The dictionary definition is “the full use of one’s own abilities” or “the ability to make yourself happy and complete through your own efforts.”
There is a good deal to unpack about the concept of self fulfillment (you can refer to it with or without the hyphen, and we will mix it up periodically in this article). Entire sections of bookstores are dedicated to the topic, and its cousin, self-help. How does it apply in a work context?
Since we know employee engagement scores haven’t been that good across most industries in the past 10-15 years -- although somewhat paradoxically, they did improve on COVID-era surveys -- it likely stands to reason that work is not necessarily the path to self-fulfillment, except for the lucky few whose work aligns with their innate motivations.
That’s underscored in an article by Wharton professor Stewart Friedman called “Get More Done By Focusing Less On Work.” Friedman argues that there are four major commitments in your life:
A ‘Four-Way Win’ is when you integrate the areas to an extent, and then make a tweak that essentially benefits all of them. Simple in thought, right? Harder in execution. (Here’s another Friedman article on designing Four-Way Win experiments.)
Here are the results of one of his studies, conducted across 300 professionals:
In short: shift your attention away from things like work and towards home, community, and self -- and you can be happier and closer to self-fulfillment.
The other aspect of the “self fulfillment and work” intersection would be these ideas around purpose and mission, which are very commonly discussed at jobs, especially by executive leadership in big, all-hands meetings. The problem can be, as outlined in “You Don’t Find Your Purpose; You Build It:”
Most of us will have multiple sources of purpose in our lives. For me, I find purpose in my children, my marriage, my faith, my writing, my work, and my community. For almost everyone, there’s no one thing we can find. It’s not purpose but purposes we are looking for — the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives. Professional commitments are only one component of this meaning, and often our work isn’t central to our purpose but a means to helping others, including our families and communities. Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose takes the pressure off of finding a single thing to give our lives meaning.
“Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose” is a notable part of that paragraph. Self-fulfillment, at work or at home, doesn’t come from one simple source. There might be a source that drives the most of it -- say, your relationship with your partner, or even a core product you owned the development of -- but purpose and self-fulfillment are multi-tiered and multi-input.
What should we know about finding self-fulfillment, the potholes along the way, and some strategies to get there?
This is perhaps best encapsulated in this Tim Ferriss-Tony Robbins podcast episode.
“Achievement” tends to be more tangibly-measurable things, like the size of your house, your salary, number of vacations in a year (pre-COVID), etc. “Fulfillment” is more intangible and can refer to quality of relationships, feeling connected to others, outreach, and more.
They use Robin Williams as an example. It’s not a perfect example, no, because one of the reasons that Williams committed suicide was tied to a medical diagnosis -- ostensibly he was becoming demented, and he didn’t want to live that way.
But the Ferriss-Robbins argument is that he achieved a great deal professionally, but perhaps wasn’t fulfilled ultimately. You can say the same about many artists over the years, from James Dean to Vincent Van Gogh.
So that’s the first brick to understand: achievement and fulfillment are not necessarily the same thing.
A good list to begin with:
If those are the higher-order paths to self fulfillment, what are some of the actionable, day-to-day strategies to get there?
Forbes has one good list, with some notable targets to consider:
You might inherently think that in order to achieve self-fulfillment, failure is an “anti,” i.e. you should run from failure. In some ways, the opposite is true!
First of all, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate success in life if you haven’t failed. If you’re always winning and on top, that must be nice -- but how do you even know you’re on top without experiencing the valleys to go with the peaks?
There’s a business case here too, actually. Turns out the highest stock growth since 1985 is a lesser-known company called Balchem Corporation, which makes flavorings and nutritional additives for animal feed. Their stock has grown 107,099% — that’s not a typo — since the year Back to the Future came out.
Well, on the path to that 107,099% growth, they invested in a new coating technology and it bombed. In 13 months, they lost 53% of their market share. Major failure. Layoffs. Senior leaders were distraught.
And still, they came back and had the best stock performance in a 35-year period. They did it by understanding where they failed, instilling patience in their people, and coaching them up around resilience and grit.
Now, amazing stock returns are not necessarily “self-fulfillment,” no -- although to some, they might be. But the bigger point is: failure is often necessary to achieve success, be that financial or self fulfillment.
Semantically, no, since the self portion of self-fulfillment implies that the employee would need to reach his or her level of fulfillment on his or her own.
However, it can be helpful to see COVID work-wise as a managerial fulcrum point.
For years, we viewed managers as process-keepers who make the trains run. That’s still their role to some extent, although a lot of the “trains running” part has been given over to technology in the last decade (think CRMs).
Managers now need to focus more on people development, checking in with their teams, one-on-ones, helping them develop resilience in tough times, and more. All of these things are elements of personal accountability that the employee also must own, but COVID laid bare the idea that managers just control process and approve things. They need to be working with people, and helping their direct reports on the path to self-fulfillment is part of that. They can’t be responsible for the entire journey, no. But they can check in with employees about:
Some managers recoil at this idea because they don’t want to be seen as “friends” with their employees. There may be some justification to that, but the post-COVID management era should ideally focus more on these attributes of effective management, as opposed to the procedural ones. Will every manager need to be a self-fulfillment coach? No. But they will need to try and build a relationship beyond questioning deadlines.
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Inspire yourself and others to see and achieve grand visions and goals. A focus on goals is especially helpful for figuring out what is most important to you, maintaining focus on what is important over time and for achieving satisfaction at fulfilment at work and in life.
Explore, strengthen or identify what you value in life. Trust in your ‘gut feel’ and point of view is especially helpful for articulating your personal principles and values, expressing and meeting your needs and for living an authentic and meaningful life.
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