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.
My friend, a highly-paid financial professional, often complains about her job. She doesn’t like the long hours, the difficult people, the office politics, and so forth. Usually, I just sit and listen to her concerns, because it feels like she’s more interested in a sympathetic ear than anything else. But one day, I couldn’t help but suggest that, if she really dislikes her job so much, she consider what she really wants in a career and possibly even make a change.
She looked at me incredulously. “I’m focused on surviving right now,” she said. “I don’t have time to think about what I ‘really want.’”
I’m surprised at how many times I’ve heard professionals with incomes well into the six figures worry about their “survival” in the event of a career change. Generally, I suspect most of them could handle at least a few months of their current expenses even with no income at all. Some, for various reasons, are genuinely living from paycheck to paycheck—they may have student loans they need to repay, or maybe they just racked up large expenses leading the high-powered professional life. But even they, if they had to, could probably reduce their expenses enough to eat and have a place to live if they had to forgo income for a little while.
Why, then, do highly-paid professionals often phrase their concerns about career change in terms of their “survival”? Actually, I think their use of that word is appropriate, because it speaks to deeper truths about the way we see our careers. When we say “but if I change careers, I won’t survive,” we’re not actually concerned about the survival of our physical bodies. We’re not worried that we’re going to starve or have nowhere warm to sleep. Instead, we’re worried about the survival of the identities we’ve created for ourselves in our minds.
It’s no secret that, in our society, we tend to closely identify with our occupations. When someone asks what you “do” or what you “are,” I’ll bet you usually respond with your job description—“I’m a lawyer,” “I’m an engineer,” and so forth. Often, when a person loses their job or retires, you’ll hear them say they feel like they’ve “lost part of themselves,” or that they aren’t sure what they’re “good for” anymore. The way we tend to perceive our careers, it’s as if they’re limbs or organs of our bodies, and removing them would endanger our lives.
We can also get attached to others seeing us in certain ways based on our jobs, and to the prestige and material things those jobs bestow on us. If we have high-paying careers, for instance, we start seeing “wealthy” as part of our identities. If we have demanding jobs, we identify with being “high-powered” and “no-nonsense.” If we have jobs with exposure to the public, we identify with being glamorous or “high-profile.” And so on.
This way of thinking about our careers is common, but it’s also problematic. When we feel like our careers are who we are, we naturally become consumed with fear of losing, or performing badly in, our jobs. We wake up in the early hours of the morning worrying that we made a mistake on a project. We’re afraid of change and innovation in doing our jobs, because change presents a risk we can’t afford to take. If you totally identify with your career, of course, this way of thinking is perfectly logical—if you are your career, losing or changing that career would mean your destruction.
While money isn’t everything, it’s interesting that the people who are most financially successful in our society seem to be those who are least closely identified with their careers. These are the entrepreneurs and business owners, whose incomes are based on the profits and losses of their businesses rather than steady salaries. Owning a business requires you to be willing to take the risk that the business will fail. If you completely identify with the occupation you’re in, you’ll perceive yourself as a failure if your business fails, and thus you’ll probably be afraid to start one in the first place.
What, then, do you do if you want to make a career change, but your current job feels so embedded in your identity that you’re afraid to take the next step? The answer is to understand that you are not your career, and that you don’t need to completely identify with your career to lead a fulfilling life, but I’m not going to simply tell you that. I want you to experience that fact firsthand, on a physical level.
What I’m going to recommend may sound a little metaphysical, but bear with me a moment and see if it gets results. Find a place where you can sit alone in silence with your eyes closed. Once you’ve done this, focus your attention on your hands, and allow yourself to feel the sensations arising in them. Perhaps you feel a warmth, a tingling, a prickly sensation, or something else. When you’ve done this for a little while, gradually bring your attention up your arms, across your torso, up your neck and into your head, and then down into your legs and feet. Notice how each part of your body feels when you place your full attention on it.
After doing this exercise a few times, you’ll likely experience feelings of peace and aliveness in your body, as if your body were suffused with an inner glow. When you’re feeling this sensation, you’re experiencing what you are at the most basic level—what we might call “energy,” “consciousness” or “life.” This is the energy of which you, and all other life forms in the universe, are composed. You’ve been made of this energy for as long as you’ve existed. No matter what happens in your life—no matter what job you do, what you accomplish, who you love, and what you own—you will always be, at the deepest level, this energy.
We start identifying with our circumstances in the world—our jobs, relationships, cars, and so forth—when we lose touch with this energy. Life starts to seem pointless when we forget what we really are, and we grasp for things in the world to give it meaning. Thankfully, the energy that we are is always there for us to reconnect with, and to give us peace when our lives seem busy or stressful. When you’re truly connected with your life energy, you understand at a deep level that no career change can ever threaten your survival, and you find the fear of the unknown that restricted you fading away.