Many people believe finding career satisfaction is simply about having a clear idea of what you want and the drive to go for it. I think these are important qualities, but they aren’t enough by themselves. To find a career you’ll feel joyful about and fulfilled by, you have to believe that what you want actually matters—that you genuinely deserve to pursue your goals and dreams, rather than someone else’s agenda for what you’re supposed to do. The story I’ll tell you here nicely illustrates this point.
A man came to see me recently because he was dissatisfied with his current job and wanted to explore other possibilities. However, he said, he hadn’t quite nailed down what he was looking for yet. To get an idea of what career path would best serve him, I asked him some questions about what he enjoyed and what frustrated him about his current job. We also discussed what he was passionate about in life.
As we talked, he began fidgeting and playing with his pen, and I sensed that he was getting uncomfortable. Eventually, I asked him if he was nervous or upset about something. My instinct turned out to be right—he was getting angry, and he let me know why. “Why do you keep talking about how I feel? I’m here about my career, not my feelings.”
“Does it matter whether you feel good about your career?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he insisted incredulously. “My job is about supporting me and my family—not about making me ‘feel good.’”
Ah, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. “When did you decide it didn’t matter how you felt?”
His body tensed up, and it seemed for a moment he was going to blow up at me again, but suddenly he slumped in his chair and fell silent. “A while ago,” he finally answered.
As he went on to reveal, he’d believed that what he felt and wanted didn’t matter since his early childhood. His father, a military officer, demanded the same obedience from his children that he required from his subordinates. My client remembered a few times when, as little kids often do, he told his Dad he didn’t want to do some task. His father had angrily responded “it doesn’t matter what you ‘want.’ Now do what I told you.” And my client would ashamedly slink off and obey.
Since then, my client said, he’d had trouble telling people about his emotions and desires, as he couldn’t shake the conviction that people didn’t really care about them. When someone asked him, as I did, what he wanted, his first instinct was that he was being mocked or deceived. No wonder he got angry, I recognized—since he thought there was no way I could actually care what he wanted, he figured I was patronizing or taking advantage of him.
This belief also explained why he wasn’t satisfied in his present career. Because he was convinced that his goals and dreams “didn’t matter,” he—like many people—had chosen his career based on what he saw as other people’s expectations. He’d taken a job that was relatively lucrative and prestigious, because he believed it would satisfy his father, his wife and kids, his friends, and others in his life. But since he’d given no thought to his own happiness, it’s no surprise he settled into a career he was unhappy with.
It took a little coaxing, but ultimately I was able to convince him I actually cared what he wanted, and I wouldn’t scorn or ridicule him if he told me. When he began to trust that he had a safe place to reveal his desires, his seeming confusion about what he wanted evaporated, and we quickly arrived at a list of career possibilities that he resolved to look into. He knew what he desired, and he had the talent to make it happen—he just needed reassurance that it was okay for him to have desires in the first place.
I’m consistently struck by the number of people I meet who get uncomfortable talking or thinking about what they want in life. For various reasons, they’ve learned that it’s unsafe or shameful for them to consider what they want. These people come to me thinking they need more direction, or to improve their skills, if they want to find a fulfilling career path. But they often discover that, when they become able to seriously put some attention on what they want, deciding their next step becomes easier. In short, their problem isn’t a lack of motivation or experience—it’s a lack of self-respect.
If you’re experiencing career dissatisfaction, the first step to take in addressing this issue is to ask yourself what you want out of your career. Pay close attention to the reactions that come up when you ask this question. Is it okay for you to think about this issue? Or does it feel dangerous, selfish or irresponsible? If you experienced some anxiety when you thought about your desires, you may have hit upon the reason you’re feeling unfulfilled. If you didn’t take your own desires into account when you chose what you do for a living, it’s no wonder your current job isn’t meeting your needs.
How do you overcome this feeling that what you want isn’t important? I’ve found that becoming able to acknowledge and follow your desires is like building a muscle. One way you can strengthen that muscle is to consistently ask yourself, as you go through your day, what you want in each situation you get into. When you wake up in the morning, for instance, ask yourself “what do I want to do today?” When you go to the grocery store, ask yourself “what do I want to buy?” In your intimate relationships, ask “what do I want out of this relationship?” And so on.
Keep repeating this process, and you’ll likely begin feeling more comfortable with recognizing and expressing what you want. As psychologist Vicki Berkus writes in Ten Commitments To Mental Fitness: Accept The Challenge To Change, “[j]ust the exercise of checking in with yourself lets your subconscious mind know that you count, your feelings count, and your thoughts count.” You may find that, as you develop this “wanting muscle,” the doubts and confusion that used to plague you about your career begin to fade away, and peace and clarity take their place.