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Why You Feel Miserable at a Perfectly Good Job

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

woman looking concerned

When I ask about what you want out of life, which direction do you want to go and what would make you happy and fulfilled most people immediately start thinking about:

  • What is my ideal career?

  • How can I find work that makes me happy?

  • How can I have a job that is fulfilling?

There are so many things wrong with those statements. Namely: You are not your job, the perfect job doesn't exist and there's a huge difference between fulfilling life and fulfilling career. So let's get started.

The Fallacy of The Ideal Job

We have this idea in the western world that our work needs to be exciting, fulfilling, well paying, within our field of study, giving us enough time off to enjoy life, but challenging enough to keep us engaged. It also needs to have a clear advancement path (for us and ALL our colleagues so no one ever leaves), fit our skills and strengths, fit our likes and dislikes and challenge our comfort zones in the way we expect, but not making us too uncomfortable, that offers fully remote work, but also an office space that is available 5 days a week for when we want to meet our colleagues for an office party.

That's a long list and I call that a unicorn because that job doesn't exist. Now, maybe some people can find jobs that come pretty close. But one quick look at job satisfaction statistics will tell you that 99% of us mere mortals are far from that ideal. So we compromise. We get sick of the job that challenges us because it has no work-life balance then we switch to the job that gives us more time and energy to ourselves only to complain that we're bored out of our minds. Then we go looking for more jobs and see none that are anything but a marginal improvement over your current situation. So we figure that maybe your field isn't really for you and you'd rather be doing something else.

Cycle representing how to look for a job
Job Search Cycle

You Are Not Your Job

This is often compounded by the fact that our identities are often tightly linked to the work we do. Whenever someone asks us who we are or what we do, the immediate answer we give up is: "I'm a lawyer, engineer, project manager, etc" It's as if we are our jobs. That the only thing that gives our lives meaning is what's written on our degrees. If your are very happy with what you do (in which case you wouldn't find yourself reading this) then this is not a problem.

But as soon as you dislike your job for any reason, this relationship we have with work quickly turns into a toxic mess. Because suddenly it's not just about your job being hard, your boss being a d*ck or your pay being not enough. It comes and gets you in the most profound part of yourself: "I am an engineer. I have always been an engineer, now that I hate engineering, who am I?". What started as a job problem that you could deal with suddenly becomes an existential crisis that you don't know how to deal with. I know, I've been there.

Let me put it this way. If I tell you that the only meaning to your life is shovel sh*t all day from one barrel to another for the next 35 years you would spit in my face. Then I could try to convince you that it's actually really meaningful work, offer you six-figure pay and the ability to choose your own hours. You might take the job. But you will never start calling yourself a professional sh*t shoveller. You will never put it on your resume nor brag to your friends how you got a pay-raise or a promotion to senior sh*t shoveller. Because honestly no one cares. It has zero impact on who you are as a person, what you're capable of and the meaning of your life.

Yet, this is exactly what we do in our actual jobs. Because suddenly the titles are more prestigious and more socially looked-up to we integrate them into our identities as if it actually makes any kind of difference to who we are and what truly matters.

Job and Careers Are Means to an End, Not the End in Themselves.

Here’s how I think of it. A job is just the sale of your time for money to ensure your basic survival. But that’s all a job is. 100 years ago, people worked to survive. Either in the fields to grow food or in manufacturing to earn enough to buy food. No one had any illusions that work was anything else than that. Somewhere since then we have started associating work with happiness, productivity, fulfillment and it's been messing with our minds since.

Now obviously I don't mean to say that all jobs are equal. Some are lightyears ahead of others. All I'm saying that if you're a professional of any kind and earn decent money, then that's pretty much as good as it gets. You might want to look for a better job, but keep in mind that any improvements you will get out of it are likely marginal.

That might seem a grim perspective: Does it mean that you're stuck in your work misery forever? Obviously the answer is no. What I am actually saying is that you can be perfectly happy working a job, but not because the work makes you happy, because the work allows you to build a life that makes you happy.

