Getting Clarity About What Career Happiness Means to You, with Al Dea

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You feel unhappy at work but you aren’t sure what to do about it. Should you look for a new job, or change careers entirely? Find Your Dream Job guest Al Dea says you begin by figuring out what’s causing the unhappiness. Dig down into the nitty-gritty details of what you don’t like about your job. Then, think about what would be a happy workday for you. Are there changes you can make at your current job to make those things a reality? Al suggests not worrying about the ultimate outcome but rather focusing on each little step toward happiness along the way. 

About Our Guest:

Al Dea is a talent development advisor, author, and speaker. Al is also the founder of  Betterwork Labs and the host of  The MBA Insider podcast. 

Resources in This Episode:


Find Your Dream Job, Episode 349:

 Getting Clarity About What Career Happiness Means to You, with Al Dea

Airdate: May 25, 2022

Mac Prichard:

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It’s Sunday night. And you’re dreading going to work. 

In fact, you’re not enjoying your career at all. And you’re not sure what you want to do next. 

Al Dea is here to talk about how to get clarity about what career happiness means to you. 

He’s a talent development advisor, author, and speaker. Al is also the founder of BetterWorkLabs and the host of The MBA Insider podcast. 

He joins us from Santa Monica, California.

Well, let’s get started, Al. Are most people happy in their careers? 

Al Dea:

That’s a great question, and I think a good place to start with to answer that question is that it depends on what you define what happiness is, and I would say that is one of the biggest challenges that I find when I talk to employees, particularly those who do voice some kind of discomfort or challenge or frustration or unhappiness with their job. I do think it’s important to note that over the past couple of years, things have been challenging for all of us in different ways, and I do think to answer your question, that there’s certainly probably some individuals, particularly over the past two years, who probably are experiencing more of these feelings than perhaps before COVID-19. 

But to get back to, I think the overall question is, I think one of the challenges I think sometimes people have is around really getting clear on what happiness is and what happiness is not, and I think a very just good example of this is that, you know, I think a lot of times, particularly within the context of a job, when we say we’re not happy, I think a lot of people think that happiness in your job means that everything can be perfect and that it’s all rainbows and butterflies, and anyone who has lived life long enough to have some ups and downs just knows that, unfortunately, there are not many things in life that are actually like that.

And so, one of the very first things that I really try to work with when I’m working with employees or organizations is really defining what happiness is, and for me, at least, the definition that I like to really work with is just, you know, happiness at work and happiness in your job really is about enjoying what you do, but also being able to handle gracefully, you know, setbacks as well as challenges. But to do so because it’s worthwhile and engaging. 

And, you know, to answer your question about are people happy, I do think that there are some research out there, you know, primarily from Gallup, that engagement is just something in general that employees have struggled with, and so, what I will say is that I do think that people often exhibit symptoms of unhappiness or a lack of happiness, but they aren’t really quite sure what that is coming from or what that is. 

And so, I think the first step really is defining it, but the next step is actually thinking about okay, well, if I do think I am unhappy, what’s really causing that? Or what’s really driving that? 

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s break that down into two parts. I do want to talk about defining happiness and getting clarity. But let’s talk about unhappiness. What are common reasons for unhappiness in the job? 

Al Dea:

Sure, I think there’s a, you know, a couple of kinds of things. I mean, first and foremost, you know, one of the things that often is a challenge for people or what might make them unhappy is when you’re just simply not doing things that you either are good at, that you have a strength in, or that you enjoy. Going back to some of the Gallup research shows that when we use our strengths in our job, we report higher levels of engagement, and I think intuitively, that makes sense. When we get to do things where we are good at them, it gives us a sense of excitement; it gives us a sense of energy. And so, one very common thing is that you’re in a role where, quite frankly, the things that you’re really good at you’re just not able to d. Or said another way, the things that you are asked to don’t really make the best use of your talents and your skills. 

