm animal would wear on its back as it ploughs a field. Jesus uses it as a picture of someone recognising his authority.


[1] efinancialcareers.com ‘Editor’s take: The tragic death of Anjool Malde’
[2] cherwell.org ‘Champagne death over job loss fears’
[3] independent.co.uk ‘Stockbroker Anjool Malde died amid prank message investigation’
[4] Annie McKee, How to be Happy at Work, 2017, p 56
[5] Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 11:28-30, The Bible


Question or comments? Email Jeremy