Your strengths, your life

In a multi-stage working life, it’s more important than ever to act on your authentic choices.

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In a multi-stage working life, with much competition for your time, it’s more important than ever to act on your authentic choices

For people living longer, an ‘always-on’ culture is unsustainable. But with longevity comes possibility. More than ever, we need to ask hard questions about how we allocate our time – and perhaps more thinking time is the answer.

The notion of the three-stage life is already outdated. Education will extend beyond the first third of our lives – we will need to expand our knowledge as we pick our way through a 60-year career. And, of course, we won’t have just one career. A person might train as a lawyer, become a horticulturist in their 40s, then continue as a writer. London Business School Professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott have researched the impact of a world where reaching 100 is the norm in The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity (Bloomsbury, £14.99).

“There’s a marvelous set of opportunities but we need to work out the intangible assets that are important for a long life,” says Gratton. “A major predictor of happiness is the friends you have. Vitality is about your networks and kinds of friends you keep. Multi-stage lives will be the new reality.” Scott and Gratton estimate that if you live to 100, you will have 218,000 productive hours, so there is plenty of time. How you spend it is another question entirely.

Choosing work that suits us

We are not defined by our work – who we are defines the work that we do. Tammy Erickson, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS and author of What’s Next, Gen X? and Plugged In: The Generation Y guide to thriving at work (Harvard Business School Press), argues that our biggest childhood events shape the way we are today. These moments in history create groups who have generally similar attitudes to life.

She cites child-development psychologist Jean Piaget, who proposed four universal stages of cognitive development. “A child builds a mental map of the world in the fourth stage [at eleven and over],” says Erickson. During this period children generate generational assumptions that shape their adult working lives. “Generational traits offer a chance to develop understanding of who you are and why you see things the way you do,” says Erickson. “So take time to reflect.” 

Remembering the biggest headlines in the media at eleven to 15 years old can reveal much about who we are and what we value, adds Erickson: “What were the biggest events happening in the world? What advice did your parents give you about your education? Where did you live? What was your family’s approach to money?” These formative experiences can lead both to differing employment outcomes and ideas about your working identity. “What’s a great job to the baby boomers [born between 1946-64]? Probably one with more power, more money and a sense of moving up,” she says. “While for Generation X [1961–79], it’s probably more control, more options and more ability to be an entrepreneur, and for Millennials [or Generation Y, 1980-95], it’s likely to be something meaningful and challenging.” A smart use of generational characteristics, she says, is to understand the work you find fulfilling – and do more of it.

Locating our ‘best selves’

In old age, will your memories be tinged with regret? To make the most of your life – of which 30 per cent is spent at work – LBS’s Dan Cable says it may be possible to activate your best self more often.

A question posed by research company Gallup to its database – comprising more than 1.7 million employee in 101 companies from 63 countries – ran thus: ‘At work, do you have the opportunity to do your best every day?’ Unfortunately, as Cable says, “The results were humanistically appalling.” Only 20 per cent of responders said they had the opportunity to be their best, and it showed that, as people reached greater seniority and responsibility, they became less likely to do work that used their strengths.

We need to address this lack of engagement, believes Cable: “I believe that the competitive organisation of the future is one that builds a partnership with people and unlocks their human potential in a way that goes beyond the immediate job,” he says, citing a study about Wipro BPO, an outsourcing company based in India, which he co-authored with Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Bradley R Staats of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2011, Wipro, which provides telephone support to companies such as HP, had an attrition problem and was hiring its staff from scratch every 18 months. Wipro’s onboarding process was typical of many contemporary organisations: it focused on job processes. So the study examined what happened to performance and retention when new employees were offered an alternative approach from day one.

New workers were split into three groups: the first a control group, which received the normal process heavy introduction; the second focused on organisational identity and values; and the final group centred on personal identity, where managers spent an hour with new employees and asked them to explain who they were when at their best.

After six months, the results showed that when the organisation focused its initial welcome on new employees’ personal identities, the newcomers were much less likely to quit their jobs – 57 per cent less than the control group – and there was statistically greater customer satisfaction. “Asking ‘Who are you when you’re at your best?’ takes one hour, it’s free, and it works,” says Cable. “Why? Because when people alter their unique values to fit into an organisational culture, they can suffer from identity conflict. When people are empowered to express their authentic and best selves, they are less anxious and less likely to suffer from exhaustion. Employees who are stressed and unwell are less likely to perform effectively and more likely to quit. Meanwhile, the customers they serve are also dissatisfied. When people activate their best selves, they bring more energy into the workplace and invest more in the company.”

The study with Wipro, and many others, shows that best-self intervention has lasting personal and organisational benefits, as it has the ability to change the narrative that employees develop about work and about themselves. “When others tell us who we are at our best, it creates a chemical chain reaction of positivity,” says Cable. “We might feel positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, excitement, pride, awe, inspiration and compassion. The impact of such emotions is known as ‘positive psychology’ and research published in top science journals shows that positive emotions change the very way our cells perform to keep us healthy.” When people’s signature strengths and contributions are made more salient, their best selves are activated, improving their emotions, physiology, cognitive ability – even their relationships.

Looking after ourselves

Once we have looked at our past to define our values, and chosen work that plays to our strengths, the next step is wellbeing. “We need a holistic approach to ourselves,” says LBS’s Richard Jolly

First, look at your tech. Connected devices, such as smartphones, are driving more managers to check emails out of hours to distraction. Today, people generally struggle to protect their thinking time. The relationship between brain and behaviour is key: in order to master attention, we must practice it.

“There’s a great phrase in Florida: ‘When you’re fighting off the alligators, it’s hard to remember you were trying to drain the swamp,” says Jolly. “We have become a generation of alligator fighters: so busy ‘doing’ that we struggle to focus on our key priorities.” In part he blames technology itself but also a condition he calls ‘technological arousal’. “We need to change our relationship with technology,” he says. “We’ve become obsessed and addicted to it, so we’re on edge, in a state of heightened awareness.”

Based on ten years of executive interviews, Jolly found that 95 per cent of people suffer from ‘hurry sickness’ – a reaction to a world that’s increasingly complicated and chaotic. “Getting things done feels good,” he says. “Our brains reward us with a hit of dopamine.” But constantly chasing your tail is not good, “and what busy executives don’t realise is that, if they carry on, it won’t just affect their career, but their health, too.”

The act of thinking is a lifestyle choice and one that improves brain health. Jolly suggests we create time to think: not just in the shower or for five minutes. “Figure out when you have your best ideas,” he says. “What time of the day is it? Is it before eating or after the gym? The time you have will only get more squeezed and the problems you need to solve will only get more complex, so work out how to optimise your thinking time, now.”

Jolly adds that people need to become more resilient in order to cope with the demands of changing environments. “Change is possible,” he says. “Our brain has ‘neuroplasticity’: an incredible ability to restructure itself by forming new connections between brain cells. As we become experts on topics, the areas in our brains that relate to those skills continue to grow.”

And don’t forget bedtime. While thinking time helps us to survive, adapt and prosper, no one can think properly without sleep. Jolly advises a good night’s sleep when preparing for a challenging, expeditious world: “It is proven to increase productivity, happiness and smart decision making.” A study published in the journal Nature showed that even a moderate level of fatigue affects performance to a similar degree to alcoholic intoxication – which makes you more likely, adds Jolly, to be “distracted by the thousands of things competing for your attention. Make sure you’re wide awake.”

Over our lifetimes, we will be faced with countless choices, such as where to live, how to be true to our values and what career to choose. But remember, time is on your side – and you have to use it wisely.

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