David Niven | Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Interview with David Niven, psychologist and social scientist at Florida Atlantic University

David Niven

David Niven

How are those New Year's resolutions coming along? If one of yours involves your career, you need more than just the resolve to improve your working life or find a new job. David Niven says you need a plan. A noted psychologist and social scientist who teaches at Florida Atlantic University, Niven is the author of the best-selling "100 Simple Secrets" series of books that offer advice on subjects such as relationships, families, health and personal happiness.

Managing Editor Evamarie Socha thought that, as the author of "The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People," Niven would have some fresh advice on contemplating one's career. Here is what he had to say.

WT: Is it worthwhile to re-examine your career goals now and then?

Niven: It's important that your goals be a living thing. You should let them evolve as your situation evolves in terms of what you're doing and what you care about.

WT: So goals should change as your career progresses?

Niven: Very much. At first, you may think you want the money, the office, everything with it. Then family life changes your perspective. Some people see the cost of a job in stress and time, and that changes what they are about. But even getting what you want by itself can be an empty victory.

WT: What are the effects of modern life on professionals today?

Niven: The biggest is instability. The career model of a generation or two ago was hard work and loyalty; in turn, you got a lifetime commitment from employers.

Today, not only do we have economic uncertainty, but the employer loyalty is gone. It creates stress and uncertainty. That is one of the reasons people are always checking voice mail, BlackBerrys and e-mail. There is always an unsettled foundation.

WT: What is the first step of a career self-examination?

Niven: Define what you want rather than letting some sort of standards of office or neighborhood or family be your answer. A lot of folks get caught up in competing in these outcomes of their professional lives.

One of the first things to do is to write it all down: what it is you want and, very important, the steps you need to take to get there.

You have to map it out, because if you don't, it will be heck of a lot easier not to do anything.

WT: Should one set deadlines for the goals?

Niven: No. Don't think in terms of deadlines, but in concrete progress.

Instead of "By the end of the year, I want a better job," I would favor saying, "These are the steps I need to take to get a better job." And you need to be able to see that you're moving forward. When you can't see that, you're likely to give up.

WT: How do you deal with fear?

Niven: Any change is intimidating, and there is a certain hesitancy if you think the position you're in is good enough. You don't want to see yourself creating a disappointment that wasn't there to begin with.

Again, this gets back to what you need from work and to feel that this is a calling. If your job fits those things, then it might be a question of changes at the margins to make work more satisfying.

WT: Are there other avenues to explore outside of the office?

Niven: There are some things not directly involved in workplace that can improve career satisfaction. Volunteers are about one-quarter more satisfied with their work lives. Volunteering gives us sense that we're capable and good people at heart, and it doesn't matter if we spend most of our time in the accounting department.

WT: Should you bring in other people to this process?

Niven: There is a limit to finding a mentor or talking to others. There is a limit on the value because, ultimately, it has to be your answer.

[Use other people] as examples. Look around you at some of the veterans of the place, some of the new people, and compare yourself to them in terms of if you have the same kinds of goals and basic life perspectives.

WT: When do you approach your boss with this information?

Niven: If your answer is that you're in the right place and the right time, but a small change would exponentially improve your position ? telecommute, switch hours ? that might be the thing that keeps you in satisfying work.

Employers don't want to lose employees, especially good ones.

WT: What do you think should be the main goal of any profession?

Niven: The bottom line is that it has to fulfill a person's definition of a calling, something that reflects who and what they are.

I think almost any kind of work can do that, but it has to fit that person. Not any one profession alone lays claim to this.

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