I think many people’s issues can be reduced down to the fact that they either hate their jobs or find them enormously stressful. Depression, anxiety, aimlessness, and even mid and quarter-life crises–if you spend eight to ten hours a day, five to six days a week, doing something that you don’t like, then that’s bound to have a toxic influence on your life.
But there’s a sort of taboo surrounding this topic. While it’s perfectly acceptable to joke about hating work–we laugh at movies like Office Space, and you probably have a coworker who sarcastically says he’s “living the dream”–open discussion of disgust or disengagement with one’s employment is generally considered unacceptable. Just ask anyone who went straight from college to a shitty job. Nobody wants to hear about it. We’re supposed to “love our jobs”, as the narrative goes, and those who feel otherwise are ostracized like the kid who doesn’t want to play football at recess. You don’t love what you do? Well then, something must be wrong with you.
Maybe that’s the problem though. We tend to confuse who we are with what we do—as if they’re the same thing. We size up new people by asking them, “so, what do you do?” And we’re not asking about whether they run marathons, enjoy woodworking, or bake pies for the competition at the state fair.
Ironically though, job dissatisfaction is widespread.
According to Gallup, 51.9% of American workers are “not engaged” at work, and 15.7% are “actively disengaged”. Bolste, an Arizona-based workflow company, recently conducted a survey in which twenty-six percent of respondents claimed to be “indifferent” about work or “unhappy … unmotivated, bored and stifled” by their job.
And as mentioned in a recent report by Rasmussen College:
Almost a fifth of Americans are unhappy at work, with 22 percent of adults reportedly unable to see a clear career path in their current job. More than half of the working population in the U.S. is not in the job they had planned for themselves and two-thirds have considered quitting.
But I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about why so many of folks don’t like their jobs. If you don’t like yours, then you already know why. You don’t need me to tell you.
Rather, I want to discuss what to do about it.
But this isn’t another one of those “quit your job and go vagabonding” or “drop everything and follow your passion” diatribes. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s bullshit. It a romanticized idea that offers no solutions for the present moment. Besides, it’s always the financially-secure who offer that kind of advice. It not really applicable to the situation of a guy who has no savings and struggles just to pay his bills. It sounds nice coming from a YouTube video or some guy in a headset at a seminar, but it’s not an immediate option for a lot of people.
Do I hate my job? No. But I’ve worked some that I did hate.
I know what it’s like to wake up every morning and spend the best hours of the day doing something that makes you miserable. I know the frustration of feeling like you only have a few scraps of time at the end of the day in which to conduct your life. And I’ve been that person who can’t wait to leave work so he can buy a frozen pizza, a bottle of whiskey, and turn on a video game and forget how much he hates everything. All that time I bragged on Facebook about my “prestigious” job with Teach For America? Well, I guess I forgot to mention the part where I was miserable. I also neglected to mention that it drove me to spend quality time with my friends Jim, Jack, and Johnny.
Maybe you feel the same way. So what’s a person to do?
Based on my experience, you have four options.
Option 1: Find a new job
I know, I know…you’ve already heard this. It’s the most common advice for people in your situation. But let’s be honest: sometimes it really is the best course of action.
Did you read about the Yelp employee who was recently fired after complaining about her job on Medium? Well, I think she should have tried to find another job. Spending $11.30 each day to commute from a $1,235/month apartment to a job that pays $8.15 an hour is beyond stupid. She could have made at least three times that amount working at a good restaurant while hunting for a another position in her industry.
But this is not always the answer.
It doesn’t solve anything when your options are similar to whatever you want to escape. What’s the guy at Walmart going to do? Probably get a job at Target or a grocery store. Is that really any better? Or what about someone who worked his way into a career only to realize that he hates it? Doing something else may result in a significant pay cut. That’s okay for some folks, but probably not the ones who financed their lifestyle with a series of monthly payments.
Besides, it’s not as simple as snapping your fingers and voilà–a new job. Getting a new one may require hundreds of hours of online applications, networking, face-to-face encounters, and other activities that frequently result in absolutely nothing. For some folks, it can take upwards of an entire year to find a new position. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do it, but rather that it’s not as simple as some people pretend.
More than that, however, switching companies ignores the fact that your issues may go deeper than the name of the employer on your paycheck. That was my experience, at least. As with many things in life, the solution sometimes has more to do with ourselves than our external circumstances.
Option 2: Find a new perspective
Like I said: our society tends to conflate who we are with what we do.
It’s why we all seem to know older folks who’ve retired from their careers only to discover that they haven’t a clue what to do with themselves. They never cultivated substantial hobbies, passions, or goals and interests. Their entire identity was anchored to the career. Many end up going back to work.
I think we need to be brutally honest about what work is, exactly. Most people don’t seek employment out of some grand purpose for their lives, but because they need a paycheck. That’s it. If they won the lottery tomorrow, they’d quit their jobs. They’d probably still work, but they’d choose something that they find meaningful. Of course people seem to think that there’s something wrong with just working for the paycheck, but I disagree. Unless you’re passionate about your job, I think it’s silly to pretend otherwise.
And there’s much to gain by being honest about this.
Most importantly, you can stop expecting the job to provide something it can’t. You can accept it for what it is: a tool. A means to an end. You have certain goals in life, and by choosing to work that job, you further your pursuit of those goals and desires. This isn’t to say that you’re stuck living in the future, but rather that you feel secure about what you’re doing right now in the present. It matters now. It has purpose.
Admitting this doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly a bad employee. You can still show up and conduct yourself with integrity. You can still put forth a lot of effort and take pride in producing quality work. But you no longer have to blame your job for not being some perfect, wonderful thing that’s worthy of love and admiration. So it isn’t what they said it would be. So you don’t love it. So what? It is what it is, and the sooner you accept this, the better off you are.
