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Laura Gassner Otting on Why Success ≠ Happiness

Researchers at the University of Michigan studied American adults and found that 80% of us believe scoring that dream job is the key to continual career happiness. Yet-- the majority of Americans—52.3%—are unhappy at work according to a 2014 report by the Conference Board.

Where's the disconnect? Are more than 50% of us in misaligned careers? Or is this a deeper issue?

I recently had the opportunity to sit down for virtual coffee with bestselling author Laura Gassner Otting to talk careers and happiness. Laura is a former White House political appointee and part of the team that developed AmeriCorps. She founded Limitless Possibility, a niche consulting firm working with entrepreneurs, philanthropists, executives, and thought leaders to get them unstuck and achieve extraordinary results. Most recently, she launched her new book, Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life which debuted #2 on the Washington Post bestseller list right behind Michelle Obama, and it centers around the idea that success doesn’t always equal happiness, but rather finding your consonance does.

Sarah: How did ‘Limitless’ come about?

Laura: I spent 20 years as an executive recruiter, interviewing highly successful people, which is why I was talking to them. But they weren’t always happy, which is why they were talking to me. I was taken by the idea the success didn’t seem to equal happiness. And, when I looked back on the thousands of people who I’d met along the way, I started to notice trends. I wrote about these trends in Limitless.

Sarah: According to a 2017 Gallop poll, “eighty-five percent of workers worldwide admit to hating their jobs”. Why do you think so many people get the “Sunday Sads” about returning to work on Monday?

Laura: Too many of us spend our lives filling in all the checkboxes along someone else’s path to someone else’s version of success, only to turn around and realize that we’ve built a great life, but that it was a life meant for someone else. The truth is that you simply can’t be insatiably hungry for someone else’s goals and dreams. When what we do doesn’t match who we are, we are out of consonance, and we are unhappy, even if we are successful.

Sarah: What advice would you give to the person who felt like they were “living their best life”, but then life threw them a curveball that they weren’t expecting?

Laura: Curve balls make us feel like we are out of consonance, where we are lacking alignment and flow. But, it’s important to remember that at every age and at every life stage, we want and need different things to put us in consonance. So these curveballs are simply life’s changes, part of the life’s path. They are also an opportunity to recalibrate and make decisions about whether you still want what you wanted before, and an opportunity to try something new that might put you more in line with what works for your new post-curveball life.

Sarah: Job seekers who have experienced a “career twist” (termination, career pivot, employment gap, etc) often feel anxiety about their imperfect backgrounds. You spent 20-years as a corporate recruiter where you interviewed thousands of leaders from both the non-profit and public sectors. I read a quote from you once where you said, “ It’s not the perfection that makes compelling the individual, it’s the imperfections.” When you interviewed candidates for jobs-- did you appreciate and embrace these imperfections?

Laura: The most interesting people -- in fact, the only interesting people -- that I interviewed over the course of 20 years in executive search were the ones who took right turns and left turns and u-turns along the way. Curveballs often feel like failure, but we have to remember that failure is not finale, it’s fulcrum. Fulcrum is the place from which you learn and grow and change and take on the adventures to come.

Sarah: You’ve described “Follow your passion!” as the world’s worst advice. (Totally stereotyping here) Why do you think the parents of millennials love to say this phase-- and why is it just plain bad advice?


Laura: Parents of millennials probably say “Follow your passion!” to their kids because they themselves are feeling unhappy, despite whatever success they may have achieved. Every time I come off the stage, in my role as a professional keynote speaker, audience members from every generation, from millennials, to GenXers, to Boomers comment on how they thought I was speaking just to them. This unsatisfying pursuit of the monolithic definition of success doesn’t discriminate between generations.

I think “Follow your passion!” is the spoken word, illegitimate career advice sister of the “Live, Love, Laugh!” tattoo.

Image: Unsplash,   David Švihovec     @iamdavid_10

Image: Unsplash, David Švihovec @iamdavid_10

It’s terrible advice because it not a destination; it’s not even a roadmap. It’s an Instagram meme. It fails to take into consideration that our passion will beat us up, perhaps gutting us and even our bank account. It teaches us to give up when things get hard. But it’s in the falling down and getting back up over and over that we develop the tenacity and grit to perfect our passion. And doesn’t our passion deserve that?

