On Being Fulfilled in the Workplace

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

This year I am starting my fourth year as an assistant professor. As a new semester starts, I've found myself reflecting on the transition from graduate student to assistant professor. In particular, I've spent a fair amount of time these last few years evaluating the hopes and dreams (and expectations) I had as a graduate student versus the realities of being a colleague.

Graduate student hope and dream: 
There's so much knowledge I have; I cannot wait to use it once I get a job. (Also known as "recent graduate overeagerness.")

My new colleagues don't know me, and I shouldn't come across as too overeager. I need to sit back, observe, and learn. (Also known as "learning and patiently waiting.") 

It's true that deep down, I was overeager to share my knowledge and expertise. It's also true that, in the first few years on the job, it was incredibly frustrating for me to sit back, observe, and learn. I felt, somehow, I was wasting my talents.  

What I wasn't able to see a few years ago was this: I could still use my expertise, talents, and interestsjust in a less direct, less obvious way.

It was my own expectations getting in the way: that I wouldn’t be completely fulfilled if I wasn’t using all of my talents and passions in the ways that I envisioned I would use them. As a new hire, I was itching to get started and use all of the knowledge and expertise I had acquired while in graduate school. But anyone who knows anything about starting new jobs or joining a new organization knows that the process is slow. Relationships must be cultivated. The department culture must be learned. In other words, patience must be acquired. A genuine, willing-to-learn patience is one that cannot be faked.  

Being fulfilled requires adjusting the ego
It’s hard to take the ego down a notch, but learning to settle in—happily so—is the first step to finding your place. It wasn’t until I stopped thinking about what I could or should be accomplishing and contributing that I started to embrace the opportunities that came my way. And, these opportunities were (and are) relationally based.

Being fulfilled requires a genuine interest in others
Being fulfilled at work requires a genuine interest in focusing on the others around you. I had to want to build relationships with people. It took a shift in my attitude from being me-focused to being other-focused.

So this is what I did: I found opportunities to have lunch with the new hires. I organized a research and writing discussion group with colleagues who had similar interests. I reached out to a more established colleague to discuss my curriculum vitae. I organized a welcome dinner for a new hire. I made efforts to listen, listen, listen. And I made efforts to be genuinely interested in what other people were doing, what their challenges and successes were, and how I could help support them.

The effect: new opportunities and new conversations
And these are the doors that opened: because I was interested in others’ work and teaching experiences, natural conversations began in which I could engage with topics that I was passionate about. I was willing to take the time to figure out where I could naturally fit in to the existing department culture and conversations. Additionally, shifting my gaze away from me to the others around me created opportunities for the conversations that I wanted to participate in.  

If you’re in a space where you want more, or if your expectations aren’t being met, be willing to change. Pivot. Discover which colleagues are interested in and where your interests match. Slow down. Embrace your surroundings. Find and create those conversations and opportunities. You'll be more satisfied, happier, and fulfilled. 


Let's connect! I'd love to hear what you're doing to be more fulfilled at work. I'm @GeneseaC on Twitter and @CattingWithAlice on Instagram.