A client asked me this question recently, and I’ve heard versions of it before. I understand why.
If you’re miserable at work but are surrounded by people who seem to be enjoying and/or excelling at the very same job that makes you want to flee; if you have a recurring pattern of being unhappy in your career; or even if you’re just a naturally introspective person, this is a normal question to ask.
The problem with answering it, I quickly realized when I made the attempt, is that its complex nature and the various reasons people ask it defy a one-size-fits-all response. So today we’re going to try something a little bit different.
Today you get to choose your own adventure.
Adventure #1: If you’re asking whether the problem lies with you or your job because you worry that you’re not trying hard enough to make it work, click here.
Adventure #2: If you’re asking because you don’t want to quit your job, find another, and then realize that you’re still miserable, click here.
Adventure #3: If you’re asking because you want to know which to adjust—yourself or your job—to find you’re looking for, click here.
If you long to jump ship but think that with a little more discipline, skill, or effort, you could make yourself enjoy and/or thrive in a job that depletes you, then your Inner Critic is probably misleading you.
Inner Critics are prone to blame and all-or-nothing thinking. They want you to believe that either you’re terrible, or your job is. They’ll try to convince you that you’re unhappy because somebody is screwing something up (most likely you).
The truth is, we all have unique interests and skills that make us well-suited for some types of work and not-so-well-suited for others. The way I see it, this is one of life’s magic tricks, because it means that there are people who are well-equipped to solve the many different types of problems in the world.
Often, however, the currents of life take us away from our most needed path and deposit us in foreign waters. In other words, for whatever reason, we find that we’re getting paid to work on a problem that actually belongs to somebody else. When this is the case, no amount of willpower, talent, or hard work will make that problem ours to solve.
If this is your adventure, resist the urge to judge or make anybody wrong for your situation (most of all yourself). You’re just being invited to answer a question that’s larger than who’s to blame or even whether to quit your job. Your real question is:
How is the world asking me to share my gifts right now?
The good news is, you can share your gifts wherever you are, so there’s no urgency to figure anything out. Over time you can observe whether your current job helps you employ your capabilities to good effect, in work or outside of it, or whether you’re being called in a different direction.
It takes time to build up to earning our full living from contributing our biggest (and frequently most hidden) talents to the problems that are ours to solve, but as long as you’re finding ways to share your gifts and letting them guide you towards opportunities for fuller expression, you’re on the right path.
How Adventure #1 Turns Out:
You stop using your dissatisfaction (or exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, feelings of failure, etc.) as an excuse to doubt yourself and instead understand them as a series of road signs pointing you to where you can make a meaningful contribution. Paying careful attention to these signs, you discover your many gifts, share them more intentionally in work and outside of it, and begin to see how valuable they really are.
One step at a time, your contributions lead you towards work that truly nourishes you, that you feel good about, and that allows you to change the world in meaningful ways.
There’s a joke that goes:
Question: What do all your problems have in common?
There’s another joke that goes:
Wherever you go, there you are.
Okay, so these aren’t so much jokes as pithy statements about life, but the point is that there’s some truth to the fact that we cause much of our own suffering, and finding a new job won’t change that.
So if you wonder whether the problem is you or your job because you have a sense that you might be miserable no matter where you work, you’re acknowledging a difficult but important truth. If you think that means that you’re doomed to unhappiness no matter what you do, however, then you’re paying too much heed to your Inner Critic.
For most of us, breaking out of our misery requires some external adjustments (to our current situation) and some internal changes (to how we’re approaching that situation). This might seem obvious, but too often our Inner Critics convince us that there’s a magic solution to our unhappiness that lies in drastic changes to one realm or the other, and our job is to sit around trying to figure out which it is.
In reality, all we need is to be willing to experiment a little to find the right combination of inner growth and outer shifts that support our well-being. (This, by the way, is perhaps the easiest way to explain what I do with my clients, and why coaching works).
If this is your adventure, you’re not being asked to determine whether you or your job is the cause of your misery. Rather, you’re being asked a much more important question:
What’s the next baby step that I’m being called to take?
Nobody’s doomed to be unhappy. Misery is just a sign that we’ve been following our will rather than our Inner Wisdom. In my experience, once you become willing to listen to the clues your head, heart, and body are giving you, no matter how small—to work less, do yoga more, spend more time outdoors, write that story that’s been floating around in your head, or do anything else that makes you come alive—you no longer need to avoid misery because you’ve learned to let it guide you.
How Adventure #2 Turns Out:
You stop trying to find a silver bullet and start experimenting your way towards greater happiness. You let go of the belief that you’re doomed to misery and that you should be able to figure everything out on your own. You seek out the support you need to make small changes both internally and externally, the results of which add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.
One step at a time, your experiments lead you towards work that truly nourishes you, that you feel good about, and that allows you to change the world in meaningful ways.
Most of the time when people come to me, they’re looking for a new job because they think that’s what’s going to solve all their problems and give them what they’re looking for.
I don’t want to diminish the benefits that come from finding work that aligns with and supports our truest selves. They’re big, and real. But the truth is, there’s no job—or any external circumstance, for that matter—that’s going to give us what we most desire.
That’s because what we most desire is a state of being—feeling loved, accepted, valued, respected, safe, secure, joyful, powerful, alive, free, etc. We think that certain things—a new promotion, job, house, car, or spouse—are going to give us that. But the truth is, these states of being are our birthright. They’re part of who we are. We just lose touch with them as we try harder and harder to hold on to and control them in a constantly changing world. Which, of course, is doomed to failure, so around the wheel we go.
Challenges—namely, not getting what we want—act as natural interrupters to this cycle. So if you’re asking whether you need to adjust yourself or your job to find what you’re looking for, that’s cause for celebration. You’re being given the opportunity to ask the only question that can actually reconnect you to the state of being that you long for most:
What growth or expansion am I being invited into right now?
If you’re not sure what that is, here are three ideas to find out:
- Pretend you’re a scientist and observe yourself. Pay close attention to what happens when you’re upset: What do you think and feel? What do you say, do, or not do? Look for patterns and then ask yourself how these are helping you and how they might be limiting you. What might you do differently to open up new possibilities?
- Get an outside perspective. Ask a trusted mentor, coach, colleague, friend, or loved one what possibilities they see for your growth.
- Follow Tony Schwartz’s Golden Rule of Triggers: When upset, whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t. If you feel compelled to strike out, hold your fire. If your instinct is to pull back, stay engaged. See what happens and do more of the thing that supports your happiness and well-being. (Adapted from Be Excellent at Anything by Tony Schwarz.)
If you’re thinking that this all sounds great but won’t get you any closer to your goals, then I have one last thing to say:
Internal changes are what make the external ones possible.
We can only exert our creative power in the world once we have the skills, qualities, and other internal resources necessary to work through the challenges that inevitably arise when we do.
There is one important, rather big caveat, however, which is that in order to change internally, we need to have the necessary support and resources. If our current environment doesn’t provide these, then it’s worth finding one that does.
How Adventure #3 Turns Out:
You commit to your internal growth, finding the support you need through books, classes, groups, friends, mentors, therapists, and coaches to make it easier and more effective.
You become more content with where you are, regardless of your circumstances. Paradoxically, as you grow more fulfilled, you begin to see opportunities to make bigger external changes, and now you have the tools and resources to make them more powerfully.
One step at a time, your expanding sense of self leads you towards work that truly nourishes you, that you feel good about, and that allows you to change the world in meaningful ways.