I think another thing that often drives unhappiness is, sometimes, just the people, sometimes, that we work with. I don’t think anyone really sets out to be a bad teammate or a bad manager, but sometimes that has an impact on us, you know, it often, you know, can be the stresses that a manager might put on you or a leader might put on you, or it could be the fact that you do work with employees who do not collaborate, or maybe they’re not great at communicating, and that can certainly make you unhappy. And so, people certainly play a huge component in that.

And then, I think the third thing really is in terms of the work environment or the culture. Right? In terms of, you know, how do things actually get done in your organization? You know, what are the norms? What are the behaviors that people use? Or what are the ways in which work actually gets done? And that sometimes can make you unhappy in the sense that perhaps you’re in a work culture where you like to work in a more measured and methodical way, but everyone else is helter-skelter, and it’s constant fire drills, or there’s constantly something that is always a burning platform, and you just don’t have time to work. Or perhaps, you’re someone who likes to work in a fast-paced manner, but everyone around you is going really slow. And so the environment around you and the culture that you’re in certainly can contribute to a lack of happiness or certainly being unhappy. 

And then the last thing certainly is that we often talk a lot about work-life balance, and I think that one of the things that we’re starting to see with work-life balance, at least, in today’s day and age, is that sometimes work bleeds into life and life bleeds into work. And I think just given everything that has challenged all of us during the COVID-19 global pandemic, sometimes, there are things in life outside of our jobs that really do impact our overall happiness, which in turn impacts our happiness or lack of happiness with our job. 

Mac Prichard:

So, Al, you’re working with a client they tell you they’re unhappy in their job. What do you recommend they do first? Should they look at things that are happening in their workplace that are making them unhappy and either try and fix them? Or consider leaving? Or should they get clear about what makes them happy and see if they can make changes within the workplace? Which comes first, getting clarity about happiness before making a change or looking at the sources of unhappiness and trying to fix them? 

Al Dea:

Sure, I think it’s a good question, and I like the way you laid it out. What I would say is this, I liken the analogy of perhaps going to a doctor when you’re feeling sick. When you’re going to a doctor when you’re feeling sick, the doctor doesn’t just automatically give you the medicine to your ailment without checking to see what might be causing the illness or sickness that you’re feeling. Right? Because if they did, what happens if they were to give you the wrong ailment or the wrong medicine? Or perhaps you didn’t even actually need medicine at all, and I view this in the same way. 

So, I think it’s a little bit of the latter, in the sense that I think it’s really important first to actually define and get really nitty-gritty into the nitty-gritty details of what’s going on and trying to get to the drivers of what you think might be causing the frustration and the challenge and the unhappiness. I also think the other reason why for doing this is that, to the point you just made, I do think oftentimes there are people who say they’re unhappy, and then they go and make a change to a new role, or perhaps they leave for another company, and it ends up being the same. Right? 

And so, I think while, you know, sometimes we make decisions like that and they don’t work out, and I think that’s okay, I also think that sometimes there’s a misconception that just because things are not feeling right or you might be unhappy, that the medicine that you need to take is a change in the role or change to another company. When in reality, just like a doctor might have a number of different remedies to fix an ailment you have, you might have another set of a bunch of remedies that could fix your situation, and some of them might mean just making a small tweak here or there. But if you’re going to take the medicine before you diagnose the ailment, you potentially limit off some of those discoveries. 

And so, I really do think it’s important to, once you have a good sense of what happiness is to you, to get to the root of it. To really figure out what is really the driver of that unhappiness? 

Mac Prichard:

What is a good process for doing that, Al, for figuring out what the sources of unhappiness are? Is there a process you take your clients through? Are there lists that you should do? What have you seen work for people who are trying to figure out what’s making them unhappy in their work and their career? 

Al Dea:

Yes, a couple of quick exercises. First and foremost, I think it’s to start thinking about what a great day looks like. If you picture back to, hopefully, a time when you did feel happy, or you did feel engaged in your work, what did that day look like? What were you doing? What tasks were you completing? What was the environment that you were in? Who were you working with? Being able to articulate that, write it down, and review that, I think, is a good place to start. 

