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By Jenny Maenpaa

As of a few years ago, I almost burned out. I had been in direct social services for over a decade, working exclusively in low-income communities with individuals and families who were facing challenges I had never encountered in my life.

I loved helping people get from where they were to where they wanted to be by showing them how to unleash the best versions of themselves. But I was being beat down by the systemic structures that were in place which made it exceptionally hard for me to do good work.

I had lost sight of what I was good at and why I was doing it. I felt defeated and rudderless. I knew in my gut I needed to quit, but I had no idea what I would do next.

Here are the three biggest lessons I learned from taking the leap of faith and quitting a job that was dimming my light.

  1. You must put the oxygen mask on yourself first.

I was sitting in a professional mentor’s office, unloading on him about all of the challenges I was facing at my job. I was visibly exhausted and haggard-looking, and he finally stopped me and said something I’ll never forget: “You put everyone else’s needs above your own. At what point will what you need be as important or more important than what everyone else needs?”

I had literally never thought about my own needs in a job. In the past, I had actually accepted jobs without knowing the salary because I was so excited about the mission and vision! Being a social worker is a profession with an inherent savior complex. No matter how aware of it I was, I could not escape prioritizing the population served, level of need and potential impact over my own salary, benefits and satisfaction. For the very first time, a decade into my professional life, I was being asked to figure out what I wanted from my work. And I didn’t have a clue.

  1. You have to know what your values are and how they show up for you.

Since I had no idea what I needed, I had some homework to do. I went home, got out my laptop and just started writing. I listed all of my “must haves” and “nice to haves” in excruciating detail. I completed an exercise designed to unearth my own values and see which ones were in conflict.

I realized that my personal values were in one category, yet I was working for an organization and under people whose personal values were in direct conflict with mine. By trying to serve theirs I was neglecting my own, which led to internal turmoil for me daily.

My mentor concluded our meeting with the following food for thought. He said, “You say you’re afraid of abandoning the mission. But if you stay in this job, you will burn out from the helping profession completely. Forget their mission. What is yours?”

Again, I had no idea. I didn’t even know what he meant. I had always aligned my mission with my organization’s, thinking that my job was to throw myself 100 percent into realizing their vision. I never thought I could have my own vision, separate from my organization’s.

  1. You need a personal mission statement.
  2. Before I did anything with my newfound revelations, I had to sit down and figure out why I work. It was no longer enough to say “because I have to pay rent” or even “because I like helping people.” I needed a personal mission statement to serve as my guiding light when I started to falter again, found my enthusiasm waning or heaven forbid, got fired.

I needed to know what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it. Then, and ONLY then, could I go off in search of a profession that would fulfill my needs. For me, that turned out not to be another organization, but to wake up in the middle of the night and write an insanely long Jerry Maguire-style manifesto to start my own therapy and coaching business. I had never felt more energized, and the words spilled out of me. That’s how I knew I was on the right path. I was scared and had never done anything like it before, but everything about it felt right in my gut. I have never looked back.

  1. Too often we approach our career search like unqualified grifters, hoping to trick an employer or a client into giving us money in exchange for work. Forget that. That is a mindset that has been fed to you by employers because it serves them best.

You have education, experience (no matter how young you are) and energy. An employer or a client who wants you knows that you bring skills, motivation and ability to learn, which they need. They have the money, benefits and structure within which you can realize your vision.

An interview is like dating—when you’re inexperienced, you think, “I hope they like me.” When you become more experienced, you realize it’s about hoping you are a good fit for each other. You owe it to yourself to realize sooner rather than later that assessing that fit up front will save you a lifetime of heartbreak.

  1. Once you know your own true north, you can set out to find that organizational fit. Instead of focusing on tangibles (hours, location, benefits), start with their mission. A great fit will describe values that already show up in your life.

For example, take Whole Foods. On their core-values page, they state, “Our success in fulfilling our vision is measured by customer satisfaction, team member happiness and excellence, return on capital investment, improvement in the state of the environment and local and larger community support.” If you look at your own life and you already see behaviors that show you care about making others happy, recycle and volunteer in your community, you’re probably a great fit for Whole Foods.

Once you look objectively at which habits already exist in your life, you’ll see clearly what you value.

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