ALISON BEARD: I’m Alison Beard, and this is a special series of the HBR IdeaCast that looks at how to find joy in our work.
At a time when lots of people are feeling burnt out, disengaged, and unhappy in their professional lives, we’re explaining with the help of author, Marcus Buckingham, how to change our jobs for the better.
And while in the last episode, we looked at why so many people are unhappy at work – today, we want to start looking at what makes them feel fulfilled on the job.
SPEAKER 1: The things that make me feel most excited about the work I do are things like coaching, mentoring, developing people in general, really helping them reach their full potential.
SPEAKER 2: I get most excited when I’m working with a group of people to try and improve a process that will make things better for all the other members of the team.
SPEAKER 3: I like writing proposals and scoping activities of the project where I need to set up the scope.
SPEAKER 4: I have been a landscape designer for over 35 years. I love seeing that space, and being creative, and developing something that people can enjoy to see, and grow, and live and entertain in.
SPEAKER 5: I genuinely love the opportunity to help people see what they previously thought was impossible as possible.
SPEAKER 6: Anytime we launch a new product, anytime we launch a new menu item that our customers love, it gets me fired up.
SPEAKER 7: The things that really, really make me excited at my job are seeing the satisfaction on my patient’s face when they’ve made progress with the skills we’ve given them to help make them better. The other thing I really enjoy about my job is I love talking to all the different patients that we work with and just giving them education, and giving them feedback, and giving them support.
SPEAKER 8: I really love being creative, taking a clean slate and creating something out of it for customers.
SPEAKER 9: What I genuinely love about my job is knowing that every day I’m making a difference in people’s lives.
ALISON BEARD: Once we realize that we need more joy in our work – it’s time to start figuring out what exactly makes us so happy – so that we can redirect our energies – ideally without quitting our jobs. Marcus Buckingham is the author of the book Love and Work and we’re excited to have him back.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: I’m so happy to be here, Alison.
ALISON BEARD: Okay. So the first, most obvious question, is it really possible to find things that you love in any job?
Well, let’s admit that there are a lot of boring jobs that have been designed by people who basically assumed that there’s no love to be found in that job. Whether it’s warehouse jobs, where there’s no bathroom breaks, or whether it’s white collar jobs, where you’ve got surveillance software on your computer, you can design jobs in a really loveless way.
When people then find no love in them, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So let’s just be straight about that. We can design really bad jobs, but if you flip that around and you begin by going, “First of all, let’s just start interviewing people who really, really, really love their work.” I mean, that’s what I’ve spent 25 years doing is doing qualitative focus groups, qualitative interviews, quantitative surveys, and assessments of people that are, for whatever reason, love what they do.
And the things that leap out to me… We talked last time about housekeepers, but how about boron miners? Rio Tinto Borates is boron mine in Northern California. You think, “Well, that’s just a job where you’ve just got to suck it up.” But you interview these people who love that work and the vividness of what they love is just mind-blowing where somebody will go, I give every single machine that I work with a name and every one of these darn machines got a personality.
I love every day working and I try to figure out which machine is going to choose to break down today. And I’m listening and I’m going… Because I’m not very handy at all, and I’m going, “What do you mean choose to break down?” And this person for whatever reason had just figured out that every one of his machines that he was working on in the mine was a character.
Somebody else talked about the fact that his thrill, his absolute thrill is going… And he measures it. How many days without a safety incident? He comes alive when he starts talking about that.
Any job that you wouldn’t love is loveless in your opinion. But it doesn’t mean it’s Loveless to everybody and we need to be super careful that we don’t assume that just because we hate it, it’s hateful. That’s not so. And again, that doesn’t mean that we can’t design boring jobs that don’t trust people and that’s super constraining and wrong. We can and we often do and we shouldn’t. But there’s love to be found everywhere.
