How to choose a career to get the lifestyle you want

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Sarah Kenny wakes up at 5am six mornings a week to get to Back Bay Yoga where she practices ashtanga — a genre of yoga known for acrobatic lunges, feet tucked behind the head, and almost fifty pushups in one session. After that, she goes to work as a senior operations specialist. For Kenny, both pieces of her life are important. “I am good at my job and I am good at yoga and I had to figure out how to balance both,” she says.

One of the most liberating moments in career planning is to realize that you don't have to get paid to do your favorite activity in order to be happy. One of the constipating situations is to think there is only one career that can be fulfilling to you. Get rid of the idea that the most important thing to a worker is work, and you free yourself to make work just one portion of a fulfilling life.

Kenny's success comes, in part, from the fact that she has structured a life that caters to two aspects of her personality — the organized, office manager type, and the athletic, live-in-the-moment type.

Paul Tieger, co-author of the best-selling career guide, Do What You Are, advises that you pick a career based on your personality type, which nearly ensures that you'll have passion for what you do. Tieger's book helps you to understand yourself very quickly in a way that allows you to nail down your personality type and then find many careers that cater to it. You can even give the system a free test drive.

What is clear form Tieger's system is that a personality is multi-faceted, and a career need only cater the dominant aspects of your personality in order to be fulfilling. The passion you have that you won't get paid for is something you can do in addition to your job, and in the best scenario, each portion of your life caters to a different aspect of your personality.

The key to making this sort of life work, though, is finding a job that leaves room for a life. Kenny, for example, will not work at a company that does not respect her yoga schedule. Leslie Cintron, assistant professor of sociology at Washington and Lee University, says that workers like Kenny are not aberrations, “We have a generation that is clamoring for more balance in their lives.”

But this is a different sort of balance than the baby boomers aspired to. According to Cintron, “Baby boomers were talking about issues that they had to deal with when women moved into the workforce and polices didn't acknowledge that fact. Today one difference is that men in their 20s also are saying they want balance. They want extra space to be able to develop themselves as individuals.” Another difference is that baby boomers asked, “Can we work and have a family?” The new generations ask, “Can we work and have a life?”

For some people, “having a life” means having time for friends or developing a connected relationship. Other people might seek meaningful pursuits outside of work, such as a particular sport or extensive travel. Whatever “having a life” means to you, take solace in the fact that you don't need to get paid for it, you just need to find an employer who will give you room for your personal passions.

Be bold when it comes to getting what you need. Ask yourself what parts of your personality you need to address. Ask your employer to accommodate your non-work needs. The new generation is rife with people like you. Management advisors across the country are warning companies that if they don't make the workplace flexible they will face a shortage of willing workers.

Trust yourself to identify your personality type and your passions, and have the confidence to require that your employer afford you space to grow. Cintron encourages asking, even if it looks like a risk: “There is a lot of untapped flexibility that might be offered if one makes that first attempt to ask.”

Tread very carefully near a company that will not give you enough control over your time to enable you to pursue passions outside the office. Having control over your time and your work are some of the most important factors in job satisfaction; it is almost impossible to be happy in a job that gives you no control.

16 replies
  1. serena
    serena says:

    Great post. Right now I am working in a job that I don’t particularly enjoy, but gives me great flexibility. (work from home)I am afraid that if I pursue a job that I will enjoy i will be much more restricted in doing things I have come to enjoy- I’m not relishing the idea of going to work for 9 hours a day in a cube farm, but what I am doing now is not making me happy. Decisions, decisions.

  2. Diana
    Diana says:

    “[E]ach portion of your life caters to a different aspect of your personality.”
    “‘Can we work and have a life?’ – €?
    “[T]here is never one crazy person in a marriage.”

    These statements, and many others in your posts, reinforce my theory that a career is a lot like a love life. Sounds strange, perhaps, but it really makes me laugh sometimes when I think of the similarities.

    We all want a perfect job, just as we all want a perfect partner: fulfilling, supportive, good listener, responsive to our needs, gives us our space to “have a life” outside of the job/relationship, etc.

    Similarly, just as one job will never give us everything we want out of life, it is just as impossible to think that one person will ever cater to all aspects of our personalities. That’s why we have friends and hobbies. That’s why (most of us) date more than one person in our life, have more than one career in our life… we’re experimenting to get the best possible fit.

    I also appreciate your analogy to this in your previous post about the text-message firing. Sometimes people are in bad relationships, and sometimes people are in bad jobs. Many people have a tendency to please and be accepted, so it’s difficult to separate yourself from a bad situation before it gets worse. Jobs and partners can belittle you, take advantage of you, abuse your fear of being fired/dumped, etc.

    Firings and quittings can be just as emotional as break-ups. Sometimes they are angry and accusatory: “You cheated on me! I never want to see you again!”, “You embezzled money from us! I want you out of here by the end of the day!” Sometimes they can be a mutual agreement to “pursue other opportunities” because things just weren’t working out. Everyone strives for peacable break-ups/firings, to stay on good terms with your former partner/boss.

    Oh, I could go on forever…!

