We spend most of our days at work solving problems.  It follows that liking—or even loving your job hinges on picking roles that require you to solve your “Happy Problems”—the ones you most enjoy tackling.  Here’s a way to help you know what those are for you, so you can be one of “the lucky ones” who love what they do.

Coaching seasoned executives and young professionals alike, I see each person is magnetically pulled toward one or two types of problems they like to handle and prefers to avoid (or gets bored with) the others.

Think about “happy problems” in four categories: Starter, Builder, Fixer, and Runner.

In brief: Starters are the people who love solving the problems of starting new things. Builders seek out the issues of growing something from smaller to larger. Fixers prefer turning around a troubled situation and get bored once that’s done. Runners—the Steady Bettys and Eddies—are happy solving the issues needed to keep things on track – with muted highs and lows. More detail about each of these follows below.

By now I’ll bet you have an idea about which one or two is/are the most you?  It’s so great to figure that out and know that about yourself!

If it’s not immediately clear to you, take a look back at the happiest times in your career or life, and the least happy times, and you will see your pattern. What types of problems were you solving consistently among the better times? The worse times?

Of course, a Fixer at times may need to be a Starter and vice versa. In fact, over time our careers will call for us to be and do every one of these things. To be at your best and do your best work consistently, you need to understand your natural preferences and align/realign with a matching job and organizational need.

Looking at the Four Preferences

As you consider each of these preferences, ask yourself: Which one or two is/are the most “you” at this point in your life? Which of the challenges give you your biggest thrill, or sense of fulfillment at the end of the day? Which would you rather avoid? Which would you like to spend the majority of your time doing? Are you doing that now? If not, what needs to happen? 

  1. The “Starter”is the serial founder or (if internal) person who volunteers for that new office, post, or project. She or he loves the challenges of the blank canvas, or likelier the empty whiteboard. If that sounds like you, then you see it as an invitation to innovation, invention or creation, and like to paint the vision and roadmap ahead. You probably have more than one domain name, patent, or trademark at the ready. You may have a few VC’s or Angel Investors on your short list of friends. You have the soul of an entrepreneur/instigator and the energy to go with it. As you get through the formative stages, and people around you start talking about “leverage” and “scale,” your interest tends to move on to your next big idea on a (no doubt) long list of them. 
  1. The “Builder’s”mantra is “take it to the next level” or “build it bigger,” and s/he loves the challenges of growing something to a larger (or even hyper) scale. Is that you? If so, you’ll be dancing when the volume, sales or client, or other metrics are spinning up – and your hands are turning those wheels. You love applying cleverness and skill to balancing resources versus constraints versus high demand and are happiest with the “nice to have” problems of too much on the plate, versus not enough. Over time, as the growth line inevitably begins to flatten, you’ll probably be ready for a change. 
  1. The “Fixer” loves the challenges of something or someone in need, and the promise of making a big difference by dealing with a gnarly issue or problem. If that sounds like you, you are intellectually stimulated when things aren’t right. You likely want to get into those issues right now — the tougher the better. You’re sure of your ability to resolve, fix, and instigate change, even when others see a blank wall or daunting puzzle. You’re happiest when applying smarts and skills to make a big impact that leaves thing far better than you found them. Once done with that, you’re probably not one to stick around for too much longer.  It’s time for the next new challenge. 
  1. The “Runner” loves the subtler mysteries of the long game. If you’re a runner at heart, you enjoy the stewardship or caretaker role, ever keeping a steady hand on the wheel. You’re attracted to mature organization’s who’ve figured out who and what they are, and are not, and are less likely to want to change things over any short period of time. You may make more nuanced course corrections that keep things on track as needed. You appreciate the opportunity and role to ensure smooth sailing as a blessing rather than a burden. When and if things become more turbulent, and that’s prolonged, it’s probably time for a change.

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Ultimately, it’s not only essential to understand your preference(s) here, but also to help others know theirs, and (when hiring) to bring in people who match the role, and the needs of your organization, which of course, are dynamic and evolving.

The big reveal here is that it doesn’t need to be “luck” that allows you to do the work you love or that you were meant to do; it’s focus, self-awareness and courage.

Focus on your happy problems, take the time to reflect and know yourself, and have the courage to make job and career choices that fit you best.

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David Peck is a Senior Executive Coach and Head – Western and Central US Regions for Goodstone Group, LLC, a global executive coaching firm. He’s been published extensively and is author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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