ALISON BEARD: So it seems like you’re saying it’s very much about matching the personality to the job. So there needs to be a lot of soul searching to start with to make sure you’re on the right path. And that there’s even a possibility of finding these moments of joy or pathways to find love.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes. If we could rewind everything, what we would say to the nine year old is, “Hey, you don’t have to be afraid of life.” I know you wake up dear nine year old and sort of try to get through the day. There’s probably stuff that you didn’t get done at school yesterday, and you probably woke up today thinking about when you were going to get it done and life is something to withstand.
And then of course, as grownups, we had that same feeling, don’t we? You’re like you wake up and you’re like, “Oh shoot, my to-do list ran over from yesterday and how do I get through today?” But one of the things that we can teach people is that actually life isn’t something to be withstood. Life is actually putting on a show for you. Every single day, life comes at you with thousands of situations, moments, context, people. And it’s almost like your day is a fabric made up of many different threads. Some of those threads for you are black, or gray, or white, or yellow. They lift you up a little bit, bring you down a little bit. Not much to move the needle.
But some of those are red threads. Some of those threads every day are red. And what that Mayo Clinic research shows that the most resilient doctors and nurses do 20% of their activities that they love. The metaphor there is that they haven’t got a red quilt. It’s not as though every single darn day is a total red quilt.
They’ve just found red threads every day and woven them deliberately, intentionally. If you look for it and you find it, you can weave that into the fabric of every darn day. And by the way, Alison, the everyday part seems to be really important. When you do the research and you take the word every day out of the question, I have a chance to do what I love.
If you just leave it as I have a chance to do what I love, and then you start correlating that question to performance, to engagement, to likelihood to sue, to accidents on the job, to turnover. All the correlations go away. The everydayness, the frequency of it seems to be really important, more than the intensity of it.
It’s not like you could say to someone, “Hey, have a terrible month, but at least one day a month you’re going to do something here really love.” Okay. We have no data that show that works. So yeah, this begins actually with some soul searching going, “Hey, look for red threads today. Don’t judge them. Don’t assume yours are the same as everyone else’s. Don’t assume that they have anything to do with your race or your gender or your age, or what, because you are different frankly than your brother and your sister, the people you grew up in the same house with.” Their red threads weren’t yours. Even at nine, you knew that.
So yes, for all of us, it does start by taking your loves, for want of a better word, seriously. For a long time, you’re told your loves aren’t real. There’s nothing in there. You’re an empty vessel and learning for you is information transfer and then confirmation through standardized testing. That’s what school is. We do have a bit of unlearning to do if we’re going to find joy and love in our work.
ALISON BEARD: So when we’re talking about looking for these threads, let’s get specific, do we mean specific tasks? Do we mean special projects? Do we mean interactions with coworkers? What types of things should we be looking for?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, all of the above is… Everything you just said is real. You’d start off by going, “First of all, pay attention. Pay attention to what every day brings you. It sounds like an obvious thing to say. But as I mentioned before, often we seem to think that life is the enemy and then we’ve got to keep it at bay.
So first of all, try to change your relationship to what’s hitting you every day and start paying attention to the show that your life is putting on. Second, look for the first obvious three clues to your red threads. And those first three clues would be number one, what do you find yourself instinctively volunteering for?
What particular activity or moment… It could be writing an email. It could be dealing with a guest complaint. It could be redesigning a workflow schedule. What do you find yourself instinctively volunteering for and looking forward to?
So positive anticipation is a great first clue. Second clue, time flies by. It’s the idea that when you are in the middle of some activities, the steps fall away and it’s almost like you vanish inside the thing. And maybe by way, some of those things you have been procrastinating. So the first clue isn’t a thing you should look for because you’ve been pushing it off. But boy, when you start doing it, oh my word, it’s like time speeds up.
It’s a bit like when you’re in love with someone right? Before you’re with them, time drags on and it slouches up the hill and then suddenly, finally you’re with the person you love, and then the whole bloody day seems to speed by in 15 minutes.
ALISON BEARD: That’s a hundred percent me writing an article. I will put it off and put it off, and put it off. And finally, I’ll sit down and start writing, and I won’t be able to stop. Like my kids will come home. I’ll say, “Make yourself dinner.” Like my husband will say, “Hey, do you want to watch TV tonight?” I’m like, “Nope, nope. I’m finishing this piece.”
