THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Right livelihood: Do right by doing good

At some point, after you've been working long enough to feel confident in your skills and in the path you've chosen, you start wondering about the bigger questions: How can you support yourself with enjoyable work and still make the world a better place?

My husband works at a grassroots agency that struggles to save people from poverty and prison. I told him that since I was supporting our family while he worked for a low-paying nonprofit, I was doing enough to save the world.

He said, "You're not saving the world; you're saving us."

"I know," I said. "I'm enabling you to save the world."

He said, "You can do what you want. But grassroot action makes an immediate difference."

Recent studies have shown that people have an inherent need to help others– to make other people feel better. And a Buddhist writer explains, "Each of us must find our own right livelihood by following our hearts while facing our unique situation." 

What I take this to mean is that we all want to do good, but we have to take care of ourselves first, then our family, and then the world. Most of us have enough trouble with the first two.

For some people "right livelihood" will mean a life of environmental activism. For others, it might take the form of creativity. At rock bottom it might mean doing the best we can in our current jobs to spread some peace, love, and happiness.

My husband is typical of social activists because he has a spouse working in a lucrative job. We found this out the hard way when we tried to depend on his job for insurance. The human resource person told him, "The premiums are sky-high because no one here needs to use the insurance."

Fortunately for those who do need insurance, the business world offers a surprising range of opportunities to honor one's need for right work. I've mentored people who have been able to make huge changes in their lives, and I've changed corporate policies to accommodate single mothers and gay job applicants. These have been high points in my career because I felt like I was doing good.

But you don't actually have to make a monumental contribution to the world to feel good about yourself. Small acts of kindness add up.

Studies have found that being kind makes you feel more positive about yourself and the world. One writer notes: "In our daily lives, we all perform acts of kindness for others. These acts may be large or small, and the person for whom the act is performed may not be aware of the act. 

Examples include feeding a stranger's parking meter, donating blood, helping a friend with homework, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter. In order to optimize the good feelings that come from good acts, you should load up your acts of kindness so you do five in one day.

Follow these instructions from any job, no matter how big or small. Write a note to yourself on one day each week, and count your deeds until you get to five. Your job will bring deeper meaning to your life because you'll be using it to directly cause positive feelings in the world.

I'm never going to work at a housing project, and my husband's never going back to corporate life. But we're striking a balance. Winston Churchill once said: "Make a living by what you get, make a life by what you give." The best careers can combine both.