I think that the other thing you can do is, perhaps, you can do the opposite of that. Right? If you know what a great day looks like, the other thing is you can take a look at what a challenging day looks like for you, and if you are feeling unhappy, this one might come a little bit more natural. But really getting into, again, the nitty-gritty of what that looks like. So, being able to take a look and write down, write some of those elements down of the things that could be really driving this. 

I think another exercise that you can do is it’s a similar version of this, but it’s called energy-draining versus energy-giving. There are certain things that when we do them, they just feel like they drain us, it takes us a lot longer to do them, perhaps we’re kind of fighting in our head internally to not do them, and at the end of them, we just are exhausted. And then there are other tasks or responsibilities that we have that we just get energized by doing them, and even though it does require work and it does require effort, we feel really great at the end of them. 

And being able to start naming some of those things also gets us a little bit more clarity of the drivers of engagement and happiness versus the things that really hinder us. And then being able to really look at the ratio of those against each other. Right? If you’re seeing you’re having way more energy-draining things than way more energy-giving things, that can be a real challenge. 

And then, maybe the last one is just to also do a calendar audit. Take a look at your calendar or whatever other, you know, task thing that you have where you can take a historical look, and really start to use those two exercises that I mentioned to evaluate what the days you’ve been going through recently are. Whether it’s the week or the past two weeks, or the past month. And getting a better sense of how many great days did you have? How many bad days did you have? How many times did you have days when you were doing more energy-giving things versus energy-draining things? And I think those can start to be really good ways to get clarity around – what does happiness look like? And what are something that are driving it? And how much of those am I getting or not getting for me right now? And depending on how severe or challenging that situation is, that really feeds into helping you think about what to do next.  

Mac Prichard:

Okay. Well, let’s pause there, Al. We’re gonna take a quick break. When we come back, Al Dea will continue to share his advice on how to get clarity about what career happiness means to you. Stay with us. 

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Al Dea.

He’s a talent development advisor, author, and speaker. Al is also the founder of Betterwork Labs and the host of The MBA Insider podcast. 

He joins us from Santa Monica, California.

Now, Al, before the break, we were talking about how to get clarity about what career happiness means to you, and you did a really good job of laying out many of the common sources of unhappiness and exercises people can follow to identify those sources and ideas on how to act on them. 

Anything else you want to add about how to understand what is causing unhappiness in the workplace that listeners should keep in mind? 

Al Dea:

One of the things that I often really try to impart to people that I work with or people who are job seekers is that your job and your career, really your career, is meant to be a team sport and not an individual one. 

And so, think basketball or football versus golf, and what I mean by that is, sometimes all the exercises I talked about – I think they’re really great exercises to do – but sometimes while we’re all, and I mean all of your listeners, Mac, I know are very smart and very hardworking, but we cannot always see all the things that are going on with our work. And my hope is that, in addition to doing some of these exercises, you have a safe space of trusted confidants or mentors, or advisors who can also give you feedback on what they see. 

And so, one extra exercise that I often do is when I work with folks is to say to them, okay, great. Now that you’ve done these, I want you to go talk to a trusted confidant or friend and share with them what you found and ask them for feedback or ask them for context. And I think it can be really helpful because, to the point I just made, while all of your listeners are very smart and well-intentioned, we often are blinded sometimes just by our inability to maybe take the holistic perspective, and so being able to get some other feedback, that can be really helpful and also really affirming in many ways to put you down a path, or also to help you to see things that maybe you couldn’t just see on your own. 

Mac Prichard:

So, you’ve gone through these exercises; you turn to a mentor, a trusted confidant, to help you identify any blind spots you might’ve missed and give other feedback. What do you do next, Al? You know what’s making you unhappy. What is the first step toward getting clarity about what’s gonna bring you happiness in your career and your job? 