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes. Those two signs don’t necessarily correlate. I mean sometimes they do, but to your point, sometimes you’re like, “Ah, push it off, push it off, push it off.” And then you’re in it.
ALISON BEARD: I think you have to be good at it too. Right? So not that I’m tooting my own horn, but it’s my profession. I’ve been doing it for 25 years. So that’s partially why I can lose myself in it.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, yes. Although there’s a relationship between love leading to appetite. Appetite leading to practice. Practice leading to performance. So unquestionably people do seem to get better at things they practice, but the really interesting thing is figuring out what it is that you love that gives you an appetite to practice. Because when you look at practice through the lens of love. It’s not a discipline, practice is an obsession. So you’ve gotten good at it because probably a long time ago… Sorry, I don’t mean a lot. I don’t know how old you are, Alison.
ALISON BEARD: It was a long time ago. Don’t worry.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: A long, long time ago. But probably you wrote something and somebody way back when, and I bet you could even sum it up.
ALISON BEARD: A hundred percent. Seventh grade, Mrs. Sussman English. I had to write a piece on haste makes waste. I had to write a short story about it, and I got an A plus. I had to read it in front of the class. I’ll never forget it. And then I was like, “I’m going to be a writer,” obviously.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Gosh, that just gives me chills because how lovely to have a person, in this case a teacher. I mean talk about people developing response to another human being. You are so close to your own loves. In seventh grade, you haven’t really individuated yet. You haven’t really figured out whether you should fit in or stand out. So somebody coming in from the outside and going, “Hey, hey, you’ve just written something that people would want to read. How beautiful is that?”
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t get better. This isn’t like a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset and you were fixed in seventh grade. It’s just that thing that you did we saw, and it resonated with us and your appetite for it grew. And it becomes this self-reinforcing thing where somebody helps you get better at it.
You learn which particular sentences really seem to work and which don’t. You turn your love into contribution, which is awesome. So that is the second clue. The third clue by the way is just… there some things when you start to do them, you don’t need the steps. People often break down skills into steps, but there are some activities when you do them, it’s like you don’t need them. The learning was already there inside you. Some nurses can give painless injections, and they have exactly the same technique as the same steps as a nurse right next door. But when you ask the patient to rate the pain, same patient, different nurse, same steps for the injection, one patient and one nurse gets high pain ratings and the other one doesn’t.
And it’s not the steps. It’s almost like there’s some sort of true understanding of empathy inside the nurse already. They don’t need the steps. So one of the other clues to a red thread is when you’re trying something new, it’s almost like you’ve done it before.
And not to get too mystical, but the Norse had a lovely idea of this. They said that inside of you is a wyrd, not W-E-I-R-D, but W-Y-R-D. It’s a noun. You have a wyrd. You were born with like a diamond inside you that knows things. I realize this now begins to sound a little spiritual and weird, but it means that… You’ve seen this I bet with your kids where one of them you try to get them to do something and it’s like, “Oh my word, I’ve got to mechanize that because that kid has no idea how to do that.”
And then another kid you’re like, “How did you know that?” Just give you one example. My daughter didn’t speak until she was three which got us really worried. But when she did speak, it was whole sentences. And one of the first ones, when her mom was leaning over the crib at three, her mom’s necklace kind of hung down so that my daughter could see it. And she looks up at the necklace and one of the first first utterances she ever said was, “That’s a lovely necklace, mommy.” And I went-
ALISON BEARD: Wow.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: … “You don’t want that necklace. You’ve at three understood the concept of reciprocal altruism. Who taught you that if you sow goodwill with your mother now, she’ll repay you somehow later. Who taught you that?”
ALISON BEARD: Who taught you to give compliments?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes.
