Early on, many of us are rewarded and learn to feel like we’ve done a good job based on reaching the goals that others tell us to achieve, receiving positive feedback, and moving on to the next goalpost. As adults, this definition of success isn’t working well for us. It can lead to perfectionism, burnout, and the feeling of constantly chasing the next goal.
Bring Your Full Self to Each Moment
It’s time to flip the story. Instead of focusing on the end result, try focusing on bringing your full self to the task right in front of you, whatever it is. No matter how big or how small, no matter how another person will receive it, and no matter how long it takes, focus on bringing your own unique light and gifts to the task at hand here and now to feel fulfilled.
Most of my life, I have worked for nonprofits. In my twenties I felt energized and happy to support the organizations whether the task in the moment felt inspiring or routine. What kept me happy during the most mundane tasks was thinking about the bigger picture, the place and the experiences that my efforts supported.
Over time in each position, because I wasn’t yet fully in the career that felt like the best fit, I would begin to think about the next step, the next position, or the next job. This is natural. Circumstances constantly change and evolve, and looking ahead to the next growth opportunity for our self-development, for how we can contribute, and for our income to be supportive, is natural.
Ancient Wisdom Applies to Today’s Discomfort
What do we do, though, during those uncomfortable days, months, or years in limbo when we are no longer totally aligned with our current position and aren’t ready to take the leap into another direction? How do we sit comfortably amidst the effects of boredom, burnout, and discomfort when performing tasks that no longer feel fulfilling? The Bhagavad Gita, an oft-cited portion of the epic Hindu scripture Mahabharata, provides an answer.
The first time I read the Bhagavad Gita (also known as the Gita), was when I immersed myself in the practice and study of yoga, noticing that what we practice on the mat applies to areas of our life off the mat. I had daily yoga, meditation, and chanting practices, I incorporated Ayurveda into my lifestyle, and I studied with teachers renowned for their practice and contributions to these fields. The study of yoga will inevitably bring a person in touch with the Gita, as the content of its beautifully written verse illuminates fundamental teachings in one of ancient India’s major Sanskrit epics.
In chapter four of the Gita, Krishna explains that to attain freedom while living one must perform actions in service without attachment to the fruits of that labor. A modern-day example is when we volunteer our time: we act in service, we do not receive payment, and we experience a unique devotion to the work and the greater cause.
Non-attachment in the Workplace
Even when the work is outside of our areas of expertise, using our actions to support others without expectation of anything in return lightens our load, lights up our heart, and imbues the action itself with the sense of reward. It’s not about patting oneself on the back for doing a good job, it’s that the simple act of doing something with positive intent, full attention, and the greater good in mind that makes the difference. Fulfillment is in the present moment, and it feels out of reach when we are constantly looking ahead to an imagined future.
This can translate into our experience at work when we feel bored, frustrated, and unfulfilled. Once when I co-managed a collaborative project, it was taking much longer than I ever had expected. There would be hold-ups in other people’s schedules, decisions that others were making took such a long time for them to make, and there were other delays.
Because of my high expectations of what we had the potential to create, I became frustrated when the possibility of that dwindled. I reminded myself of the lesson in the Gita about not being attached to the fruits of our work. I shifted my focus from the end result to simply doing my part, each day, with whatever the day brought. Keeping the big picture in mind with non-attachment to the final result brought me peace of mind and a sense of fulfillment in doing what I could, with what I had in front of me that day.
Do Your Best: No More, No Less
A similar concept can be found in the Toltec wisdom of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The four agreements act as codes of conduct for experiencing more freedom in life. The relevance of each of them year after year makes them timely and timeless. The fourth agreement is: Always do your best. Ruiz reminds us that our best will look different each day, at different stages in life, and in different circumstances.
If we give ourselves permission to do our best in the moment, then we can feel content knowing that even on our lower-energy days or days we at least reached the goal of doing our very best. There is no use in holding ourselves to impossible standards. Once we can celebrate this about ourselves, we can honor it in others, too, which improves our relationships both at work and in our personal lives.
Reconnect with Your Values
Especially in recent years due to the pandemic, many people have felt heightening uncertainty around their jobs. Businesses are changing their models, people are resigning in record numbers, and more people are looking for work that has meaning. Nihar Chhaya, an executive coach to senior leaders at global companies, published an article on January 7, 2022, in Harvard Business Review online called “Setting Career Priorities When Everything Is Uncertain.” One of the approaches he suggests is getting clear on your values, who you are, and how you wish others might feel in your presence, not just the skills you bring. He suggests:
“To be successful in today’s changing work environment, particularly as a leader who inspires performance, you need to know who you need to “be,” not just a list of what you can do.”
Chhaya’s article addresses the current feelings of uncertainty people feel as they contemplate career moves and how they can take steps to feel less out of control with what might be levels of uncertainty they haven’t experienced before.
At some point in life, we recognize how uncertain life truly is and that the paradigm we were subject to as children no longer serves us when we become an adult, author of our own life. It’s no longer up to teachers, mentors, or employers to provide us with our own goalposts and maps to fulfillment. It’s up to us to uncover who we are, decide how we will show up, and realize how we will feel fulfilled moment-by-moment.