Heart of Engaged EmployeesDid you know that fewer than 1/3 of U.S. workers are passionate about their work?

This is not just some made up number. It is based on a 2014 Gallup Poll that tracked the engagement of levels of the U.S. working population in 2014. Gallup defined “engaged employees” as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” Only 31.5% of employees were operating at this level.

The sad news is that 17.5% of workers are “actively disengaged,” and 31.5% are just going through the motions — not engaged, but not unhappy enough to make a change.

It does not get much better when it comes to life happiness.

According to the Harris Poll® Happiness index, which uses a series of questions to calculate Americans’ overall happiness, only a third of Americans (33%) were very happy in 2013.  And the World Happiness Report, based on a Gallup poll survey, tells us that the average American lives at about a 7 out of 10 in the happiness scale.

When I was first introduced to this concept at a training with Robert Holden on Coaching for Success, I was really taken aback. Then I took the test and realized I was not actively engaged at work, and was operating at a 7 on the happiness scale– just like 90% of the people in the room.

I wish I could say that moment was my wake up call and I immediately went out and changed my life. But that was not the way things went down.

See, I thought I was reasonably happy. I had a wonderful relationship with the woman I loved. When Massachusetts changed its gay marriage laws, we were able to celebrate our love with a beautiful wedding.

My career was going along quite nicely. I had made it through all the hoops in my law teaching career — from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Full Professor with tenure.  I enjoyed my work in a law clinic supervising students who were helping entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations to start their dream businesses.

It didn’t seem like there was much that needed changing in my life. That is, until my beautiful world came crashing down.

When you ignore the whispers from the Universe, sometimes you will get hit over the head (metaphorically speaking, of course)!

So, my hit on the head took the form of a promotion at work. Yes, a promotion. I was asked to take on the role of Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, the person who is basically responsible for the entire academic program.

That should have been cause for celebration, right? The night I said yes, I went to our favorite neighborhood bar, and all my friends clapped me on the back and started calling me “dean.”

But deep inside, I knew it was the wrong move. It was moving me further from my ideal life instead of closer to that 10.

Lesson #1: Never ignore your intuition.

Why was this such a bad move? Let’s start with what I had to give up.

I love teaching. Every personality and archetype test I have taken says that I am a born teacher. But this job was primarily administrative, with no room for teaching.

I crave autonomy. I loved the feeling of creating my own courses and teaching materials, with nobody looking over my shoulder to tell me how to do it. But my new job required endless meetings, consensus-building, and sign-offs on every project.

I value freedom and flexibility.  I don’t mind working hard, but I like to do it in my own way, on my own time. As a professor, my only commitments were to my classes and my students (with a few committee meetings sprinkled in). As Associate Dean, I was on call from 9-5 (or longer) every day, and had to arrange my schedule to work around the needs of the entire management team, faculty, and students who needed my help.

Lesson #2: Think twice before you give up your passions for a “better opportunity.”

That was just the beginning of my jolt from the Universe. I also actively disliked about 80% of the tasks I had to do on a day-to-day basis.

As I said, they were largely administrative — writing reports, creating schedules, implementing plans, responding to endless e-mails. There was a little room for creative thinking about how to improve the academic program, and for counseling/mentoring students and faculty members.  But those more visionary goals largely got displaced by constant deadlines and putting out fires.

I am a very organized, responsible person and a decent writer. I also know how to bring people together and facilitate consensus. That is why I got tapped for the position in the first place. But what I grew to realize was that this job was largely in my “zone of excellence” rather than my “zone of genius.”

These concepts come from Gay Hendricks’ life-changing book, The Big Leap.

He defined four levels of activities that humans operate in:

  1. The Zone of Incompetence — activities that we’re not good at and that others can do a lot better.
  2. The Zone of Competence — activities that we are competent at but that other can do just as well.
  3. The Zone of Excellence — activities that we do extremely well, and where our bosses, family, and friends would like us to stay.
  4. The Zone of Genius — activities that we are uniquely suited to do, that draw upon our special gifts and strengths.

It is easy to be seduced into the Zone of Excellence. It gives us the outward appearance and trappings of success, and makes the people around us happy. The trouble is, a piece of our soul will die if we stay in that zone for too long.

Lesson #3: Don’t get stuck in your zone of excellence at the price of giving up your genius.

Okay, so I am a slow learner. After a couple of years of general malaise, things started to go downhill. I dreaded getting up in the morning and started to avoid certain people in the hallways. I realized I needed to do something to change the situation. But how would that look?

If I resigned from the Associate Dean position, I would be letting down my boss and my colleagues who relied on me.

If I went back to teaching, it would feel like a step backwards in my career.

If I left my position at the law school, I would be giving up a good salary and benefits, and the potential to get back into teaching.

I couldn’t imagine any good possibilities, so I did what any good avoider would do — I stalled.

I started dreaming of my own business, using my teaching and mentoring skills in a different context. In my search for alternatives, the field of coaching kept coming up.

So I enrolled in coaching programs — and got certified in too many to even mention here.

Then I enrolled in business programs to teach me how to market and grow my coaching business. Then I enrolled in yet more programs — public speaking, blogging, video creation, webinars, tele-seminars.  You name it, I enrolled, hoping that each new course would bring me the answer to my dilemma.

But I still had to face the ultimate question:

Should I stay or should I go?

After four years, it was time to make a decision. Was I ready to walk away from the law school and take a chance on my own business? Or should I stay and try to reinvent my teaching life to be more in alignment with my new vision of the contribution I wanted to make to the world?

Fortunately, I was surrounded by supportive colleagues who encouraged me to create a new role for myself at the law school. I also got involved with a group of first-year law students who were advocating for the law school to create a women’s law clinic. This idea was in total alignment with my passions:

  • It would give me the opportunity to teach and work with law students again.
  • It would fulfill my desire to do something to make the world a better, safer place for women and young girls around the world.
  • It would give me the perfect blend of autonomy and collaboration that was ideal for my leadership style.
  • I could operate in my zone of genius — teaching, creating programs, and being involved with activists and community groups whose work I admired.

So, the Gender Justice Project was born, and I got my mojo back.

But I did it the hard way. That is why I have also created a coaching business to work with people like me who feel stuck in an unfulfilling job or career, or who are just ready to play a bigger game.

If you are ready to make a change and would like a guided system for figuring out your next step, you can check out my upcoming workshops and retreats at this link.