ALISON BEARD: Amazing.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: It’s funny. She came back from school when she was five years old and she’d been asked to write goals for the semester. One of the goals was like learn to, I don’t know, learned to read better, but the second goal, unprompted was stop fooling the teachers. And I laughed because I was like, “Where’s that coming from?” I went back to my son and was like, “Hey, this is funny. You see what your sister wrote as a goal? She wrote stop fooling the teachers.” And I thought he was going to laugh because I was laughing, because obviously I’m an amazing parent. And he didn’t laugh. He just looked at me with this completely blank stare.
He was like seven years old. He looked at me and he was like, “Wait, you can fool the teachers?” He’d had no concept that you could sow goodwill, manipulate… Not manipulate. I don’t mean that. But had no idea that people could be fooled. So some part of red threads is that. It’s an immediate, almost rapid learning of mastery. Absent somebody breaking it down into steps. So those are the first three things, Alison. Gosh, we could teach this to nine year olds. We should certainly teach it to 39 year olds.
ALISON BEARD: And so just practically, you’re looking for these clues. Do you know brainstorm and write down a list? Do you think about things both in it side work and outside work, things from your childhood? Should people, once they’re starting this process come away with that sort of list of five things that they really do love doing, they do naturally, they get into a state of flow with?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. So the first and simplest way to do this is just to… Which probably no one’s done, but it’s very easy to do. Just take a blank pad around with you for a week. Keep those three clues in mind. But take a blank pad around with you, draw a line down the middle of it. Put loved it, at the top of one column. Loathed it, at the top of the other. And take the pad around with you for a week. Anytime you see one of the signs over love, scribble it down. And if you happen to see one of the inverses of the signs of love you are procrastinating it or time seems to drag on, and it feels like you’ve been doing it for an hour, but it’s just been five minutes or it feels stilted and disjointed, and you feel alienated. Scribble that down in the loathed it column.
That’s a really good way to inventory a week. And then look at what’s in the loved it column. And then once you see what’s in the loved it column, what you’re trying to get to, I mean really what you’re trying to get to is you have to try to write for yourself three, I’ll call them for want of a better term, love notes, which start with a sentence, “I love it when…” And then you’ve got to just try to finish the sentence.
And of course today, because no one teaches us any of this, most of us are completely inarticulate are disfluent in our own love language. And so we say generic things like I love how helping people. I love challenge. And it’s like, what you’re trying to do actually is once you’ve done love it, loathed it, you’re going to try to write three love notes, but you’re going to try to push for detail because love lives in detail. And the road to the heart of you is paved with detail.
If you’ve written a few things down in your week, then push yourself with a few does it matter questions? So if you go, “Well, I love helping people,” then push yourself with, does it matter who they are? Does it matter when you are helping them? Does it matter why you’re helping them? Does it matter where you are helping them? Does it matter how you are helping them? Just try to put a little detail to what you love. There’s no right answers. There’s only your answers. You know what your red threads are. So the simplest thing to do is love it, loathe it and then push yourself to write three sentences. And they might change in nine months. Okay, fine. But don’t imagine that anyone will know them ever better than you. They won’t.
ALISON BEARD: I mean, I think it’s also good for people to articulate what they really don’t like, because it’s easy to come home from work and say, “Ugh, I had a terrible day.” And you don’t really want to dwell on why it was a terrible day. But if you think about, “Okay, well what are all the things I did today? And how does that differ from when I have a good day?” You find those other color threads so that you know to weave them in less, if you can.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yes, and that’s one of the biggest things that we need to change in the world of work, the myth of completeness. Job descriptions list all the things you’re supposed to have and then you are supposed to be complete. Performance management systems list all the things you’re supposed to have and then you’ll be complete, and then you’ll get promoted. If you work for one of the 3 million people that work for the Office of Personnel Management, namely the government by law, you have to manifest those list of complete things in order to get the next job.
We need to blow that myth up because what you’re saying is the antithesis of teamwork. It’s like if I’m going to work with somebody on a team, I’ve got to be able to say, “Here are my red threads.” Which doesn’t mean braggadocio, “I’m the best at…” It means just going, “I’m at my best when… You can really lean into me for… People often rely on me for…” You can find language to talk about what your red threads are without saying like you’re a braggart.