And maybe it’s just semantics, but I believe that a change in outlook from “having to work this job” to “choosing to work this job” makes an enormous difference. It gives you a degree of control and removes the feeling of helplessness. Instead of being swept along the current, you’re now behind the wheel of your own boat. Maybe you can’t change the game itself, but you can certainly decide how you play it.
And perhaps your job doesn’t pay much. Maybe you’re burdened with debt, short on cash, and you live in a cheap apartment that you don’t want to show anyone. Maybe your car has almost two-hundred thousand miles. I know what it’s like to get on Facebook and discover that your friends are buying homes, shopping on Kickstarter, and not only vacationing in the places you want to go, but actually vacationing. It’s easy to hate your situation not because of what it is, but because of what it’s not.
But this is why perspective is important. So you don’t have all of those things. So what? Are you truly incapable of happiness, tranquility, or contentment because you don’t have a mortgage, the right car, or a plane ticket to a particular destination? Of course not.
As Tyler Durden said: “advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” A lot of the things you see on Instagram and Pinterest are just that: shit you don’t need.
Or as William B. Irvine wrote:
We dress, choose a house, and buy a wristwatch with other people in mind. We spend a small fortune to project an image calculated to gain the admiration of these people–or perhaps to make them envy us. We suppress ourselves and our desires in conformance with the image we wish to project. And to finance our image-projection activities, we might spend our adult lives working at a job we hate.
If your job doesn’t pay much, then your situation has kept you from jumping on the hedonic treadmill. Learn from that. Live within your means, and discover why life is easier with less rather than more. Learn to want what you already have. Remember that at some point, you desired everything you currently own. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that happiness and contentment is only obtainable with that next purchase.
Watch the people around you and observe their actions. A coworker recently told me about a neighbor who just spent almost eighty-thousand dollars on a high-end version of the Ford Raptor and invested in a state-of-the-art home theater system. He seemed to envy this. As for me? I just chuckled at the opportunity cost. If that’s the level of disposable income available to this person, then he also has the option to live frugally and retire early. He could also start a business that he enjoys, travel the world, or do any number of awesome things. But he decided to anchor himself to some serious monthly payments–all for nicer versions of what he already had. To each his own, I suppose.
Option 3: Find a new way to spend your time outside of work
Dr. George Sheehan wrote about this issue. Our day is generally divided into three periods of eight hours: sleep, work, and whatever else we want. Of course some folks work longer hours, sleep less, or have commitments outside of work, but that’s essentially the framework.
After coming home from work, however, a lot of people don’t really do anything. It’s like what Thoreau had to say about our leisure not being true leisure, but rather a series of activities that are defined in relation to our employment. We crack open that beer because we’re tired after a long day and “deserve” it. We sit down and watch Netflix because we need to “unwind”. And we cram as much high-intensity entertainment, socialization, and comfort food as possible into short gaps of time since we know that it won’t be long before we have to go back to work.
For Dr. Sheehan, running helped to revitalize his life and make use of those eight hours. He rediscovered an element of “play” that had been lost since his childhood. He felt more alive and purposeful–like he was doing what he was born to do. He found something that he’d continue to do even if he had all the time, money, and freedom in the world.
Your answer may be different. But I doubt it’s Netflix. Nor is shopping for more nicer versions of what you already have. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with all of that, but rather that those are low-grade substitutes for actual goals, dreams, and passions.
As Seneca wrote:
It’s not that we have a short time to live, but rather that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that is has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.
This is why instead of lamenting how much you dislike your job, it’s wise to focus on what you do with your personal time. What do you actually do? For most of my early twenties, I couldn’t answer that question. It’s not that I didn’t know what I did, but rather that I was embarrassed by it. I drank, played video games, binge-watched Netflix, and pursued escapism in whatever form it came. I started to realize that I no longer had cool stories to share with friends and family. I worked, but I didn’t do anything anymore. That was the problem.
When I worked at the restaurant and reached the point where I felt stuck and wanted to leave, I certainly could have dwelled on that and felt sorry for myself. Instead, I used that dissatisfaction as motivation. I began working on GoEndurance.org, I trained hard at running, cycling, and swimming, and I did my best to use my spare time for things that actually meant something. Each day was no longer about my job, but rather activities and goals that imbued my life with meaning and purpose. The job was just something that had to be accomplished at a certain time.
Maybe you don’t know what to do, or perhaps you just have a vague idea. That’s okay. Instead of worrying about that, however, take action and try new things. Put yourself out there and discover what you do and don’t like. Make mistakes and learn from them.
Just do something with your time. You’ll figure it out.
Option 4: Don’t do anything
Hey, it’s definitely an option.
It’s hard to accept non-ideal situations. It’s difficult to take action and do something about it. Staying in a rut and pointing out all the problems with the world? That’s easy. Blowing a paycheck on entertainment, fancy things, or spending hours on HGTV and believing that happiness lies in the perfect kitchen table or upgrade of the bathroom? That’s easy too. Or you can just grind it out for twenty or thirty years, waiting to live your life until you’re sixty-five. It’s your choice.
If things are really bad, you can also become a victim. I’ve done it before. And let me tell you, it feels great. You aren’t stuck in your situation because of your actions, but rather some external circumstances that you can’t control. It’s like “I would have done all of these things that I wanted to do, but then this, this, and that happened, so here I am. Oh well. Woe is me.” A good enough narrative will even allow keep your ego and pride intact. You’re not someone who failed, but rather someone who the world failed. See how that works?
But if that’s not what you want, the good news is that you have options. There are things that you can do. You just have to take action.
Did I miss anything important? Leave a comment and let me know.