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Look Inward, Employee

Achieving career nirvana is possible but requires some soul-searching, experts say. The wrong job can lead to frustration rather than fulfillment.


Soon after Rob Peterson finished his PhD in biochemistry at UCLA last year, he launched his new career--as a juggler.

The joy he feels when impressing a crowd by tossing balls in the air on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade beats messing with beakers in a lab.

"I [had done] what people expected of me and followed the easiest path," said Peterson, 31, an outdoorsy gymnast who lives in Venice. "I don't think it ever occurred to me to make a career out of entertainment."

Unfortunately for the workers of America, it often does not occur to them to consider their true interests, passions and values before they set out on a career path. That may help explain the feelings of ennui and burnout that pervade the workplace.

Society's emphasis on the pursuit of material wealth--and its de-emphasis of the spiritual side of life--has caused millions of workers to feel out of touch with their personal priorities. That, in turn, is one reason why so many people these days can be heard clamoring for ways to improve the quality of their lives.

"There's a lot of unhappiness in the workplace because people aren't suited to the jobs and careers they choose," said Paul D. Tieger, co-author of "Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type."

Achieving career nirvana requires careful--even soulful--self-assessment, career counselors say. Skills and abilities should guide job seekers only partway. Individuals must look inward to understand their "higher selves" so that they can look for work that is a good match for their spiritual side. Call it Zen and the Art of Career Choice.

Bob D. McDonald and Don Hutcheson, Atlanta-based founders of the Highlands Program, a nationwide career-planning service, tell of one client, a public relations executive, who, like many other working stiffs throughout corporate America, was dissatisfied with her job and thinking that there must be something more to life.

She began analyzing the components of her existence: her abilities, interests, personality, values, goals, stage of adult development, skills and experience and family of origin.

That last element gave her pause. Her parents had been missionaries whose chief purpose was to give something back to society, but she had let go of that value over the years. She considered quitting her job before realizing that there might be a less-unsettling alternative.

Her solution was to work half a day each week for Habitat for Humanity, the volunteer organization that builds houses for the poor. By providing pro bono public relations service, she not only helped the organization but also won a good bit of favorable publicity for her agency.

Another young woman, a straight-A student, recalled following the advice of a college counselor who steered her toward law school. She got into Harvard and, after graduation, was hired by a big firm. But she knew from the moment she walked in the door that she didn't want to be a lawyer.

Although she had always enjoyed acting, she had never seriously considered a career in the theater, mostly because of her parents' influence. Both of them had despised their jobs as computer system consultants but had espoused the philosophy that earning a livelihood meant putting up with drudgery.

After going through the Highlands Program's battery of self-assessment tests--and realizing how important acting was to her--the woman began thinking about specializing in entertainment-related law. She plans to limit the number of hours she puts in so that she reserves time and energy for the stage.

People tend to reach a turning point in their lives or careers every five to seven years, McDonald said. If they don't carefully reassess their situation at these intervals, they run the risk of sticking with a job that makes them feel consumed rather than fulfilled.

"Something has gone terribly wrong with our society," Hutcheson said. "The addictive nature of work has made it difficult for people to find balance and connectedness. It's a runaway freight train."

Clients who visit Career Focus, a career development and outplacement firm in Tustin, often have "a deadness in the eyes [from feeling] bored, stuck, miserable, unhappy and stressed," said Charlene Walker, a partner in the firm. What's usually missing from their lives, she said, is a sense that what they do makes a difference.

"They come to us because they've lost touch with who they are," Walker said.

In her counseling sessions, Walker attempts to probe beneath the surface of the resume, asking: What do you love? What is your essence? What have you always wanted to do?

Eager to land a job, many people suppress their values, said Mary McIsaac, a workplace counselor in Encinitas. But after they have been in the position for a while, the mismatch becomes more pronounced. Common sore points revolve around how workers are treated and how communication is handled.

As people approach mid-career, spiritual needs tend to weigh more heavily, and many workers grow bitter that they've spent 15 to 20 years doing something that wasn't right for them.

Many people at this time develop "a deeper sense of wanting meaning" in their work lives, said Kouji Nakata, a San Diego management consultant who has studied the groundswell of interest in workplace spirituality. If individuals take the time and trouble to get to know themselves, he said, that greater self-awareness can lead them to pick jobs more carefully.

It's wise to note that a job that constitutes a good spiritual match can mean a few trade-offs, as Rob Peterson, the juggler, can attest. A chronic back injury has sidelined him for the last several weeks, suspending his only source of income.

"I could go back to my old lab," he said, then quickly added, "but I really want to do this, if at all possible."

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