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11 Ways to be Happy and Successful at Work

I have a big birthday coming up. A very big one. And I think because of that, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve come to learn about work. Work is so important in my life. It’s a central feature of who I am. And I got thinking about what I believe to be true about work? My thoughts about this have come through my own reflections, my own experience of work through all the coaching I’ve done, the leadership programs I’ve run, working in a team. 


So far I have 11 points. 11 is a bit of an odd number so please feel free to add yours in the comments – let’s see what we can get our list to collaboratively. 

What are the core beliefs you hold about how to have a successful and happy working life?


1 – We need to take responsibility


This might seem a strange place to start, but I believe that we have a choice about how we experience work and that we can take responsibility for this. For example, if I’m having a difficult time with my boss, instead of doing what feels so simple, and blaming my boss, I can take some responsibility for working out what I can do. 

  • What options do I have for improving the relationship? 
  • What might be going on for them that I can help with? 
  • Or is there something about me that I could shift? 
  • Could I accept their humanity and lack of perfection and still get on with my job on a day to day basis? 

I could take responsibility for talking to them and see if we can find a way forward. 


Now, of course, if it’s really bad and I’m really miserable, instead of staying and being miserable, I can take responsibility for looking for another job. So often when we’re in situations, we take the easy route, which is to complain and be miserable instead of perhaps the harder route, which is to make the changes. 


When I think about responsibility in my working life, it’s mostly related to my attitude to work on any given day. I can sometimes, like most people, feel really overwhelmed or struggle with some parts of running a business like admin – like being on call a lot. However, I can also take responsibility for how I feel about this. I’ve written before about how acceptance of even difficult situations can change them. So in my case, I know I have to do admin. It’s a part of everyone’s job. I can see that and I can take responsibility for accepting it and not complaining or resisting. So for me – taking responsibility is number one in helping us think about how to be happy and successful at work. 


2 – I can stop being a victim


This, of course, is linked to taking responsibility. But for some of us, it’s very easy to fall into a victim mentality. We get stuck feeling hard done by, or feeling like everything is difficult for me. The challenge for us is that when we’re ‘in victim’, we either move to blaming others, or we look for people to rescue us. If we really want to change a situation, we have to move on from being the victim. 


When we are in ‘victim’ mode we feel sorry for ourselves. We become either like a passive aggressive compliant child: “All right, then I’ll do it”. Or we can be like a rebellious child: “no, I’m not doing that”. And the thing is that neither of those places serve us…and we have a choice: 


If we can recognise ourselves in the victim mindset – we can move it. We can stop blaming others or seeking rescue and we can ask ourselves – “what’s a mature adult response to this?”  


This is an area of my life that I’ve really had to work on. I think I have a natural ‘victim-mentality’, but I know that when I move out of it, I actually feel more empowered. I see where my choices are and I feel better about myself because I’m functioning as an adult, not a naughty, complaining child. 


3 – Relationships are everything 


I believe that all organizations are essentially relational. When work goes wrong, it’s mostly because we didn’t talk to each other enough, or we didn’t clarify roles or understand expectations. All work is done through relationships, and this means that learning to build good working relationships is key. We don’t have to be everybody’s friend, but we do need to learn to listen, to be curious, to learn to influence others, to be open to changing our mind. We need to learn to see how we can work well together. It’s good for us to ask ourselves: 

  • How to help others perform at their best?
  • How can I build relationships so that we can help our work to be done effectively? 


4 – Our mindset matters as much as our competence


Let me begin with an example: if I’m doing a presentation, I can be technically strong with the content, but if my confidence or nerves get to me, then I won’t perform as well. It’s as much about my ability to feel confident to manage my nerves as it is about technically being good. And that sits in my mindset: in my thought patterns and what I’m feeling. 


Another example: if I don’t feel confident to tell my boss that I’m ready for promotion, then I won’t progress. That lack of confidence is rooted in our mindset. I need to work on my mindset to find the courage to talk to my boss openly. 


Or if I’m frightened for speaking up when I disagree with something. then valuable views that I hold may be overlooked. 


Our ability to focus on our mindset is really key because it’s often what’s holding us back is the thoughts that we hold about ourselves, the patterns that we’re in, the stories we’re stuck in. 

Coaching and self-help give us massive clues to help us to work on our mindset. And I believe that we can really change it. Taking our mindset as seriously as we take our competence is really key.


5 – Self-awareness is not negotiable 


I believe that unless we’re self aware, then it’s really hard to both be as successful as we want to be, and also to be as happy as we want to be at work. We have to hold a willingness to be curious about ourselves, about what really matters, and about what’s working. That includes reflecting on what’s not working for us at work, and the impact we have on each other. 


The thing about self-awareness is it’s an ongoing task. I remember when I finished the first therapy I had, I was in my early thirties and I thought, “great, that’s it, I’m done. Fixed for rest of my life. No problem.” And of course it hasn’t been like that. As we go into new experiences, as we grow in life, new things emerge. So it’s really an ongoing task. You may feel self-aware, then get promoted and suddenly can’t work out why this new role isn’t working. Then it’s time to go into personal, curious enquiry to find out. Or perhaps a new colleague joins the team and I feel triggered and we’re not getting on. So I have to go back into this self inquiry to understand why I’m feeling so strongly and what I can do to repair the relationship. So self awareness is a lifelong journey. There’s so much richness in it and we can all benefit from it. 