Al Dea:

Part of the reason why I started where I did was that the steps you can take, there’s a lot of different ones. But I think the hardest thing is at first just to really name what is causing it or driving it, and once you can name some of those things, then you can start to think about, you know, actions that you want to take. As I mentioned earlier, I think, naturally, a lot of folks will gravitate towards the “let me just change jobs, and this will go away,” and I do think that that can happen. But there can be a number of other different other opportunities to you that are at your disposal.

I think being able to isolate in and so let’s take, for example, let’s say that you do realize that what’s really causing your unhappiness is the fact that you actually do like the things that you’re doing. You just wish you had more time to do them, or you wish you had more ability to do them. Maybe because you’re getting bogged down by other things, or perhaps there is just so many things that are going on at once. You have a lot of options in that case, in terms of you could stay where you are and perhaps have a conversation with your manager about doing more of them, or you could certainly like change jobs. 

But I think the first kind of step once you get a good sense of what’s driving the unhappiness is to start exploring the possibilities of what kind of change that you want to make. And changes really can be anything on a, you know, almost if you think about t-shirt sizes, like a small, medium, large, or xl, and an xl might really be going for it and switching up a lot of different things and going to a new company, but it can also be a small thing. 

And so, I think part of it’s gonna really depend on the level of unhappiness that you have, as well as, you know, what options you think you have at your disposal. But I would say that generally speaking, my advice to folks is almost to kind of treat it as Goldilocks, you know, in the Goldilocks analogy. Right? You kind of have too hot or too cold, but just right. 

And so, you know, one thing I do recommend to folks, though, is that it’s important I think to understand like, once again, going back to the doctor analogy, there’s a lot of different medicines you can use to kind of cure someone from an ailment, and there’s not one right way, and so, at least to start, I really do encourage people if they do understand what’s driving that unhappiness and they want to make a change, to explore a couple of different paths. Don’t necessarily fixate on one just yet, because, through that process of making a change, you’re going to find out more things that will lead you in certain ways. But if you just fixate on one solely, I think you might potentially be hindering yourself, at least, early on. 

Mac Prichard:

So you’ve done the diagnosis, you know what’s making you unhappy, you have a list of perhaps three, five, seven things. How do you identify the actions that are going to make those things better or go away? How do you coach people on getting clear about what those action steps might be? 

Al Dea:

Sure, and, you know, I think, again, let’s make this real just to give a couple of examples of how this works. I recently was working with someone who, when they realized that they were unhappy and they got to the root of it, what they realized was that they struggled in the company culture that they were in, but it wasn’t just the company. It was really just the team that they were on. They did like the company, but the specific culture within the team was really, really difficult for them just due to some of the personalities. 

And so, once we figured that out, what we realized was that, again, like there was a chance to think broadly about making a change to another company. But because they realized that getting into that nitty-gritty was really about the team, what we were able to do was just kind of say, okay. Well, if we know now that the culture of this team is a challenge, what are the possibilities that are out there? 

And so, one of the things that we were able to do was to say, okay, if we know what the possibilities are, what are some mini-tests that maybe we can run that can give us information that would either further prove or disprove the fact that what the real issue is, is the team and not the company? And we really want to stay right here. And very much like a scientist might run a mini-experiment to test a hypothesis, we very much tested the hypothesis of it actually was the team and not the company. 

And so, the actions that this individual took was to go have a couple of conversations with other parts of the company that had roles that this person had and to go and find out, was it like this over there or not? And what they were able to find out was that the other teams that that person talked to, not only were their teams growing and there was open headcount, but in addition to that, their teams operated in a much different way, and with that, we were able to then think about in that case, okay. Well, if the team operates in a way that’s a little more aligned with the company culture and not the culture on your specific team, would this be something that you could see yourself doing? You know, after these conversations you’ve had with these other employees, do you feel like you have the confidence to be able to say, this is a direction that I might be interested in taking? 