  3. AJ
    AJ says:

    Oh, I want so badly to be one of those people — like my Dad — who can just go to work. But I’ve tried and I think it only works when you have a straightforward 40-hour per week job — and a lot of those clock-in, clock-out jobs are just not satisfying to anyone who wants to have some type of career-track job.

    I mean, working AT LEAST 9-10 hours a day (and the best hours of the day, mind you), and sleeping 6-7 hours a night leaves most people with a short period of 7 p.m. to bedtime in which to “have a life.” I wish that going to work was just a check box on my daily to-do list, but honestly, it consumes my whole day and all of my daily allowance of mental energy!

    So for me at least, the quest continues to find a job that I don’t mind making an integral part of my life.

  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    Sounds like a great idea…and I don’t mean that in an entirely cynical way…but it is hard enough to find rewarding work, let alone have it be flexible to allow you to have a life, AND have it pay enough money to afford to live in the Boston suburbs and raise a family. When you reach a six-figure income and are breakeven month-to-month, it makes flexibility a real challenge.

  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    Sorry to double post, but I could not resist after following that link to the personality test. Personality tests are useless. I have known that I am an INTJ all my life and while it is entertaining to read about what a great type that is, it doesn’t really do anything to help me figure out what to do with my life, how to get out of the job I hate and still provide for my family.

  6. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    What great comments these are! I sense a theme: A job is like a boyfriend/girlfriend in that it is always disappointing. I mean, no one can meet all our needs, and no job can meet all our needs. I think one of the reasons that being married and finding the right job are two of the hardest parts of adult life is that they are both inherently disappointing. They both require us to give up some stuff that we wanted. The trick, in doing both tasks successfully, I think, is knowing yourself well enough to know what you can give up.

  7. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    It was very good summary from you Penelope. Just want to add that while it’s very important for us to realize that no one and no job can meet all our needs, I reckon we should at the same time remind to ouselves that this applies to each of us as well – meaning probably as a partner and/or employee we also have rooms to improve….

  8. AJ
    AJ says:

    Dave, can I just say, Amen Brother!

    I bought the book “I Don’t Know What I want to Do, But I Know It’s Not This,” which is filled with sort of “get to know yourself” tests. And once, my employer had a workshop where all of us managers did the very famous personality test psychologists use so we could know how to be more effective.

    All I have to say is, Big Whoop.

    Knowing yourself and knowing what kind of job makes you happy is great if you live in NYC or L.A. where there are tons of employers to choose from. But for those of us who don’t live in a city, particularly small towns with few employers, options are very limited unless you want to open your own business.

    So I think Penelope is right in her subsequent post, it’s more about figuring out which things to sacrafice, and which are most important.

  9. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    AJ, I love your comment. It makes me think there are two trends about to happen (happening already?):

    1. People will move out of big cities because big cities limit people to career paths that pay well enough for expensive-city housing.

    2. An entrepreneurial boom in small cities where people will need to create their own dream jobs in order to get out of the big city and still have fulfilling work.

  10. alicia
    alicia says:

    Your advice that you don’t have to get paid for doing your “passion” at work offers a sense of relief for me. I have not heard this kind of perspective anywhere else before and it’s refreshing. I agree that forcing yourself to choose a passion that is ALSO your career is extremely frustrating, and probably impossible for some people (or most?).

    The only thing I worry about is…say you’re the kind of person who hasn’t “gotten out much” and has very little work experience. Do you have a complete personality type that is just waiting to be tapped into? Or is your personality incomplete because you haven’t exposed yourself to what you like to do and what you don’t like to do (this is my situation)? I’ve taken these kinds of career tests before, and then when I review the results for my “ideal careers”, I am unsure about whether or not they actually reflect my strengths and interests. Mostly because I don’t even know what they are.

    For example…you could say that you love fixing things in a career test. Then when you actually get a job in PC repair, you realize that you hate it. Would you change your answers the next time you took that same career test?

  11. Oliver Jenks
    Oliver Jenks says:

    I think that most young employees tend to under value balance in their lives.
    I know that when I was younger I could work 6 day weeks up to 70 hours as a restaurant manager.
    Now I have a family and there isn’t enough money to get me to go back to that lifestyle and it was a lifestyle.
    I remember when I told my last boss that I couldn’t work the hours anymore, and he looked at me like I was crazy!
    I knew that while I loved the business I couldn’t sacrifice my family just for the money.

    Thank you for allowing this comment, I recognize that its late but your post is as relevant today as it is when it was written. Everyone needs balance.
    Thank you for your work.

  12. Lam
    Lam says:

    Great to know that people are now looking for a balance life and this post.
    Figure out what is good and bad.. What is to sacrifice. It is the familiar relationship that is king.

  13. Ariana
    Ariana says:

    Great advice, but I think people have been doing this for quite sometime now. Waitressing while making music on the side (paid or unpaid), taking a 9-5 while making art or playing sports concurrently (which is what two of my friends did, respectively). But honestly, I can’t help but think the more forunate (yes, even so) can really have that choice when considering your suggestion. What about those who have to work overtime, who can’t afford to stick to a smaller, flexible schedule? They’d love to work and have time for their hobies but sometimes cant. Please also consider certain hobbies take money, and if you’re working at a job just to make it, you might not have the money for said hobby.

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