And then of course, to your point, Alison, we absolutely have to be able to talk about the other colored threads. We need to be able to learn language that goes, “Hey, but over here I look like a deer in the headlights over here.” If you ever see me really, really, really procrastinating something, it’s over here. And of course along with that is like, “Here’s where I’m going to need help.” Now, who does that? Who helps people have the right, the permission to go, “Here’s what I love. And by the way, here’s how I want to turn it into contribution on this team.”
And then over here, “Here’s a bunch of stuff where I’m going to need help. Here’s a bunch of stuff where you’re going to find me just drained.” We don’t do that and yet on the best teams, if we think about all the movies that we watch about teams, I think about Oceans 11, the first third of the blooming movie is looking at the different people that come together. No one’s complete. No one is well rounded. The team’s well rounded because each individual on it isn’t.
So whenever we look at great teams, we don’t believe in completeness, we believe that you’ve got some red reds and then you’ve got some other colors over here. In the world of work, if teaming particularly in a remote or hybrid environment, if teaming is the preoccupation of most CEOs, which given my experience of late, all of them are asking about it, then we’ve got to blow up the myth of completeness and get people to be more articulate, as you said, about their red thread and about these other colors, because otherwise no one knows how to rely on you. No one knows where you might need help and deep down that’s what collaboration is really.
ALISON BEARD: I do see a couple risks here though. So one is that, “Right, this is what I love. This is what I’m good at. I’m not going to work on anything else. I know I need to get better at public speaking, but I don’t love it, and I’m not yet good at it. And so instead I’m just going to keep writing.” But we want people to grow and develop and build new skills. So how do you get over that hunt?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, that’s super interesting because we’ve set it up almost as though there’s growth mindset and fixed mindset. And if you’re not careful, this idea that your loves are real and that you are different from everyone else implies a fixed mindset. And what we should really be saying is, “You can be anything you want to be, Alison. Keep trying. Go beyond your comfort zone.” We say that a lot.
But actually loves are the fuel for learning. We know this to be true by the way. You have a massively filigreed network of synaptic connections in your brain. We know your brain to does retain its plasticity over the course of your life, which means of course you can learn new things.
But we also know, biologically, this isn’t some theory. This is biological reality. You’ll grow more synaptic connections in those parts of your brain where you have the most preexisting synaptic connections. That’s the way nature works.
So the issue isn’t growth on… Or no growth. The issue is where will you grow the most. And your loves are the clue to where you’ll grow the most. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to become a public speaker.
What it means is if I’m going to help you be a public speaker, I probably need to go through the lens of what you love. I can’t just teach you the six rules of public speaking. I’ve got to go, “How do you normally think about communicating Alison? How do you normally think about communicating on the written page and then how does that manifest in a public speaking environment?”
That might bring with it some fear for you, but the choice in your life isn’t comfort or no comfort, it’s love or no love. And if you’re doing things that you love, sometimes there’s fear with that. And that’s cool. So if I want to help you learn and grow, I need to say to you, “Follow what you love and keep pushing it. Because apart from anything else that will lead to the kind of expertise and depth that doesn’t make you narrow, it makes you frankly able to innovate more.”
I mean, Louis Pasteur’s remark was – he was a very famous chemist. He was the one who basically discovered the principle of vaccination and he did it because he had spoiled batch of cholera and he injected it into some chickens. And then he discovered that those chickens were the only bloody chickens that didn’t get cholera. And so he was like, “Oh my word, if you give somebody a little bit of a disease, then their immune system fires and they’re immune from that disease.”
Okay. How did he learn that? Well, he learned that because he followed his loves deeply into understanding chemistry. And as he said, creativity then comes only to the prepared mind. It’s only when you’ve really followed your loves deeply into a subject that you know the patterns, the standard patterns well enough to be able to recognize an anomalous pattern.
So for you, I’m not saying you should just do writing. That’s not what the research says at all. The research says, “Simply take your loves seriously, because they lead to learning and more learning, and more innovation, and more creativity. And if you actually want to end up and stand up and do a public speaking thing, the loves that you have about the way in which you currently communicate will be the best springboard for helping you figure out how to be a public speaker. I’m not saying you’re going to end up like-
ALISON BEARD: You.
