Want a more fulfilling job? Lean out

  @Money July 8, 2013: 6:10 AM ET
lean out

Maybe it's time to put what you want -- not what the job demands -- first.

(Money Magazine)

With her bestseller Lean In, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg sparked a national conversation about how women can advance to leadership positions at work.

In appearances from 60 Minutes to the cover of Time magazine, Sandberg beat the drum, encouraging women to invest more in their careers rather than hold themselves back because of lack of confidence or concern over their ability to balance work and family.

Fuel for leaning out
Don't feel you get what you need for professional fulfillment from your current job? Join the crowd.
Employee gripes % Agreeing
Work is significant source of stress 65%
Don't have sufficient opportunities to advance 61%
Do not feel valued at work 49%
Not adequately compensated 46%
Contributions not adequately recognized 43%
Note: January 2013 survey of 1,501 working adults. Source: American Psychological Association

The ensuing debate has prompted a key question relevant to both sexes: Would you, too, benefit from "leaning in" at work -- that is, putting more time, energy, and creativity into your job to get ahead?

It sounds possibly exhilarating -- or impossibly exhausting. Maybe, depending on what you want and where you are in your life, you'd actually be better off leaning out, directing your best efforts into fulfilling career and personal priorities that you, not your employer, have set. Says John Morris, co-founder of Crestwood Advisors in Boston: "Many people just want to get off the treadmill and have a more satisfying life."

One thing's for sure: In an era of slow economic growth and repeated rounds of corporate downsizing, the rewards of tackling ever-greater responsibilities at the office are dwindling for many.

A survey earlier this year by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of workers in the U.S. don't feel valued or adequately compensated in their jobs, and six in 10 complain they don't have good opportunities for advancement.

Where you are in your life and career matters too. If you're in a dying industry or just tired of the same old same old, you might reap a bigger payoff redirecting your energy from climbing the corporate ladder to building contacts and credentials to help you transition to a new career.

Related: Best Jobs in America

Maybe you're eager for a job that allows you to make a greater contribution to the world. Or if you've been working 50 to 60 hours a week for decades, you might just want to slow down to free up more time for your family, hobbies, and other pursuits. Indeed, in a recent survey, only one in four MONEY readers said their top career priority was to land a promotion or raise; nearly half wanted more flexibility or more meaning.

Put businessman-turned-professor Jay Friedlander, 44, in the latter camp. As chief operating officer for a group of organic-food restaurants in the early 2000s, Friedlander routinely put in 60 hours a week or more, sometimes working seven days straight. He was constantly flying from his home in Portland, Maine, to visit the chain's other locations, and worried about the time he was missing with his son, Max, then a toddler.

By 2008, eager to step away from number crunching and into a more family-friendly lifestyle doing work he was passionate about, he accepted an offer to launch a sustainable-business program at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

AmEx CEO and Sheryl Sandberg on 'Lean In'

Friedlander hasn't looked back. These days he still often puts in long hours, but instead of the bottom line, he's focused on teaching students environmentally and socially responsible business practices.

"It's not just my generation that's going to make changes, it's the next generation too," he says. Since he no longer travels, he gets plenty of time together with his wife, Ursula Hanson, 46, a social worker, and Max, now 7, whom Friedlander can now walk to school.

Yes, they've taken a financial hit, as his six-figure income shrank to five, but he has no regrets. He says, "It's a great lifestyle."

Figuring out whether you, too, should lean away from a traditional upward career path with your current employer and into a job that could bring greater fulfillment takes a mix of soul-searching and pragmatic planning, as Friedlander and his family found out. The questions that follow, coupled with practical tips, will help get you started and nudge you to lean in the right direction.

What is your true goal?

The things that Sheryl Sandberg -- or Jay Friedlander -- want out of a career may not be right for you. What is true for most people, says Nancy Miriam Hawley, a Boston leadership coach and business consultant: "The goal of satisfaction and being fully self-expressed at the end of your life is the same."

The rub is figuring out what path will produce that result. Stewart Friedman, founding director of the Work/Life Integration Project at the Wharton School of Business, suggests a couple of exercises that can help:

Evaluate how you invest your time. Assign 100 points to your waking hours each week and figure out how many of them you devote to four key areas -- work, family, community, and your private self.

Then ask if your current work lets you accomplish your goals in those areas, and whether the time you're investing in each quadrant reflects how much you want to spend there. "See where there is compatibility and conflict," Friedman advises.

Related: Work from home and still be a part of the office

Tell yourself a story. To determine how best to refocus your time, write a short narrative of your life, focusing on critical episodes, Friedman says. It can illuminate what's given you the most satisfaction, which will help inform what you'd like to do going forward.

That kind of self-reflection led hospital lab technician (and MONEY reader) Amy Mansfield, 45, to decide not to shoot for a promotion to manager -- despite a possible 40% bump-up in pay from her $60,000 annual salary.

The Macon resident realized she loves the balance her current position provides -- she now works seven days in a row, then is off for seven -- and doesn't want the added pressure she'd face on a higher perch. "I can go home and not worry about anything," she says.

Plus, she has plenty of time to visit her family, spread out from Niagara Falls to Palm Springs, and for other trips, such as a recent getaway to Phoenix to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert. Some weeks Mansfield, who is single, prefers just to stay home and play with her three dogs. She notes, "If I want to sit home and veg, I can."

Cont.: Does your job offer a way to get you where you want to go?

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