Q: I am a highly paid executive who is good at my position, but I hate it. Every Sunday my stomach is in knots, and I dread the thought of going to work in the morning. If my compensation package and the prestige of my job weren’t so high, I would leave in a minute. Unfortunately, my golden handcuffs are firmly secure. If I’m so good at what I do, why am I so unhappy?
A: How many of these statements apply to you?
|______||I am counting the years until I retire.|
|______||I hate my job, but love the income.|
|______||My job situation is bound to get better if I just keep hanging in there.|
|______||I may not like my current career, but I know I’m good at it.|
|______||I am constantly worried about my position being eliminated.|
|______||I’ve lost interest in my work, but I enjoy the camaraderie of the people.|
|______||My associates know the caliber of my work. I don’t have to keep proving myself.|
|______||The chances of my finding a job I will truly enjoy are slim to none.|
|______||When friends talk about their new careers, I wish I had the courage to make a change as well.|
|______||Changing careers is much more risky than staying where I am.|
|______||I doubt I can find an equivalent position at another company.|
|______||I would rather swim with sharks than mount a job search.|
|______||I tend to focus on the negatives of a career change rather than contemplating the upside potential.|
|______||My family and friends think I’m in the catbird’s seat. They tell me I would be crazy to make a change.|
|______||Work isn’t meant to be satisfying. That’s why it’s called work.|
If you checked just one of the above statements, maybe you’re just having a bad day. If you checked two are more, you’re probably suffering from a self-inflicted malady called “comfortable misery,” a career syndrome characterized by inertial thinking and an overwhelming need to maintain the status quo. Victims of comfortable misery run efficiently on autopilot. They go through the motions of completing their projects and emptying their in-baskets while experiencing little joy, learning or feeling of genuine satisfaction. They are zombies in business suits.
Why do these talented professionals cling to the jobs they hate? There are lots of reasons:
- The USA was founded by individuals who believed in the Puritan ethic: we were put on this earth to atone for our sins, not have a good time. Americans continue to take this mindset to heart. Consequently, millions of workers define their work as a means of providing for their families and practicing productivity. They live to work, not work to live. The thought of enjoying their careers produces more guilt than pleasure.
- Along with the Puritan ethic, Baby Boomers’ parents have imbued their children with the Depression mentality. “Never forget, you are lucky to have any job, let alone one you enjoy. Your work puts food on the table and a roof over your head. You labor to support yourself. Personal satisfaction is for dilettantes.”
- Many very talented professionals question their marketability. Often they’ve been employed by one company for a number of years and find it difficult to believe anyone else will hire them. Because they have never built a network of colleagues outside their firm, they have no understanding of how their skills and experience can transfer to the world beyond company X.
- Confirmed optimists and pessimists tend to embrace the status quo. Optimists are sure things will get better, if they stick around long enough. With relieved resignation, they put the responsibility for their careers in the hands of fate or their corporate leadership. Pessimists assume there are no truly satisfying positions anywhere, so why expend the effort looking for one? Isn’t it paradoxical how two opposing attitudes both lead to the same paralyzing conclusion?
- Golden handcuffs account for a lot of comfortable misery. A prestigious company, attractive compensation package, big title and the promise of more to come keep people from leaving jobs they hate. The thought of giving up an accustomed lifestyle can tether an unhappy executive to his corner office, when he longs to catch the green wave at the helm of a bare-bones start-up.
- “The black hole syndrome” also keeps millions of unhappy professionals mired in unsatisfying careers. When a person is frustrated and unmotivated by a position that provides no opportunity to learn or make a contribution, doing his job can suck all the energy out of him. When just showing up at work each day is such a tremendous effort, he can’t imagine looking for another job simultaneously. His situational depression also has a devastating effect on his self-esteem. Like the clinically depressed, people experiencing the black hole syndrome can think they don’t deserve to escape their current situation.
- Feedback from those we love and trust often causes us to rely on the status quo instead of pursuing something better. It’s very common for people to stay in jobs they hate because their friends and family keep saying, “You’re so good at what you do. Why would you ever want to change?”
- A comfortable work environment that doesn’t expect too much, appreciates your work and surrounds you with friendly colleagues can be a very enticing place, even when the job leaves much to be desired. For those having motivational difficulties, it’s a great spot to veg.
- How many job seekers do you know who enjoy the process of finding another position? Probably not many. Lots of professionals stay where they are because they can’t face the prospect of looking for a new opportunity. A job search is hard work, often full of rejection. Unless a merger or downsizing forces them into it, a number of dissatisfied careerists will sacrifice long-term gain to avoid short-term pain.
If any of these reasons resonate with you, you are suffering from a bona fide comfortable misery. This is a treatable syndrome, but only you have the power to cure yourself. Here are two thoughts to keep foremost in your mind:
- Ask your friends and family to support and compliment your newfound motivation. Give them the chance to be your cheerleaders. This one deserves special attention, because it will serve to heal some of the wounded relationships your comfortable misery has produced. Recognizing that you haven’t been alone in suffering from your syndrome may be your greatest motivator.
Comfortable misery can inflict terrible consequences on its victims’ cherished relationships and long-term happiness. The immediate depression, lack of self-esteem and lost opportunities for which this insidious malady is responsible are only the tip of the iceberg. People who hate their work often carry hostile feelings into their personal lives, where they infect their family and friends. They take out their career frustration on innocent victims at home. Or their broken-record complaining drives a wedge between them and their loved ones.
If you’ve ever been the target of an unhappy careerist’s wrath or the dumpee for your spouse’s or friend’s ongoing job angst, you know that a little self-centered negativity goes a long way. Even family and friends can lose patience with a chronic complainer who shows no interest in taking responsibility for improving his situation.
- Act now to find that satisfying career. Remember the old cliché, “There’s a reason they call now ‘the present’. It’s a gift.” Haunting recriminations at age 50 or 60 about “what could have been” come too late to recapture years spent marking time in a meaningless career. As 9/11, the Japanese tsunami and a friend who died too young remind us, time is one commodity we cannot replenish.
Fortunately, comfortable misery is curable. There are a number of ways to extricate yourself from its grasp, if you are willing to declare tomorrow as the First Day of the Rest of Your Life. Now is the time to climb out of your cash-covered rut and get on with your life. You can find a satisfying career change without declaring a vow of poverty. In the words of Nike, “Just do it!”
All of the actions below will move you forward:
- Start networking. Join a professional organization. Get involved in your church or a nonprofit group that interests you. Acquaint yourself with one new person per week.
- Volunteer for a cross-functional task force at work. Suggest and implement a new project that will stretch your skills and benefit your company.
- Begin looking for a more satisfying career within or outside your company. If you don’t know how to get started, read a book, attend a job search course or work with a career counselor.
- Confront your catastrophic expectations. Contemplate your worst job change scenario. Put a percent probability on it, then plan to deal with the situation in the unlikely event it should occur.
- Get some continuing education on subjects that interest you. Take a course to learn or reinforce an important job skill. Expand your horizons.
- Acknowledge that your career is one of the most important ways to fulfill your mission or purpose in life. Rather than thinking of work as penance or a necessary evil, use it as a vehicle to make a contribution to society that stirs your soul.
Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.
“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.
Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.
In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997. In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.