Adapted from The Art of Work: How to Make Work, Work For You!

Can you remember clearly what you were like as a child? What were your dreams, hopes and ‘favorites’? Are you that person you thought you would become?

Many young people struggle with figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. Truth be told, many not-so-young people struggle with this dilemma, too. When I was young, I did not know precisely what I wanted to be when I grew up. What I did know was that I wanted to impact people’s lives in a socially meaningful way. The world I knew then was redefining itself all around me, just as the world is going through big changes around us, today. 

When I became a teenager, one very different thing happened for me that broadened my options for the future. I participated in a program called Project Upward Bound, which was created by the US Congress as part of the 1965 Higher Education Act. Project Upward Bound was designed to assist with the academic and life opportunities for students from first-generation American and low-income families. This program uses both university professors and university students to teach the participants in on-campus classes, where everyone resides over the summer. Project Upward Bound really provided me with my first view of what college life was all about. It also gave me my first view of who I could become, away from home. During the summers that I participated in this program, I learned to think strategically and creatively about what I wanted my future to be. Today, I’m very happy that I’ve achieved many of the dreams that I had for myself at that time … and the process of fulfilling them is not over yet!

Education is one of the best investments you can make in yourself. It doesn’t matter how much you already know, nor how many degrees you may or may not have; continuous learning is critical to ensure you enjoy a secure and fulfilling future. Technology demands that we keep learning if we are to stay relevant, and the aging process in and of itself requires that we know what’s going on around us in order to survive and enjoy our futures.

While success can come with jobs for which the main draw isn’t the salary, financial stability is very important to your future. When many people take a new job, they care about the benefits that come with that job, but do not always get retirement packages as part of that. That is something they are forced to think about much later in life. Most people’s financial standing is personal to them, and I’m sure that yours is to you. There is no way for me to know what percentage of your income you can afford to put aside, preferably in a savings account, for your future. However, I am sure that if you are currently employed, you should try to find some amount that you can pay to yourself, for your future. If you are not working for pay right now, make this the first financial commitment you make once you are employed. You already know what it’s like to want a savings!

It is vital that you get into the habit of managing what resources you do have and bring in. It is also vital that you understand that the best investment you can make is the one you make in yourself. Financial markets may go up or continue to plunge, but the investment you make in yourself can only continue to reap you benefits and profit. 

The principle of investing in yourself applies to you, whether we are talking about money, your education or your relationships. After all, learning to its fullest the job you are paid to do today, and fully applying yourself to it, creates insurance for your employability tomorrow. Many companies, especially larger corporations, are hiring workers very differently than they did in the past. Jobs are being done from all across the world that once were contained to large corporate campuses. Smaller firms are utilizing technology and the remote service that it makes possible to maximize their potential and lessen their financial burdens. This sometimes means the loss of job opportunities in some local communities.

Being highly skilled and enthusiastic in your work puts you in a much better position to be hired, which is important regardless of how secure you may think your current employment is. And, if you are not currently employed, the energy and attention you give to your continual education and to refining your skills is even more critical to the value you will be perceived as able to bring to a hiring company.

Then, there’s also the investment you make in your relationships, as well as your educational, financial and work stability. My husband puts it very clearly with respect to relationship security when he says, “The best time to tell your wife that you love her is before someone else does!” The surest method of keeping the relationships that you value strong and growing is by understanding and appreciating the people you care about right now.

Don’t wait to say ‘I love you’ or ‘Thank you’ because you think you’ll have tomorrow to do it. Don’t take it for granted that your significant other, parent, or child will always be there, and that you can put them on hold. Life is precious, and life on earth is not eternal. Make them the most important people you have to show appreciation to, because after all, they are the most important people in your life. 

Likewise, the people you work with are the most important people you can impress with your skills and productive value so that you can move ahead in your job or career. How you provide follow up, and respect and show appreciation for them, represent your desire to continue your relationships throughout your career. When you understand this, you begin to master the art of work.

You will wake up one day to realize that your future has come. When that day comes for you, will the thing you are now promising yourself be real? Will you be doing, getting or giving it, just as you are promising yourself today that you will? What often happens is that many people get caught by trying to have the quick life. They want it ALL right now … the money, the houses, the cars, the stuff. 

We do need to enjoy every day of our lives; learning to appreciate the small things that you can afford right now, instead of trying to live a dream life that you can’t yet support is just not smart. Step back regularly and measure your happiness along the way to your future. Learn the difference between obsession and passion for yourself. Check to make sure that it is your dream you’re working toward, rather than someone else’s for you.

Be sure that as you are dreaming of, and planning for your future, you are honest about what you really want. Money and career won’t make it happen alone. You’ve got to make the full investment. That requires being clear with the people who matter to you, because they matter to your ability to enjoy life as well. No matter where you are in your work life, step back right now to think about how everything else in your life fits for you.

Here’s the good news. Temporary sacrifices and discomforts do not add up to an unhappy or unfulfilled life. once those moments are over, you most often find that they have aided in your own development. Once, I saw an Army shirt with this statement printed on it: “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.” That may seem extreme to you, but I’m sure you can grasp the real meaning of “Tough times build character.” Going through tough times doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy. Most of us will. But, none of us needs to stay in them!

You may be overwhelmed by many of the day-to-day concerns that we all have at some point in our lives. Bills, education, and relationship challenges are all very real matters that require and deserve serious attention. You may delude yourself into thinking that you have too much to do right now to deal with your future. This is exactly the time that you should evaluate and assess your life. You may decide to get the help or perspective of someone who knows you and cares about you, if you don’t want to do this alone. However, willful blindness is not going to help you to own your future. Looking clearly and honestly at your work and your life are very important, if you are to begin to own your future. If enjoying and loving your work is an art, then owning your future is the signature you put to it.