If you look for jobs online, you’ll rarely see a job posting that tells you exactly what you will be paid to do in simple, plain English. Ditto with the in-person interviews. The funny thing is no one asks that simple question. Employers don’t have an answer to that question when they are actively recruiting, and even if they do, they’ll say it in some roundabout way (like you’re responsible for some outcomes or results in corporate/business-speak). It’s not because they don’t want to tell you, but because that’s how they have been trained to see and do things (it’s not their fault).
The prospective employees don’t ask that question either before they accept job offers from these organizations because they’re mostly thinking about the benefits of joining the organization in terms of their history, established track record, great reputation and social status, etc., and less about what they’ll actually do on the job. The fact remains that most organizations do a poor job of posting job descriptions.
Other times, we enter into professions under the influence of our well-meaning friends and family. We hear things like, “You should do this. You are good at this”. And without thinking about it thoroughly, we start applying to college programs and/or jobs.
For instance, if you like the idea of travel, you might consider becoming a flight attendant for an airline. You might not necessarily be interested in doing the actual work/job (which might involve winning over grumpy or difficult passengers), when in fact that last bit is what you’re actually getting paid to do whether you realize this at the outset or not.
Or, you might say that you are going into Finance to make a lot of money (the Why) without understanding the actual work that you will do on a day-to-day basis (the What) and whether or not it plays to your strengths.
In the end, we join organizations because of our Why, we stay in those jobs because of the Who, and we ultimately quit because of the What.
According to Marcus Buckingham, an expert on strengths-based psychology, we start our jobs in organizations because of the Why and we continue to work there because of the relationships we build (the Who). We stay because we like our colleagues, peers, etc., they expect things from us, and we don’t want to let them down or disappoint them by leaving. But, when it comes to doing the actual work (the What), we may dislike it because it doesn’t quite play to our strengths. Sooner or later, we realize the work we are doing is not the work we were meant to be doing; we signed up for it for the wrong reasons (our Why). Although we might like the people we work with, at the end of the day, we end up being unfulfilled because the work we do doesn’t play to our strengths.
Here’s the thing: We are going to spend a majority of our waking hours at work, and if we don’t like what we are doing, and if it doesn’t play to our strengths, then that’s a huge opportunity lost for everyone involved — employees, employers, and customers.
We need to get the What right, and we need to get it right from the start. Always ask yourself in any interview or with any job offer and/or promotion of any kind: what will you be paid to do exactly? Can you actually see yourself doing that work on a daily basis? Then, ask yourself if doing that work will play to your strengths (skills and interests). If not, you ought to reconsider if taking the job/promotion/work is the best investment of your time and attention. If not, do you really want to be spending all that time working in some organization doing something that you don’t enjoy where you’re not producing excellent results and where you’re also not learning anything? It’s a lose-lose-lose no matter how you look at it.
You may read this piece and think that this is so obvious — and, at some level it is — yet you would be surprised by how many people fall into this trap without first considering and questioning the work they sign up for.
Because most of us are going to spend the majority of our time working, it is imperative that we get this right. That is the only way we’ll do meaningful work and contribute to the world while also doing justice to our strengths.