The puzzle: a successful woman who felt that something in her life was missing—but what, precisely? The answer: Marcus Buckingham, an expert in what works at work, believes that the power to transform your life is much closer than anyone realizes. O reports on a surprising (and profound) lesson in getting unstuck and on track.
One day at work, the computer system Kylie (not her real name) depends on to get her job done collapsed in a total meltdown. The tech support people, five states away in Virginia, wouldn't pick up the phone.
Kylie's colleagues wouldn't get off her back—they were literally hanging over her shoulders, demanding to receive what she had no way to give them until the system started up again. In the end, she was glued to her chair for six unbroken, miserable hours.
For Kylie, who grew up in Midwestern farm country, who loves to hike and ride horses and work with her hands, this six-hour imprisonment in her chair was the worst thing of all. At home that night, she felt as if she'd been beaten up. "I looked ahead at the next 20 years and thought, 'If it's more of this, I'll slit my wrists.'"
More alarming was that lots of days felt like this. There hadn't been a single last straw, Kylie realized; there were haystacks of them. At some point in the past two or three years, the job Kylie had worked at for more than a decade had become not just unsatisfying but intolerable. Something had to change. But what? Kylie was well into an online master's degree in psychology because she'd always loved helping others through transitions in their lives. Yet the course wasn't helping her transition at all. It was "geared toward research and academia," she says, and that wasn't her style.
On the surface, Kylie's life looked pretty great, even glamorous. She owned her own apartment in Manhattan. She had a job at a newspaper, working in design, an activity she'd loved ever since she was a teenager making her own jewelry. She wasn't one of those women who are afraid of change: She'd had success singing jazz and the blues before switching to news. She'd been married and divorced. She'd moved from her native Midwest to California, then to New York City, then to California again, then to New York City again. "I guess that might sound kind of flaky," she worried.
Marcus Buckingham could not have disagreed more. "She's so specific, so focused, it's great," he confided to me, not long after O magazine brought him and Kylie together to try to figure out what she should do. A former Gallup Organization researcher, Marcus is a management consultant and the best-selling author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work (a handbook for improving performance to achieve maximum success in the workplace); most important, he's devoted his life to helping other people decide what to devote their lives to. He recently completed a 26-city tour, where he spoke with hundreds of executives and human resource professionals about what he's learned from years of researching people who've excelled at their careers.
"I was so afraid," Marcus added, "that I was going to be working with one of those people who, when you ask them what they like, say 'Ooooh, I don't knooow.' What do you wish you were doing? 'Ooooh, I don't knooow.' What interests you? 'Ooooh, I don't knooow!'" Marcus was making me laugh, but he was also making a point. Kylie did know what she wanted and needed.
For all his success helping people refocus their lives, the most crucial materials he uses—the clues for solving the mystery of anyone's unhappiness—are never furnished by Marcus but by the people themselves. One of his fundamental beliefs is that all of us, even at our most confused and unhappy, like Kylie, have very good instincts about what we should be doing. Even the person who, when asked what she likes, wails "I don't knooow!" does know, in her gut. She's just not noticing, amid all the dispiriting moments when she feels overwhelmed or unsatisfied or bored, those other moments—perhaps less numerous, but far more significant—when she feels good. Absorbed, so time flies. Excited. Everyone, Marcus maintains, has such experiences, even during the worst sort of week. Kylie felt completely out of her element, miles off course from where she was supposed to be, but Marcus believed that she was actually in the vicinity of real happiness. Her instincts had led her to the ballpark, but she wasn't hitting homers. She was wandering around in the stands, or stuck in line for the restroom.
What was keeping her there was that she'd forgotten, or maybe she'd failed to discern from the start, what she was passionate about. Most people, Marcus says, make the mistake of speaking of their passions in overly general, grandiose terms. "I'm passionate about making the world a better place." "Well, who isn't?" Marcus would say. He calls this kind of vague talk "skywriting"—it's way up there, far from the specific conditions of our lives, and it tends to melt away. Marcus prefers a more concrete, muscular way of discussing our passions: in terms of strengths.
Our strengths are the actions that make us feel energized and optimistic, eager for the chance to do them again. We're not just good at our strengths—I'm good at paying bills, but that doesn't mean I like doing it. We're also nourished by them as by nothing else. When Marcus works with people like Kylie, the first thing he wants them to do is the most basic: He wants them to define their strengths, as narrowly and concretely as they possibly can. I feel strong when I close the deal and shake the buyer's hand. I feel strong when my explanation makes my students' faces light up with understanding. I feel strong when I've hit "print" and I see my own words in black ink on the page. Our strengths, Marcus says, are those situations in which we are intensely, happily, completely engaged. And because he believes our instincts are good—because they've gotten us into the ballpark—the place to look for clues to our strengths isn't way up in the sky but right where we're sitting, right in that office chair Kylie hated so much. Her hatred of that chair was real, but something important—some glimmering of passion—had led her to be sitting there in the first place.
Marcus asked Kylie to start generating raw material—to pile up clues to her strengths. For one week, she was to write a list of things she loved and things she loathed about her job. She was to be as detailed as possible, to pay exquisitely close attention to her own frame of mind in the course of a typical week: When did she feel energized, satisfied? When was she miserable?
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