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Career secrets from the happiest person I know

Cleaning supplies

Earlier in her work life, Erika tried different careers that seemed logical. However, none of those jobs felt right to her.

Erika was lucky. She met a great boss, found her calling and has been in the same line of work for 10 years. She loves her job. She is a great mother, a loving wife and all-around awesome human being. She is the happiest person I have ever met.

Erika is my house cleaner.

She has a passion, with a dash of healthy obsession, for cleaning. Her daughter told me she would find Mom wiping down the tables at their favorite Korean BBQ restaurant on their family night out when no one was watching.

In theory, I should be happier than Erika. I can afford to hire her to clean the house that is a bit too spacious for me. But I am not. I often feel restless and discontent. I feel I deserve more, while simultaneously feeling like I am not good enough.

Turns out I am not alone. The most popular class in the history of Yale is exactly what I need: Happiness 101 (or PSYC 157: Psychology and Good Life)/

Talking to Erica is always a humbling experience. I may have gone to fancier schools, but she seems to have learned so much more about life. 

So, here are a few things I learned from Erica. She taught me that our conventional idea of success does not guarantee happiness and that there is so much more to life. 

1. Be grateful.

"Mr. Kim was great," Erika told me. "He got me started in the cleaning business. He is a great boss. I don't work for him anymore, but I still visit him from time to time.”

I am not sure I would have been as grateful as her. I feel guilty I pay Erika and her cleaning partner a grand total of $120 for a five-hour, deep cleaning session.

I feel guilty the $120 also includes the commute from her house in Twenty Nine Palms. For those of you who are not familiar with the traffic god of Southern California, it is a three to 19-hour drive, one way.

I used to be totally pissed when I found out there was a 6-month-old next to me in seat 5B on my 15-hour flight to Shanghai. And no, the flat-bed seat and champagne brought me no solace. 

But Erika is genuinely grateful, even though I haven't been the most steady client.

2. Be deeply connected to others.

Growing up in the tradition of Tiger Mom meant my teenage years were a battle of mutual silent resentment. I knew my parents loved me, but my 15-year-old self couldn't feel it. The expectation to excel was so high that it eroded our ability to connect deeply.

One time, Erika's 17-year-old daughter came along to help. I walked by and they were cleaning the his-and-her sinks side by side, talking and laughing. I don't speak Spanish, but I could tell they have a great relationship.

Erika has five children. She told me she wished they would go into the cleaning business with her, but they have their own plan. Her 17-year-old loves to read and wants to go to college after a few years in the military.

I thought, “Oh, she must be upset that none of her children want to work with her.” But she looked at it differently. "Iit doesn't matter. I just want them to do what makes them happy." I wish my mom said that to me.

Harvard has been running longitudinal studies of human development since 1938. They have been following 268 men for 75 years and they discovered that the secret to happiness, health and success is not intelligence. It is having warm relationships and a sense of feeling deep connections to others.

I have a lot to catch up in this department.

3. Do what you love.

"A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between, he does what he wants to do." — Bob Dylan

Erika was a waitress. Erika was a cashier. Erika was a line cook. None of these felt right to her.

Once, I told her there was no need to clean the patio table that I planned to throw away. She sneaked out and cleaned it anyway.

I know "Do what you love" is nothing new, but I never fully believed in it. But Erika made me realize that I have got the meaning all wrong.

Do what you love doesn't need to be grand. What we love to do doesn't need to be something that can change the world. What we love doesn't need to make us feel like we need to drop everything that is mundane to pursue the sublime.

Doing what you love can be as simple as keeping every surface clean, no matter if you’re not paid for it or not.

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Grace H. Woo is director supply chain strategy at McCormick & Company.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.