Over the years I’ve seen many smart and talented women (and men for that matter) “burn out” of their professional careers. They leave their jobs not because they feel called to something else, but because they are tired and fed up. A job that once seemed exciting has become an uninspiring chore. It always saddens me to see it happen, especially since I know that most “burnt out” careers could have been saved.
Does your career have staying power? If you want to build a career that can last, start now. It is never too early, nor too late. Here are some key principles to help you build a healthy and enjoyable career.
1. Center your career on faith. No matter what you accomplish at work, no matter how smart or capable or eager you are, no matter how loving your husband or well-behaved your kids are, the world you and I live in is broken. You will, as I have, experience betrayal and disappointment, embarrassment and failure. Your salary and job title can’t offer you much in those instances, but faith will sustain you and guide you if you let it. That means making your relationship with God a real priority. Let faith permeate your life, and build your career from there.
You won’t find this in any business school text books, but for me, it’s number one. You need faith first, because the rewards and accolades and benefits that come from work alone cannot sustain you. God’s calling is the purpose and the inspiration that will never fade.
2. Serve those around you. God has called you to work, and he gave you the gifts and the drive you need to succeed. But he called you there and gifted you in those ways in order to do his work. Don’t worry: you don’t have to shout the gospel from atop your desk chair. Do strive to demonstrate Christ’s loving service to the people around you, whether you’re their employee or boss.
Take the time to notice the needs of those around you and to help where you can. As you get older, you’ll look back and have a number of accomplishments to be proud of. But what you’ll value most about your career are the people you work with and mentor and serve.
3. Practice healthy boundaries before you need them. When I see a young employee throwing themselves into work to the exclusion of all else, I know that they are headed for trouble—I’ve been there! I truly love working and am often tempted to do “just one more thing.” But even if you’re not hard-wired for work like I am, it can be difficult to put your work away for the day, especially if you have relatively few other demands on your time.
It is crucial that you do so, and the best opportunity you have to learn and practice healthy boundaries is before you really need them. Practice leaving work at a consistent time. Set aside time for relationship-building with friends or family. Nurture your mind and body with exercise, sleep, hobbies, and healthy eating. You’ll bring more energy and inspiration to your job when the rest of your life is in balance, and the only way to get there is to start trying.
4. Learn how to delegate and let other people help you. One reason people get burnt out at work is because they let it be harder and more demanding than it needs to be. They get in over their heads and fail to ask for help, or they refuse to delegate work that others could or should be doing. There are lots of reasons why this happens, but mostly I think it comes down to fear and simple pride. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability and humility to ask for help with something, and there’s always a risk that someone else might mess it up.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to start taking that risk.
Most of your colleagues would be happy to help you with something if they can. Honor their gifts and strengths by (respectfully) asking them to give their input where you need it. Steward your own gifts by putting them to work where they are best suited and not keeping projects or tasks to yourself that should be passed on to someone else. Another qualified person might approach a task differently than you would, but they probably won’t fail to get it done.
Delegating and asking for help are skills that will help you manage your time and efforts, and they also build trust and rapport within a work team, helping you to work less and enjoy your coworkers more.
5. Take the long view. My dear friend and mentor Norma Coldwell had a long and fascinating career that included posts as a university dean of women’s studies, an analyst at the Federal Reserve, and a risk manager for a large international bank. She has fielded calls from foreign presidents and hung out with economic policy-makers like Paul Volker and Alan Greenspan. Remarkably, Norma didn’t start her career in earnest until she was 48 years old. She loves to remind me that “life is a marathon, not a sprint.”
As I’ve moved through the chapters of my own life, I see more and more just how right Norma is. I started out working the farm and pursuing education, then moved into my professional development years, going from leasing agent to the executive suite. When I felt called to start 4word, I transitioned to working part time, and finally, at 55, I’m moving out of the day-to-day corporate world altogether to focus full-time on nonprofit and corporate board work. The shape of my career continues to change and develop beyond my wildest dreams. And as Norma would say, I still have a long way to go!
With its constant flow of demands and deadlines, work often feels like a sprint, but it doesn’t have to be one. Sprinters are fast, certainly, but they don’t get very far. If you want your career to go places, you need to slow your pace, lengthen your stride, and take deep breaths.
You have more time than you think you do.