It might surprise you to know that, of all the workers in the world, barbers and hairstylists are the happiest. Hairdressers are happier than lawyers, doctors and accountants — not to mention corporate cubicle-dwellers. “How come?” you ask. “What do they know that I don’t?” I don’t cut hair for a living, but I have been getting my locks sheared monthly for most of my life. And I’ve known enough hairdressers in my day to have ascertained their Seven Secrets to Career Contentment. I’m sure they won’t mind if I share them.
1. Be yourself. Hairstylists are individuals; they are not only allowed, but encouraged, to show off their individuality in the workplace. From blue hair to dreadlocks, bare midriffs to button-downs, you can find it all at most salons. And hairdressers can be themselves in their conversations with clients, too. In your own work, it doesn’t need to be blue hair. But you do need to be able to share your personality, thoughts and feelings openly with those around you. If you sacrifice this because you’re in a corporate environment where you think it would be frowned upon, you may succeed in climbing that company’s ladder — but probably at the expense of your happiness.
2. Be creative. Hairdressing is a creative job. New styles are emerging all the time, and hairdressers have the opportunity to learn them and create their own variations for clients. They also get clients who plop down in the styling chair and announce: “I’m bored — I want to try something completely different!” Wouldn’t it be great if you could plop down in your chair at your next staff meeting and say the same thing? All of us need some outlet for creativity in our work — and companies that encourage and reward this creativity, rather than insisting on hierarchy and conformity, tend to have the happiest employees. Ultimately, however, your happiness is in your hands, not your employer’s. You can almost always find ways to contribute new ideas if you try hard enough.
3. Set short-term goals. Hairstylists coiffure several clients a day; usually, the client departs with a smile and a thank you. Mission accomplished. In a corporate setting, it’s not that easy. We often work on long-term projects where we might not get the satisfaction of completion for weeks or months. But if you make a point to set daily or short-term goals for yourself and accomplish them along the way, you’ll feel better about your work. If you’re in an office environment where such incremental achievements are acknowledged by bosses and co-workers, that’s even better.
4. Be social. Being a barber or stylist is a social profession. Hairdressers spend all day chatting with their co-workers and clients. Studies show the opportunity to talk and listen to others reduces work stress, in addition to building a sense of belonging. The lesson here: Don’t spend all day in front of your PC with your office door shut. Don’t be lazy and communicate with colleagues exclusively by e-mail, either; it may seem faster and less of a hassle, but ultimately you may begin to feel isolated. Get up and talk to people — and listen to them, too.
5. Form relationships. A hairdresser’s clients can be very loyal, trusting their hairstyle to one person for years. Barbers and stylists pride themselves on their ability to retain their clients — even as they move from salon to salon over the course of their careers. These bonds can become highly personal and meaningful, as stylists and clients share the intimate details of their lives over time. In the business world, too many people are afraid to form real, honest friendships — either with their colleagues or their clients. “What if I have to fire him someday?” an exec might argue. “What if I tell her something that she uses against me when we are vying for the same promotion?” a young worker might say. “What if I want to seem tough and no-nonsense at work, because I think that will get me ahead?” an aspiring muckety-muck might explain. Here’s my answer: If you are a different person in your work relationships than you are in your non-work relationships, you can never be truly happy at work. It’s your choice.
6. Take ownership. Even though they generally work for someone else, most hairstylists have a strong sense of ownership in their work. Their success or failure depends directly on how well they serve their clients. In the corporate world, it can be hard to have that sense of ownership. The larger the organization, the more removed employees often feel from their company’s accomplishments. The way smart companies combat this is to provide individuals or small departments with specific long-term goals, and to allow them significant leeway in determining how they achieve these goals. And if that isn’t enough ownership for you, you can always start your own business.
7. Don’t make it about money. If you’re a hairdresser not named Jose Eber, you’re probably not rich. In fact, you’re probably not even close. But you’re happy. So, as someone pursuing a career in business, what should we learn here from the hairstylist’s example? That’s it’s time to give up our day jobs and go trekking in the Himalayas, 401(k)s be damned? No. It’s still better to have money than not. The lesson is that you should do as well as you can financially — but only by doing something you enjoy. Once you start making career decisions based on where the dollars are, rather than where your heart is, you’ve pretty much guaranteed yourself a life of unhappiness at work. [I originally wrote this post for MarketingProfs.]