What kind of hamburger are you having today? (Or: do you have a meaningful career…?)

Did you know that a Big Mac has 570 calories and 32 grams of fat in it (twice the recommended daily amount for staying healthy)?

So what? You may say: what does that have to do with my career?

Well, let’s see…

Based on an analysis by Harvard positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar (whose ‘happiness’ lecture is the most in demand throughout the whole university), there are four ‘types of hamburgers’ – each having a profound impact on your well-being in the here-and-now, and in the future:

Now, for the sake of this exercise, assume for a minute that you are a big burger fan:

Are you a career hedonist?

Take the ‘junk food’ hamburger I introduced above: fresh from the grill, in a soft white bun with garnish and a side of fries; as a hedonist you decide to enjoy the taste now, even if it means regretting it and feeling guilty (and possibly ill!) later on. We have all experienced this: focusing on attaining pleasure in the here and now, we choose to ignore the negative consequence that our behavior may have in the future.

Applying this to the job world, take the example of Melissa[1]: an MBA from Stanford. Right after school she signed up to work for the business school’s admissions team. It is a cushy job with little pressure or expectations, and she gets to travel the world. After 4 years in the same position, however, her effortless and easy-going lifestyle has lost some of its appeal… There aren’t many challenges, and few opportunities to grow or develop. Leaving her current employer for a new professional challenge is proving difficult, however, as she thinks she will struggle with giving up her freedom.

Have you signed on to win the rat race?

Knowing the detriments of the junk food hamburger, you elect to take a more sensible route and have a bite of the vegan burger… Its healthy ingredients don’t  taste that great, but you hope that your present sacrifice will pay-off in the future. You tell yourself: “No pain, no gain.”

Most executives that come to see me fall into this category… and are looking for ways to get out.

In the hope of achieving their goal: be that a prestigious new employer, a promotion, or a bonus, they have stopped enjoying the journey. Now they realize that reaching their goals only offered short-term satisfaction. In fact, they often describe the sensation of achieving their goal as ‘being rid of a burden’: a relief from the anxiety and stress they had to endure to reach their destination. And these moments of relief tend to be temporary – a new goal is set and the rat race continues: the absence of the negative does not equal the presence of the positive. If you win the rat race, you are still a rat…

Do you feel like your career will never go anywhere?

As a student with very little money and a hungry stomach, I bought a burger at Whitecastle. I can still vividly remember the sensation of crunching on pieces of bone in the ground meat. It tasted horrible and I knew it was bad for me. But I did not see another option.

This sense of helplessness is characteristic of individuals who find themselves in a ‘nihilistic’ professional rut.

Take Warren for example, a CPA that I met at a social event. When we talked about his responsibilities as a partner in a major auditing house he was extremely unenthusiastic, yet he seemed resigned to the fact that he will retire in this role. His job is neither fulfilling nor meaningful to him and he feels chained to his training and his previous experience, in other words: his past. Nihilists neither enjoy their current role nor do they have hope for change in the future.

Would you like to live a career north of neutral?

Now take the ideal burger: the organic, high-quality beef is succulent and tastes delicious, its crunchy whole grain bun holds fresh salad leafs and heirloom tomatoes, and all of the ingredients are healthy and conducive to a positive lifestyle. Finding this burger may be difficult and require some searching: but it does exist.

A satisfying and enlivening career – or a career ‘north of neutral’ – allows you to enjoy what you do in the here and now. It empowers you to savor your progress and offers a vision of where your professional journey will take you.

If you are unsure of where your core competencies, values, and interests lie, or if you have difficulty envisioning how your current skills can be used to bring your dream alive, then you may need some help with finding your direction.  When I work with my executive clients, we use a number of useful tools that answer these questions and help to build the foundations for a satisfying and enriching career.


Take responsibility for developing a career that is meaningful and fulfilling. Use the hamburger model as a ‘check point’ and ask yourself at regular intervals: am I on track, do I like what I do now and am I building an attractive future?

To believe that you can be in ‘professional bliss’ all the time is unrealistic -circumstances may not always go your way and you’ll have to fight to stay on track – you will find yourself at times ’eating the wrong burger’! However: as long as you strive to spend most of your time working towards the career that suits you – your perfect, satisfying career (or you career north of neutral), you will be enjoying the journey, and you will one day arrive at your destination…

[1] Any names have been changed to protect the privacy of the client