One of the most common responses I get when asking people if they genuinely enjoy being in their current job is an – often awkward – split second of silence, followed by a slight shoulder shrug and a mumbled: “It pays the bills.” To me that’s like saying that being in a relationship is better than being alone because at least you may get some action (and even that I would like to question at times). Let’s face it. Would you stay in a bad relationship if you could have a good or great one? For some people, the answer is “yes” – out of a variety of reasons – and that’s, of course, their decision to make. Others, however, would not.
How many times have you told your friend to pack their bags and get the heck out of there when you witnessed a relationship bringing out the worst instead of the best in them – simply because you saw the toxicity and felt the toll it took on your mate? How many times have you given the same advice to a friend, family member or colleague in a career context? And how many times have you followed your own good advice in either context?
Yes, a job pays the bills and that’s important, but is that good enough for you? Yes, the title of “Manager” – just as an example – may provide you with status and recognition, but are you passionate about and finding fulfillment in what you’re doing? Yes, job safety can be an essential ingredient, but is your job aligned with your ethics and values? And would you do the same job if there weren’t any pressures or expectations on you from society, family or friends? Would you still be in your profession if you hadn’t invested a lot of time and money in that field – be this through actual work experience or studies? If your answer is “yes, yes and yes”, pause for a moment, give yourself a tap on the shoulder and congratulate yourself wholeheartedly on being on the right path. You’re doing much better than a lot of the people I’ve talked to: friends and clients alike. Heck – you’re doing much better than I did for a large chunk of my working time.
I get it: the reality of life can sometimes play a tricky hand and we – seemingly – are stuck in a situation that is not ideal but bearable. We’re not happy, but comfortable. We know we could do better, but it comes with risks: financial, personal and professional risks. We don’t really believe in what the company is doing, but we shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves “it’s just a job”. And so we live in our comfort zone and console ourselves with sayings like better the devil you know than the devil you don’t and the grass is always greener on the other side. We don’t feel great, but we’re not feeling awful either. We accept what is and settle. We make the best of it.
For some this is good enough; for others, however, there is a persistent nagging feeling that there must be something else – yet, living along the lines of “love what you do”, they stand still – maybe dreaming about a career they’ve always aspired to – but not acting on it: tied by financial constraints and bound by golden shackles; fearful of the unexpected and maybe anxious about what other people might think. Fair enough. I’ve been there, my friend – I’ve been there.
And indeed, there have been times when I more than overstayed my welcome in a job – just like that pesky friend who comes over for dinner and is still hanging around at midnight, not willing to go home, but not actively contributing to a fruitful discussion or entertaining evening either. I went to work with low levels of excitement, got more and more disgruntled by ever-changing policies and strategic objectives – objectives that started clashing with my personal and professional beliefs and values, and that hence caused internal conflicts and struggles; whilst undertaking tasks that I either disliked or that bored me to pieces.
Now, I am not saying that work should be an everlasting fountain of fun and inspiration (if fun and inspiration are important aspects to you) – but at least it should keep you happy and fulfilled for eighty to ninety percent of the time. If you get up in the morning, dreading the commute to work; if you find yourself being irritated most of the day and that this irritation is spilling over into other areas of your life; or if you start experiencing regular physical symptoms like excessive weight gain or loss or repetitive back pain, nausea or whatever else is out there, then – let me assure you – something is not quite right.
Unfortunately, a lot of people only act once the mental, emotional or even physical pain reaches an unbearable threshold. It is at that time they jump ship; often though only to land on a similar one: things are good for a while and then the same old patterns start repeating and those old pesky problems reoccurring. What do “they” say again? “Wherever you go, there you are.” Damn.
Instead, maybe – just maybe – wouldn’t it be a better idea to proactively work on your career? And I am not talking about the next three steps on the corporate ladder or the next educational venture that gets you onto the aforementioned ladder step. They are important too – no doubt. However, what I am talking about in this context is to sit down, take a couple of deep breaths and think about what it really, really is that you value in a career. You’re likely to spend a large chunk of your time at work, so why not make it something you enjoy – at least a lot of the time?
There is a famous saying: “Love it, leave it or change it.” I once read that it really ought to be: “Change it, love it or leave it.” That made sense to me. If there is an aspect you’re unhappy about, it is a good idea to work on finding ways on how to change it to a more pleasant situation. If that doesn’t work, attempt to find the good aspects in the current conditions and embrace them wholeheartedly. And if that still doesn’t work, leave it: gradually work on a sustainable strategy that allows you to move closer to something you enjoy.
This, of course, begs the question: ideally, what do you need in order to feel fulfilled in and passionate about a job? Is it money? Is it fun? Learning? Growth? Helping others? Promotion opportunities? A good team? Recognition? Extra benefits? Variety? There is no right or wrong answer and, as it is with so many things in life, these values are likely to change over time, so it’s a good idea to revise them on a regular basis.
Once you’ve brainstormed your ideal working conditions, identify the most important ones: which ones are non-negotiable and which ones could you take or leave? On a scale of five or ten, how important are they? And what is their corresponding value in your current job? Do they match or not? If not, why not – and is there anything you can do to increase the current number? What are other ways of achieving a more aligned value? Do you need more skills or resources or do you need to let go of limiting beliefs or decisions? Maybe you even know someone who has achieved a high value in one of your criteria. If so, ask yourself how they achieved that or – even better – ask them about their strategies.
Yes, aligning your career or anything else in life with what you value the most can take time and might involve some introspection and work. It may also push you out of your comfort zone and force you to let go of old habits and patterns, but just imagine the benefits of being engaged in something you truly love and enjoy. And yes, for every decision we make there is a certain price we pay. In the long-run, however, a one-off higher price right now might end up being cheaper than ongoing lower prices for a prolonged period of time. Just think about it…