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Remember the energy you used to feel as a child, cape flying behind you, little hands arresting innocent teddy bears or tending to the needs of injured dolls? Whether you were a superhero, a police officer or a nurse (or an endless array of fictional or 'real' professions in between), you felt a strong sense of purpose. It was a certain pull towards a profession- a sense that it was just meant to be. It tapped into your unique gifts, energizing and defining who you were. You were brazen and fearless in your pursuit- nothing could stand in your way. 

 

Now, let's just take our capes off for a second. Let's zoom back in on the present, to a time of ever-increasing employee disengagement, stress and burnout. What changed since the days of our zestful pursuits and the present day? Might it be a lack of meaning in our work? A sense of purposelessness? Feeling unconnected to the people we work with, the clients we serve- and ultimately, ourselves.

 

At such a time of disengagement and meaninglessness, we need a pretty strong antidote, and I would like to suggest it comes in the pursuit of vocation. That's right- what we need are not more vacations- if not a greater sense of VOCATION. Psychologists define this as the pursuit of work that is morally, socially and personally meaningful. Such work taps into our natural strengths, creating intrinsic motivation and providing a sense of purpose in our lives. Feeling purposeful increases our well-being, as we contribute to something bigger than ourselves and feel connected to others.

 

For optimal motivation, psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci suggest we have three needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. To what degree do you feel these needs are being satisfied right now? Do you have a certain amount of freedom to make decisions related to your work? Do you feel competent- able to constantly build on a well-established skill set? Do you feel connected to clients, colleagues and the world around you through your work? To what extent could you meet these needs in your current work?

 

Working within one's vocation also involves using one's strengths- something that is both energizing and conducive to greater well-being (whilst ever they are not being overused). If you are unsure about your natural strengths, you can take a wonderful Positive Psychology survey here:

 Questionnaire Center | Authentic Happiness

 

Once you're clear about your strengths, you can consider those which you're able to bring to work on a daily basis. Are there strengths that are currently being squandered? Is there any way you could incorporate them into your current position? Equally, are there any strengths which are being overused to your detriment? Psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski teaches us that it's possible to 'job craft', whereby individuals are able to reframe the work they do in ways that better meet their psychological needs. One way to do this is by seeing the bigger picture.Wharton School professor Adam Grant carried out research which showed that when employees were connected to the end user of a product or service, they worked much harder to strive for excellence. That's because they had a sense of purpose- the famous reason 'why' that Simon Sinek so eloquently defines. 

 

What if you try all of these suggestions, and still feel your work is not aligned to who you really are? Might it be time to take action? There are three ways to see work: as a job, a career or a vocation. Within any one type of work, it's been found that these inclinations are almost equally split into three- so obviously perspective comes into play. Vocation is a highly subjective - only you can decide who you want to be. However, studies show that  people experience work as more meaningful when they're able to be themselves.

 

The start of 2017 may provide the perfect opportunity to ask yourself who you really are. Is the work you do aligned to your authentic self? Might it be time to grow into that which you've always been? When we're children, we already have a strong sense of who we are and in which direction our natural inclinations go. Might it be time to put that cape back on and go and save some lives? It may be now or never...

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Can I let you in on a little secret? I didn’t use to know who I was. That’s right. My identity was like plasticine- soft, malleable and at the mercy of the hands of others. I couldn’t have told you who I was, as it depended on a vast array of ever- changing circumstances, the people around me and the mood of the day. I was fragile as glass, and had never once considered what it meant to be the authentic me.

 

Let me ask you a question: who are you? Please don’t tell me what you do- important as it may be in defining your identity, I didn’t ask how you spend your working week. Nor do I want to hear about your closest relationships and the roles you play- fundamental though they may be in the painting the portrait of your life. I asked: WHO ARE YOU? What are the characteristics that define you? What do you do better than most? What beliefs or causes would you fight for? What do you feel most proud of? What would you do with your life if nobody was watching? How would you spend your last twenty-four dollars? Or twenty -four hours?

 

These questions may take time to answer. We distract ourselves from such pondering, filling our lives with plans, with products, with places to go and people to see. Yet we should make this pursuit our priority. We may need to delve deep inside ourselves- a deep sea diver on a quest to uncover coral- but from the depths of the dark water will come the glimmer of authenticity.

 

 Psychologists Michael Kernis and Brian Goldman describe authenticity as being true to ourselves- being congruent in our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviours. It is known to lead to healthy psychological functioning, and creates a deep sense of life satisfaction and well-being. So let me ask you again- who are you? A wonderful tool to uncover your character strengths (and thus also glean insight into your core values) is the VIA Survey of Character Strengths found here:

https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/user/login

Positive Psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson found that our strengths are linked to life satisfaction, and our frequent use of them correlates to higher well-being (Ruch, Proyer and Buschor).

 

What would happen if you were to become more aware of these strengths on a daily basis? How about if you could look for tiny ways to slip them into your daily interactions? What would it take for you to be five percent more authentic in your work? How about in your relationships? How might it affect what you do? How might it change the relationships?

 

Who do you want to become in 2017? Let me tell you one more secret. I told you at the start of this that I know who I am. I do, to a certain extent. I know my strengths, as well as my weaknesses. I know what matters most to me; I know how I’d spend my final hours on this earth. I know what drives me- I feel a sense of purpose in pursuing that which I love. Yet, and this is a very important yet- we are all work in progress. I recognize that I’m on a journey of constant transition. The person I am now will constantly evolve- influenced by opportunities, setbacks and perhaps even the whim of fate itself. However, in the midst of all this change I will stay true to my core self, and from this rock of stability I will embrace all that comes my way. Authenticity may not be a destination, if not the vehicle in which we decide to travel. Once we jump on board, we will travel to places previously out of our reach; places which will feel like home, and in which we’ll want to stay, ever evolving into a better, brighter and truer version of ourselves. 

 

Here’s to being exactly as we are in 2017- embracing our uniqueness, and ever growing into who we really are!