And what ended up happening was that individual did feel that way, and so, eventually, over the next couple of months, they were able to make a transition, not to another company, but just to another team. 

But getting back to your question about what steps can they take, I really do think it starts with being able to form a hypothesis of what you think is the driver. And then coming up with a test around, how can I prove or disprove that this hypothesis is true? And then seeing if you need to go and maybe either get additional information or if you do have enough, then you can start to think about, alright, now, if I have this information, here’s how I want to move forward with it. But it really starts with that hypothesis and a mini test of sorts to gather information. 

Mac Prichard:

This is hard work, Al, doing this analysis, figuring out what’s making you happy, and then identifying action steps to address those issues. What stops people from doing this work? And what have you seen help them overcome those obstacles and get the work done? 

Al Dea:

Sure, it can be overwhelming, and I think sometimes we often feel the feeling of being unhappy, but sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by it and aren’t sure what to do with it. I also think that, sometimes, it can be hard to discern what really is driving or causing that unhappiness, we feel it, but it’s harder for us to put a pin on exactly what it is. 

And so, I think if you know the answer to that is to, I think, be able to take a deep breath and hold space and to acknowledge that things are not exactly where you want them to be. You’re not entirely sure of as to why that is, but you’re committed to going on the journey to finding out and approaching it with a lens of curiosity. 

I think in terms of, you know if you’re someone who can get to a place where you can start to get to the root of this, I think the other challenge sometimes is that I think a lot of times people automatically default to some of the bigger changes. Right? And, you know, even when we think about our career development in general or career changes, we think about the massive moments where we, you know, land the job, and all those types of things. When in reality, all of that only happens because we take small steps. But sometimes, when we think about those massive things, it can feel daunting or overwhelming, you know, to the point you said in the question, it does sometimes feel like a lot. But I think the idea and approach of using small tests and hypotheses is one way to kind of think about how can we do this? 

And I think the last thing, which really ties to what I just said, is, a lot of times, we want to fixate on the outcome, which is a new job or a new role. And what we really want, I think to do is to think about what is the process? And specifically, within the process of what I need to do, what is the one next step that I can take? And I think oftentimes when we break it down that way, it seems a little bit more palatable and manageable. 

But, you know, at the end of the day, I don’t think necessarily everyone – I mean, I know, Mac, you and I can talk about searching for jobs and how to do it in the right way, and I think we would really enjoy that. But I don’t necessarily know everyone goes to work every day thinking about, oh, like what’s a better way I can change jobs? Right? I understand that not everyone likes that as much, and so, I think sometimes there’s also just a little bit of just anguish that I have to do this thing again. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, Al, it’s been a great conversation. Now, tell us, what’s next for you? 

Al Dea:

Yes, yes. So, thank you for asking. What’s next for me is, I’m enjoying the work I’m doing with Betterwork Labs, which is a talent development organization that helps organizations build career development programs to unleash the purpose and potential of their people. 

I’ve found that the companies I get to work with really prioritize and value their employees and want to get the best out of them, and so I partner with them to develop programs that coach and help their employees become productive and ensure that they’re using their talents and skills to impact the business in a positive way. 

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know listeners can learn more about you and your work at Betterwork Labs by visiting your website,, and that you also invite people to connect with you on LinkedIn, and if they reach out to you there, I hope they’ll mention they heard you on Find Your Dream Job. 

Now, Al, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to get clarity about what career happiness means to you? 

Al Dea:

The one thing is that career happiness is something that you need to intentionally define. What it means for yourself, and then to put in and enjoy the work to discovering that, and going out and working towards it.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Sonja Price. 

She’s a top career strategist, salary advisor, and leadership coach. 

Sonja helps professionals find work with greater meaning, better work-life balance, and significantly higher pay.

Getting professional advice from a career coach can make a big difference in a job search. Are you considering working with one? 

Join us next Wednesday when Sonja Price and I talk about if you should work with a career coach and what to look for if you do. 

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