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Five steps to a job you love

Positive psychologist Vanessa King is the author of the new book '10 Keys to Happier Living'. Here, she shares some lessons she’s learned on the winding path to her own fulfilling career

by Psychologies

You won’t always know your destination

What I do now didn’t exist when I started out. Although I studied psychology, back then the field was focused on why things go wrong with our minds and how to cure that. Now there is much more research on prevention or how we help people to flourish – an area I discovered I was passionate about. This has taught me three things:

  • We don’t all have to have a clear long-term goal – just know your direction of travel in the short and, if you’re lucky, medium term.
  • Make choices that help you to build capabilities that will be useful in a range of contexts.
  • Keep plugged in to areas that interest you. Not only will this help you continuously learn, it will increase the likelihood of spotting new opportunities and options as they emerge. I discovered the shift in psychology early on, so I was able to get a solid grounding in it. This meant that I was ready when opportunities arose.

The stepping stones may not go in a straight line

My initial aim was to build a career in business, so my first step was to train and qualify as an accountant. Looking back, it was entirely a ‘head’ decision, rather than including my heart. I felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

However, looking at the parts of the work that I liked helped me realise I was interested in the people side of organisations, so the next section of my career was in human resources. I got a job focused more on motivating people. My interest in this led me – eventually – into a consultancy role, helping organisations and people to develop, which was a key step towards what I do now.

As we are all likely to be working longer, thinking of our careers in phases – rather than as a single trajectory – may be really helpful. Comparing where I started with where I am now, it seems like they are far apart, buteach move was a stepping stone to the next, even if they seemed from the outside to be in entirely different fields.

Look for clues to your strengths and talents

With hindsight, it’s clear why my first career step as an accountant was not a great fit for me. I am curious, interested in what’s new, learning, and good at research. I love travel. I’m creative in terms of solving problems and my approach to new things. I’m social and like working together on ideas. I love what I call ‘orchestrating’ – bringing together disparate parts to create something new or make a whole. What I do now is a much better fit for me.

The clues to all this were there from an early age, but I didn’t see them. As a child, I pushed beyond boundaries to find out about the world; I went travelling on my own; I studied sciences but most of my friends were creative in some way. As a young child, I designed a school – the uniform, the name and the motto, a register of all the names, the curriculum – everything! 

Our strengths are what we’re drawn to or energised by. Talents are what we’re naturally good at; areas where we learn fastest and often associated with the words ‘I love to…’. Reflect on what you’ve always loved to do. What’s at the essence of those things? Find ways to use them more in your daily life.

Keep connected

Shared experiences create bonds – I find that even people I haven’t seen for a while are usually willing to help or share ideas if you ask. That makes it easier for them to ask you. This can be invaluable in tough times that we all experience in our careers.

After I left accountancy for HR, the bank I was working for hit a crisis and many people were made redundant, including me. One of my accountancy friends was a great source of support at that time – she was a consultant who’d provided services at the bank and suggested I might try that type of work. She introduced me to the consultancy firm where she worked and, after a lengthy interview process, I got a job.

Many of us from those days still work together from time to time on freelance projects, and we’re always there for each other if we need ideas, information or even an introduction to someone else who might be able to help. We meet up a few times a year. It’s always interesting and fun.

These days, with social media, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch, even if loosely. So stay connected, ask for help when you need it and be sure to help if you can when someone asks you.

Tune in to your big question

During a training session, a colleague once asked: what’s the question that’s guiding your work and life right now? This came to mind after I’d been a consultant for a decade – helping organisations implement new ways of developing talent and managing performance. The question I had in mind was: ‘What next?’ My work was enjoyable, but I’d been doing it for a while and I wasn’t sure it made enough of a difference.

My question led me to attend a conference. One of the talks was on the effects of nurturing what’s best in people rather than only correcting what’s wrong. Research showed this helped make people happier, healthier, and more successful at work, too. There was even a masters degree in the subject, the psychology of optimal functioning (or positive psychology, as it’s more well known).

So I took a sabbatical and went to the US to study. In many ways, this was the least rational decision in my career. It was financially costly: I walked away from earning for a year, while paying university fees and living expenses. But it felt right. I knew it would help answer my question.

After my degree, a chance meeting led to me being introduced to the director of new charity Action for Happiness, whose aim was to increase psychological wellbeing. He needed help but had no budget. I volunteered. It was tricky financially, but led to opportunities to help individuals, organisations, schools, communities, and most recently to writing my book, 10 Keys to Happier Living (Headline, £12.99).

Photograph: iStock