Daniel Goleman: Starting a New Career? Consider Good Work

One reason Ebola has broken out so dangerously in countries like Sierra Leone traces to local customs that inadvertently spread the disease. One of these is the burial tradition where relatives kiss the deceased as a sign of respect.

But then a native health worker explained to locals why that was now a bad idea, and they came up with a neat solution: plant a banana tree with the deceased, and kiss the bananas instead of the person.

This works well within the set of local beliefs and eliminates one vector of the epidemic.

That brilliant insight was the result of methods that native health worker learned by being trained in ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I heard the story when I shared the stage with Steven Hayes, one of the therapy’s developers, at the Harvard Institute of Coaching conference.

Hayes mentioned the Ebola application only at the end of a presentation of his approach – but I thought it was the best part. This was, I told him, “good work,” a magical blend of doing what we do best, in alignment with our best values, in a way we enjoy.

Howard Gardner and his colleague define good work as a combination of the three Es: excellence, ethics, and engagement. When what we do becomes good work, we love what we do at every level: we feel competent, happy, and that our efforts have meaning.

I spoke with Howard a few years ago about good work as it relates to starting a career, or transitioning into a new one. He offered three solid tips to cultivate meaningful work prospects.

1. Decide what you really would like to spend your life doing. According to Howard, this is much more important than deciding what particular job to hold, as the employment landscape changes so quickly.

Let’s say you went into journalism with plans to work for a newspaper or magazine. Those outlets may not exist in their traditional forms now, but you still might want to write about interesting things. You want to investigate and talk to people. So you have to say “Where could I carry that out?” and be very, very flexible about the venue and the milieu, but not flexible about what you really get a kick out of and where you excel.

2. Think about people whom you admire and respect. Then think about people whom you don’t want to be like. Consider why you admire certain people and why you’re repelled by others. If you can’t think of people you admire, that’s a warning sign. It’s not necessarily a warning sign about you; it’s a warning sign about the culture around you. Perhaps you’re in a situation where you can’t admire anybody at all, or the people you admire don’t do anything related to what you do.

3. Consider where you want to work. Then ask yourself, “Is this the kind of place where I can see myself in others and where I can see others in me?” For example: Say you have job offers from both a small startup company you believe in, and a large corporation with a worrisome reputation for treating employees unfairly. You might make five times more money in the latter position, but does that reflect who you are and where you want to be?

If you’re a coach working with people in career transition, help them approach their search through the good work lens by asking them these three questions:

  • How much of what you do now is good work?
  • What could you do to boost that percentage?
  • How could you develop your career to maximize good work?

Learn more about Dr. Gardner’s Good Work theory in my video series Leadership: A Master Class.

Additional Resources:

Good Work: Aligning Skills and Values

Talent Strategy with Claudio Fernández-Aráoz

What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

Illustration: Bryant Paul Johnson