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In 2017, the polling gurus at Gallup told us, “Only one-third of U.S. employees are engaged at work,” and “more than half of employees (51%) are searching for new jobs or watching for openings.”
If we belong to the unhappily-employed hoards, or even if we’re uncomfortably self-employed, how do we know whether it’s time to search for a new way to earn a living?
Work Is Rarely Perfect
When it comes to work, we’ve been set up for disappointment. Books, films, and television shows have always been filled with characters whose personal lives and relationships are flawed while their careers thrive. Occasionally the story line delivers an exception; but most of our narrative role models are good at their jobs and completely love what they do.
Today we see the same story not only in popular culture but also in the job-search process and in most online content. Being hired or finding clients demands an image of enthusiasm and success.
Yet if Gallup is right about the large number of discontented workers, then a lot of us are (a) faking it and (b) wondering what’s wrong with us because we (secretly) don’t fit the dominant career narrative.
Behind the fiction, clichés, and upbeat personas, the truth is that very few find perfect jobs or freelance situations.
In fact, it’s rare to land in any type of work that feels like an absolute match. We’re too complex, and so are today’s workplace demands. Even if we’re fortunate enough to find something that is exactly right, it changes. Or we do. The people we work with come and go. Policies change. The marketplace, demands, and processes for doing the job morph rapidly. Thus, last year’s dream position could become this year’s nightmare.
We may also be among the many who need to learn by experience, becoming fully immersed in work that we belatedly realize is a great match for others—but not for us.
Are We the Problem?
Human behavior tends to seek social confirmation. When we want to leave, finding fellow dissatisfied workers can seem affirming. Alone, it may be hard to admit—even to ourselves—that a situation isn’t right. And if others are doing the same tasks and appear happy, especially if they project a true sense of fit, we might easily assume we simply need to change ourselves in order to move up the satisfaction scale.
Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Resolving that premise is part of the stay-or-go decision process.
Should We Suck It Up?
Once we accept the reality of work as flawed and let go of culturally-induced career fantasies, we might then wonder whether to resign ourselves to work letdown. Perhaps we can just put in our time, do what we need to do for income and for retirement planning, not worry about how engaged we are in our careers, and find all our life satisfaction outside paid labor.
That’s a viable option; and in economic slumps and for those without the privilege of choice, it’s often the only option.
Still, work consumes a large portion of our waking hours. If we can find ways to create other possibilities for ourselves, it seems oddly self-defeating to fatalistically sweat out so much of our precious time.
Questions to Ask
How, then, can we decide if it’s time for a change? Honestly reflecting on these probes may provide a start.
1. How much lack of work fit are we willing to accept? Fifty percent? Twenty-five percent? Ten percent?
This number is both situational and personal. If we
enjoy our fellow workers;
love the commute (or its absence);
consider the position a temporary stepping stone to another goal;
prize the status of our particular role;
are learning valuable lessons about ourselves, others, or the work; or
value other intangible benefits,
we might view a higher lack of fit as a tolerable trade-off. Without mitigating factors, though, we’ll more easily feel the sting.
2. Can we change anything about our current work to further the fit?
A positive answer to this question may require both creativity and courage.
We could start by brainstorming possible ways to approach our work differently. This includes imaginatively considering
how to adjust the amount of time allotted to certain tasks;
whether to eliminate, add, or substitute responsibilities; and
how to collaborate with others to trade on strengths.
We might have to risk talking with supervisors, coworkers, or clients about the changes we need for increased work engagement. With its unpredictable results, this type of openness can spark a sense of anxiety; but considering what we’ve already invested in a particular career, job, or business, the risk may be worthwhile.
Sometimes, though, it’s not possible to significantly alter our work conditions, and we need to recognize the futility of pouring even more effort into situations that can't be improved.
3. Can we resolve career unhappiness with an attitude adjustment?
In Viktor Frank’s classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning (written in the gendered language of a previous time), we find the oft-quoted wisdom:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human
freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose
one’s own way.
Humans seek meaning and purpose. We also thrive on productivity and accomplishment. Regardless of other important motivations for working, we give heavy weight to its role in helping us combine and express those multiple life drives.
As Frankl and countless others have demonstrated, it is possible to face any situation with an attitude that contributes to a sense of meaning and encourages us to rise above limited circumstances. Career counselors certainly understand how much power lies in transforming perceptions about day-to-day work by focusing on ways our tasks directly serve others, including coworkers, colleagues, supervisors, members of the public, and society.
Nevertheless, we may not always be able to find or create greater good in a specific work path.
Over time, our experiences and personalities forge entirely unique selves, with distinctive interests, skills, aptitudes, character traits, and values. If how we earn a living doesn’t support authentic expression of all the essential aspects of who we have become, then no attitude adjustment can eliminate our struggles with external lack of productivity and accomplishment or with internal lack of congruity and integrity.
For good reason, resisting a core mismatch has just as powerful an effect on our work attitudes as does revising a negative perception. Seeing in a new, positive way doesn’t change what is most important and enduring about us as individuals.
And when our daily tasks are incapable of supporting what most matters to our deepest selves, the results of our work will be good for neither ourselves nor others.
I believe Frankl would agree with our modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s famous lines from Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
If we can revise our attitudes, better an existing situation, or even change parts of ourselves by learning, practicing, or improving knowledge and skills, without compromising our unique values and personhood, then perhaps we may decide to continue our current work.
But if we can’t stay without sacrificing fundamental pieces of ourselves, and if we have the option of choice, then it could be time to leave.
Is there any part of this decision process that connects with you right now? We’d love to hear about it in the “Comments” section below.