Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Some might call me lucky: I absolutely love my job.
I didn’t always. In my previous role as an employee at another company, I felt that I wasn’t able to speak up at work. Now, I’m the CEO of a company that helps people communicate more openly and honestly with their coworkers. It’s my dream job.
People will sometimes ask me: “How’d you do it, Claire? How’d you find happiness at work?”
It’s a tricky question to answer because happiness is individual for every person — what makes me happy might not make you happy.
But for me, happiness at work means a deeper, longer-lasting sense of purpose that doesn’t fade. It’s not a paycheck bonus or a fancy office — it’s meaning in the work I’m doing, in the people I’m helping, and in the impact I’m creating.
Here are three realizations that helped me find happiness at work.
Be honest about what you want
In my senior year of college, I decided to start a company with a few friends. I was still in school taking classes to graduate, I was student body president, and I was interning at a VC firm downtown — all while trying to start this company. In other words, I was completely in over my head and over-committed.
When I did eventually graduate and joined the company full-time, we weren’t paying ourselves and routinely worked 100-hour weeks. Needless to say, I burnt out. I stopped sleeping, I wasn’t eating, and my overall health and well-being deteriorated. Eventually, my co-founders asked me to leave the company because it was clear I was confused about what I really wanted.
I realized I’d gone along with them this entire time not because I wanted to start this company with them but out of obligation. I felt like I owed it to my friends. It was something I was “supposed to do” — what a cool opportunity, right?
In hindsight, it’s clear that’s not what I really wanted to do — and I’m so grateful for that experience. It taught me an important lesson: you must seek the truth for what you really want yourself.
Trust your own opinions
Once you’re brave enough to ask yourself what you want, you have to trust yourself in finding the answer.
Early in my senior year of college, I had yet to tell my parents that I was going to start a company. Honestly, I was terrified. College is expensive, and the idea of telling my parents that I was going to start a company and take no salary was nerve-wracking. I remember consciously choosing to not ask for other people’s advice.
If I had asked my parents what I should do after college, I know they would have told me to go to graduate school, which is what they did. If I would have asked my mentor what I should do, he would have told me to go get a job at a corporation, which is what he did.
Everyone is biased by their own opinion. The only way you can’t go wrong is by listening to yourself.
If I hadn’t trusted myself, I would not have become an entrepreneur today.
Work with what you have
Before I started my current company, I had $10,000 in savings but no idea what my business was going to be. To make progress, every day, I asked myself: “What’s the most I can do with what I have right now?”
At the time, the answer was to do as much research as possible to become an expert in the field. So I spent a few months and did that. Then, it was to do a case study on a company using the knowledge and expertise I’d developed. So I went and did that.
I continued to ask that question, and slowly, month by month, I built a consulting business and a software product, which was ultimately what I wanted to do.
When you’re striving for something greater, that gap between where you are and where you want to be can be daunting. It’s easy to give up.
Focusing on what you can do with what you already have makes things so much more attainable. Soon you’ll have closed the gap and be where you want to be.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to be considered “lucky” that I love my job. I believe everyone can and deserves to be happy at work — and hopefully, my three realizations are helpful as you find your own way to happiness at work.
Claire Lew is the CEO of Know Your Company.