Sarah: Parents play a huge role in shaping the way young people form their own definition of success. In your book, you say, “It’s impossible to be limitless if you are living someone else’s life, fulfilling someone else’s goals, and chasing after someone else’s definition of success.” How can parents help their kids avoid superficial definitions of success?

Laura: Parents would do better to ask their children about their hopes and dreams rather than proscribe for them a pathway. We have to stop asking children what they want to be when they grow up, but rather ask them who they want to be. They can build a life to support that who -- their own definition of success -- rather than building a life that just fits neatly into a box.

Instead, they should help them understand what brings them consonance.

Consonance is when “what you do” matches “who you are.” More than just purpose and autonomy, consonance includes calling, connection, contribution, and control. Calling is a gravitational pull towards a goal larger than yourself—a business you want to build, a leader who inspires you, a societal ill you wish to remedy, a cause you wish to serve. But lest we get it confused, it can be curing cancer or feeding the poor, but it’s not just purpose, which we often mistake for only large and lofty, as if our calling can’t be as simple as living debt-free or buying a vacation home. Connection gives you sightlines into how your everyday work serves that calling by solving the problem at hand, growing the company’s bottom line, or reaching that goal. It tells you why you, in that box, in that section, in that organizational chart matter. Contribution means that you understand how this job, this brand, this paycheck contributes to the community to which you want to belong, the person you want to be, or the lifestyle you’d like to live. While connection is about the work, contribution is all about you. Control reflects how you are able to influence your connection to that calling in order to have some say in the assignment of projects, deadlines, colleagues, and clients; offer input into shared goals; and do work that contributes to your career trajectory and earnings.

Beyond just autonomy about matters at work, control gives us the agency to call our own shots in how that work affects our lives, too.

Sarah: Your book talks does a great job of highlighting people who made career and life changes once they discovered their consonance- or “how they align what they do with who they are — to achieve their limitless potential.” A common issue I hear among executives is that they want to make a change but they can’t take a paycut. Can this be overcome?

Laura: Yes, and it means either changing your career, changing your workplace, or changing yourself. There are plenty of careers that pay equal or close to equal, and come with companies that have more aligned values, or a better culture, or a more ambitious career trajectory, or whatever it is that you might seek. There are ways to change your workplace, either from within by initiating changing that allow it to align with you, or by doing the same sort of work as a consultant with more flexibility. Lastly, it might not be a pay cut so much as a lifestyle cut, or a rebalancing of your priorities. Understanding the important that you place on calling, connection, contribution, and control allows you to see how you might do this. And, readers can figure that out by taking me quiz at http://www.LimitlessAssessment.com.

Sarah: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten? Did you take it? (Asking everyone this question)

Laura: The best advice I ever got what to take even the smallest jobs if they put me in proximity to the biggest offices. In other words, filing papers in the office of the CEO is better for my career than being the head of a division of a division of a division. Being in the room when deals are made, strategies are discussed, and assignments are handed out -- but as someone clearly there to learn and grow -- allows a young person to be a sponge rather than forcing them to “fake it ‘til they make it.” Faking it just teaches you how to be better at faking it. Being a sponge allows you to make decisions about whether or not the careers you are witnessing might be interesting for you, while also putting you in a position to build your knowledge and network.

Want to learn more about Laura Gassner Otting's work? Follow her on LinkedIn , buy her book Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life, watch her TEDx talk and check out herInstagram.

  • If you have any recommendations for career experts to interview, please send me a message.

  • Special thanks to my career professional colleagues and friends who have been generous with their ideas and suggestions. I've "picked their brain" numerous times when writing this article series. Thank you Sarah Henning, Virginia Franco, Austin Belcak, Madeline Mann, Bob McIntosh, Hannah Morgan, Wes Pearce, Ana Lokotova, Maureen McCann, Adrienne Tom, Wes Pearce, Ashley Watkins, Tricia Lauducci, Sarah Katherine McNeal, Natalie Fike, Rachel Boehm, Rebecca Oppenheim, Tabitha Cavanagh and others.