In the classic 1991 movie City Slickers, when Billy Crystal’s character asked Jack Palance’s character about the meaning of life, Jack held up one finger and said mysteriously, “One thing.” What he was trying to say was that you should find the one thing that gives you fulfillment in life.
But I think he’s wrong. Being overly focused on finding a single source of fulfillment (both in work and in life), is actually counterproductive. When you do that, you’ll probably end up dissatisfied, rather than satisfied, with your choices.
We compare ourselves to others in the name of “self-improvement”
In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger suggested that the reason we compare ourselves to others is to drive personal growth and improvement. He called this “social comparison theory.” Today’s social media epidemic makes all this comparison both easier and more challenging. In a few clicks, we can find out whether we’re keeping up with our high school friends or our old college buddies, even though we know that those pictures don’t always reflect reality.
Comparing yourself to others is part of being human, but you can’t view work-life fulfillment like a competitive sport. Every situation is different. Every family is different. Every work dynamic is different.
Some people embrace a container approach to work-life–turning off at the end of their workday and then back on when it’s time to begin again. Others find greater satisfaction in a blended approach. They might leave in the middle of the day for a soccer game and then return to work later, or they might be someone who responds to emails when they’re at a concert to get it off their plate.
Each of these strategies is legitimate. It’s not right or wrong, and it’s not good or bad. There’s already enough burden for us to get our work and personal life right, we don’t need the judgment of others–or ourselves–to make it any tougher. When we judge, we are inadvertently driving people away. As humans, we crave connections, not separation.
What to do instead of searching for fulfillment
It’s not easy to stop comparing yourself to others, and it’s even harder to be fully satisfied with life. However, you can start by following the small steps below:
1. Keep expectations real. If you want to accomplish something, be realistic and don’t set the bar artificially high based on what you think others are achieving. It’s okay to lower the bar. If you’ve worked all day and need to come home and make dinner for the family, a prepackaged option–rather than a gourmet meal–may be just fine.
2. Nurture relationships. Cultivate friendships that include authenticity and sharing of real challenges. It’s easy to judge others harshly when you only know the surface of a situation. Foster connections in which you can get to know others and exchange ideas about how to handle difficulties.
3. Accept that your needs will change, and embrace it. You’ll need to leverage various work-life solutions over the seasons of work and life. Just when you figure out an equilibrium, things will change again. The kids will age out of daycare, you’ll get a promotion and need to work longer hours, or you’ll need to care for a family member unexpectedly. Life rarely works in a straight line, and a large part of happiness is about how you choose to deal with it.
Ultimately, work-life fulfillment is about making choices that fulfill your needs and priorities, not about chasing a magic bullet. No single activity or pursuit will bring you contentment if you neglect to nurture other aspects of your life.
Most importantly, understand (and accept) that “fulfillment” looks different for everyone, and that everyone’s journey takes a different timeline. There is no requirement for what (or how) you should feel at any given time, and there is no rule that dictates what your life should look like–even though society makes you feel like that. Learn to stop judging yourself, as well as others. Focus on what is best for your life right now, and if you still have questions–trust that you’ll find the right answers when you’re ready to do so.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.