… like Barack Obama. Like me. So can I give you one example of this? I do a lot of public speaking, Alison, but I had a stammer growing up. I couldn’t speak until I was 12. I went to speech pathology stuff to learn about how to… We traumatized everybody and so everything was diving into my trauma and what caused the stammer. And then one day the daft headmaster in my school told me I was going to read aloud in chapel. And I was like, “Oh my God, my whole life is over. I can’t say my name, let alone speak.” You don’t ask a kid with a stammer to speak in chapel. That’s just sadistic.
ALISON BEARD: Right.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Anyway, I get up, I walk up there, I turn around and for whatever crazy reason, the stimuli of all those eyes upon me made my synapses fire in a way they didn’t before, and I could speak. I gave the whole thing without stammering. A, that was a huge, weird discovery. But B, I realized that’s a red thread of mine. People looking at me makes me able to speak. That’s interesting because what I then did is took that and then I just pretended. When I was talking to every individual on the schoolyard one by one, which I could never do, I just pretended I was talking to 400 and my stammer, which was my entire defining experience as a kid growing up, went away in a week.
So I used something that I accidentally discovered was a red thread and I just used it to learn how to deal with something that had been really, really, really, really difficult for me. So the same is true for every one of us. Our loves actually are our savior when our life is crushing us. We don’t normally think about that. But this isn’t about comfort. It’s about honoring what it is that you love because that elevates you. Everyone is different, but it elevates you.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And so the other risk is that you find a couple red threads, but there aren’t really enough to weave a pattern or to find them every day. So is there a danger that if you find a few, you’ll stay in a job that still isn’t really good enough for you to find joy or love?
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Well, we need to change our metaphor for what a career is. We think of a career as a ladder, or we think of it as a lattice or some people say it’s a jungle gym. But all of those metaphors are climbing metaphors. A better way of thinking about a career is a scavenger hunt. It’s a scavenger hunt for love. So if you’re paying your dues in a job that you don’t really like, still you’ve got to become a scavenger. You’ve got to look as red threads because you need them every day because that’s what the data reveals is necessary for you. That’s how you make it nourishing.
If you’re in a job where you’re one of the 73% of people that say that you can maneuver your job to fit yourself better, okay, keep scavenging. Every day try to figure out how to maneuver your job so that it’s a greater manifestation for you. Keep volunteering those red threads. Maybe you can learn a new skill that makes people go, “Oh my word, we’re going to lean into her for that.”
If though, as you said, you get to a point where you’re one of the 27% who go, “I don’t have the freedom to maneuver and I’m probably in the wrong blooming job,” then you continue to scavenge. Yes, at that juncture love is not a luxury. Love is a necessity for us as human beings. I don’t mean love of another person. Although that is to a necessity. I mean, we need the nourishment of activities that seem to be expressions of ourselves and work isn’t the only place. But our job is one of the places in which we devote a lot of our hours.
So if you find yourself in a job where you can’t find the red threads, or maybe your manager prevents you, then thankfully with labor markets as tight as they are, you’ve probably got more power than you’ve ever had before to go. You know what? I’m going to go scavenge somewhere else. Thank you very much.
It shouldn’t be your first move, but at some point, if you’re going to think of your career as a scavenger hunt for love, and at some point you might have to go, “This isn’t right for me right now, and I need to go scavenge somewhere else.” But at least then you’re being intentional about it and you know you’re not just running away from something. You’re running toward where you might find red threads.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Terrific. Well, I can’t wait to talk about more of this, especially how we shift our roles. So we have more of those red threads. But that’ll be the next episode. Marcus, thanks so much.
MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Thank you Alison.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Marcus Buckingham, author of Love + Work. Listen to the entire mini-series on finding joy in your job at hbr.org or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.
This post What Do I Really Love To Do? was original published at “https://hbr.org/podcast/2022/04/find-joy-in-any-job-what-do-i-really-love-to-do”