Chad Ellsworth knows that the road to self-improvement is bumpy. Often the biggest roadblock? Look in the mirror. Ellsworth is a career coach at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, where he was named 2018 Staff of the Year by undergraduate business students. But he doesn’t limit his wise counsel to students — or careers. Ellsworth, 40, is all about helping us grow throughout life. Reared in Nebraska, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Maryland and came to the U in 2004. His book, “Building Up Without Tearing Down,” was published in September. As a New Year’s gift, the married father of two sons offers guidance in finding fulfillment by getting out of our own way.

Q: What trips us up in our quest for more authentic lives?

A: Honestly, the biggest thing that gets in our way is ourselves. We are our own greatest inhibitors. Too often, we allow perceptions of what others think of us prevent us from doing what we want to do. “What are my friends, parents, neighbors going to think?”


Q: And the humbling truth is that most people aren’t thinking about us at all, are they?

A: A lot of times they aren’t thinking about us. Regardless, one of my favorite quotes comes from Joseph Campbell: “What will they think of me? — Must be put aside for bliss.”


Q: A lot of people are unhappy at work but worry about quitting.

A: They have become frustrated with just going through the motions. They want to do something that fills them up in some way, that leads to well-being and purpose. It’s about learning to look for common threads that do work. Bright spots, positive patterns, elements you still like. Or flip it: What does the part you don’t like tell you about what you need for career satisfaction? If your workload is always routine, you might look for something more dynamic and changing.


Q: Is finding purpose at work a luxury? Shouldn’t we just buck up?

A: Purpose carries us throughout our lives. If we work for 45 years, that’s 90,000 hours of work, assuming you only work 40 hours a week. When you think about how much time that is, you realize how important it is to get that part of your life right, how important it is to do something that means something to you. Sixty-seven percent of the U.S. workforce is not engaged at work and, for many of them, it is because they don’t have the chance to do what they do best every day. We do need to ask, “How can I make this better?”


Q: Yet, you don’t tell people what to do. Why do you hold back?

A: Everybody — alumni, students, private clients — all just want somebody to tell them what to do. Instead, I reflect back what I hear them saying. You’re saying you need to leave your job? You need to stay? I rarely tell people what to do. It comes from my belief that all of us have the answers. Sometimes we just need help in pulling them out.


Q: In your broader coaching, you champion five elements of well-being. Please share them.

A: They come directly from Gallup research in the areas of human and team development. First, love what you do each day. Second, make connections with others. Third, have the security of finances. Fourth, be good to your body so that it can perform and do the things you want it to do. Fifth, find well-being in your community, be it your block, neighborhood or city. These little changes can make immediate differences in our well-being.


Q: How many of us do all five well?

A: Fifty percent of the U.S. population is thriving in one or zero of those five elements. The answer is few of us are doing them well.


Q: Speaking of finances, you’ve found that we give too much power to money to make us happy.

A: After you make an amount that can sustain the basic necessities of life, every increase of $10,000 annually only gives you a 2 percent increase in the likelihood of being happy. On the other hand, having a friend who is happy can increase your chances of being happy by 9 percent. Even an unhappy friend decreases your chances of being happy by 7 percent.


Q: So, you have a net gain even with a cranky friend?

A: You don’t have to kick cranky friends out of your life.


Q: Your book is about collaborating, even with foes. Have you seen this work in real life?

A: In my junior year of college, I attempted to confront hazing at my fraternity. I was forced to move out in the middle of the night. I decided that I wanted to work with fraternities and sororities to get things right, so I wrote my master’s thesis on hazing, then was Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at the U from 2004 to 2011. That inspired one of my book chapters, “Engaging Your Enemies.” When you’re fighting for an idea and you encounter enemies, you can’t just keep pushing on them because they are grounded in strength on their side of the river. You need to build a bridge. All the energy that goes into fighting … when you reconcile with somebody, it brings a lot of joy and peace.”


Q: You say failure is great. Say more.

A: Failure is absolutely normal. We should accept and embrace it. In life, there are a lot of examples of successful people who have failed spectacularly. We tend to personalize failure instead of saying, “This didn’t work out.” My sons’ teachers use the phrase FAIL: First Attempt In Learning. It’s a great perspective.