6 – Action also matters


As much as self awareness matters, so does movement. We need to take action and move. We need to identify what will help us in our career and actively work on it. I regularly hear clients resisting engaging, influencing, networking and organizational politics. But without these actions, it’s hard to progress and to get things done. When we take responsibility for being aware of what we need to do then we need to action it. 


If it is that I’ve noticed that I’m really triggered by certain types of people in the team, I have to take responsibility for learning how not to be triggered. I need to take action on it. We don’t have to make these changes overnight, and particularly if they’re personal changes, they do take a lot of time. But we do need to really work at them and keep working on them.


I love the idea from James Clear in Atomic Habits of making a 1% change. Martha Beck talks about one degree turns. We can make small changes over time. If you’re struggling with networking: set a goal to have one coffee with one person each week. Make a small change, take some action and move forward. 


7 – It’s our career and we own it


Many years ago, people joined organizations and their managers and the organization itself looked after them by helping them progress. Their career paths were well worked out. But this is no longer the case. Some organizations will do this, but mostly only for high potential talent, and even that’s not guaranteed or always ideal. 


It’s important to come to a place of seeing that it is your career and you own it. We have to identify what we want and how to get there. We need to take the responsibility for owning our career and going in the direction we want. This might mean taking time, maybe once a month to review progress, talking to mentors, talking to our managers about upcoming opportunities. Most of all it is about learning to act and not wait. When we see it as own career, we can take responsibility for it. It links back to number one and two: I’m responsible and I mustn’t be a victim and feel like I’m not getting where I want to go. I need to take responsibility for getting where I want to go. 


8 – Values impact us more than we imagine

One of the pieces of learning I’ve been doing over the past couple of years is something called ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. If you’re interested, the book I recommend is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. In ACT. I’ve been reminded time and again, about how our values are our guiding voice. So often they’re like the canary in the coal mine, telling us if we’re in the right place. Or if we’re in the wrong place. It doesn’t always matter if we’re in the wrong place but it just means we know where the misalignment is. 


If we understand our values, we can begin to create a career path that helps us align with our values. Do we know where our triggers are, or do we know where to get glimmers of happiness? 


How well do you know what your values are? A start may be to reflect on positive or negative life experiences and see what they tell you. Think about role models or leaders you admire:  what is it about them that you appreciate? 


9 –  Ambition has many forms and we need to understand ours


When you hear the word ambition, what do you imagine? For so many people, it implies a kind of mercenary climbing over people to get to the top. But ambition can mean so many different things. It can be about having an ambition to make a difference in the world. It can be an ambition to become fluent in a new language. Or to become the go-to person on risk. Ambition doesn’t have to mean reaching the top. Of course it can, and that is also a good and valid form of ambition, but I think it’s more than that. 


I love the idea of playing with ambition and what it means to me. Now, of course, ambition changes over time. So I think back to when I was 30, I wanted to reach the executive committee. I did: I got there and then I thought: “Oh, this isn’t for me.” Then I became ambitious about how I could make my work as a trainer, as a coach and help people. And here I am. And I’m still pretty ambitious about this. 


But what does ambition mean to you when you hear it? How would you describe it? There is a key there to having a fulfilling working life. 


10 – Knowing your purpose matters, but not as much as knowing what you enjoy


I love and teach the idea of finding my purpose, but for some of us it’s a bit elusive. For some people it’s really clear, but for others it can be a bit hard to find. If I think about myself, I think my purpose actually is to teach. And yet some days I don’t feel like teaching. So what if: some days my purpose is to teach and on others it’s to lead or create or write a podcast? Because in so many ways, the things we enjoy may be our purpose. Maybe enjoying work is a good enough purpose. So think about what you enjoy and see if you can do more of it and earn a living through this. 


If you’re curious about this, go back and listen to episode 22 with Joanna Miller and hear her story about seeking joy in art after her corporate career. 


11 –  We have the power to change our story about work. 


We all come to our working lives with a story:  “I’m good at this. I’m not good at this. I should do this. I shouldn’t do that. I’m introverted. I’m extroverted. I’m good at numbers. I can’t be a leader.” They’re all stories that we learn to tell ourselves. And we can change the story. People do it all the time. 


I’ve seen doctors leave medicine and journalists become teachers. I’ve seen people change stories. We can decide to learn something new. We can embrace a growth mindset and bring about possibility and opportunity for our future. 


So if you’re sitting in finance wishing you were writing poetry, it’s your story. Go get it. In fact, if you’re in finance, you can always do some accounting on the side and write poetry in the day. Write your story, create it, choose it. You have the power to create and write your own story about work. 


Those are 11 things I believe to be true about happiness and success at work. I’d love to hear yours! 

Jean Balfour ICF Accredited Professional Coach and Managing Director of Bailey Balfour

Jean Balfour

Founder & Programmes Director


About the Author

Jean Balfour is Managing Director of Bailey Balfour and Programme Director of our ICF Accredited Coach Training Programmes. Jean is passionate about helping people to have good conversations both at work and at home. She believes that coaching is a life skill and that you never regret learning to coach.

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