Work and careers are tools. And just like any tool it has it's functions and trying to misuse that tool for something it was never meant to do will lead to disastrous results. A job is really good at providing you with money to survive, it is really good at teaching you new skills, building new relationships, pushing your comfort zone and providing you the means to buy some material comfort or personal development. But it really sucks at providing any kind of lasting happiness, fulfillment or satisfaction on it's own.

That is simply because the industrial era understanding of what a job is (that is still in use by modern companies) implies that you're a simple variation of a sh*t shoveller. The first good news is that this is changing rapidly since COVID (Link towards new article to come). The second good news is that it shouldn't matter for you to find lasting happiness.

Fulfilling Life vs Fulfilling Career

So as we have established, "How can I make my career meaningful?" is the wrong way to look at it. You need passion, excitement, and fulfillment in your life. But it is a life need, not a career need. This means that if your life, in general, has no direction, purpose, or excitement, you are unlikely to find it in a job or career. You need to find a path first. And then find a career that suits it, not the other way around.

To understand this, we need to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. On the bottom, you have physiological needs. That is food, air, and water. Then we have safety needs which is a roof over your head. The third is love and belonging, where you need to surround yourself with people that love you. A good job can usually provide for the first two, and a stable life with decent social skills will bring you the third.

Maslow's Pyramid
Maslow's Pyramid

But then these people that seemingly have everything (Air, food, a condo, Love and a BMW that loves them back) start working on self-esteem self-actualization and make a big mistake. When looking for things at the top of the hierarchy, we rely on what worked for us previously; namely: more work, promotions, vacations, stuff, relationships, etc.

And when these fail to bring us happiness and fulfillment, we double down our efforts and when these fail again we start thinking that there is something wrong with our work, the field we choose, or the people around us. Unfortunately, these things were never meant to bring you self-esteem and self-actualization in the first place. So, how do you find fulfillment in your life and career?

What is Fulfillment

Here is the secret that no one tells you (because frankly no one has a clue): Our hierarchy of needs is based on a linear transition from selfishness to selflessness. As you go through the pyramid from the bottom to the top, each need is less about your needs, achievements, wealth level, or the number of friends/partners you have.

Linear transition from selfishness to selflessness when going to the top of Maslow's Pyramid
Selfishness to Selflessness

If we take this definition, we can see that there are jobs where it is possible to feel happy and fulfilled because they are directly about helping others. For example, careers in nursing, social work, or teaching come to mind. When not overburdened by corporate bullshit, people in these professions like the fact that they are making a difference every day. This, however, is not the case for more office-oriented paper-pushing jobs, where seeing the results of your work is often impossible.

So if you are looking for fulfillment then find a way for your job to provide you the finances, skills, resources and network to make that selfless difference. Either directly at work or in your personal life. It is the only way your job will ever feel fulfilling.

But since fulfillment is not a function of the job but a function of life, you can still find that no matter where you work. Want to know how to feel happy and fulfilled in the next hour? Take 20$, go find a homeless person that seems nice, buy them a meal and listen to their story. Don’t judge, don’t talk. Just ask questions and listen. There’s a 50% chance are they will thank you from them bottom of their heart and it will make both their day and yours. In that moment you will feel happiest.

Life By Design

Now in an ideal world you would be able to combine both a fulfilling practice and the ability to get paid good money for it. If that’s you and you can think of something immediately then awesome! Go do more of that.

But if you find yourself reading this I’m guessing that it’s not your case and you're struggling on how to make that happen for you. The key is to make sure that your work, your health, your social life and all the other aspects of your life are aligned with what brings you happiness and fulfillment. And the only way that happens is you make a conscious effort in building it this way. This why we call it Life by Design.

Our E-Book

Fortunately, this is exactly what we specialize in. And we have a whole resource section to help you get started on your journey. The post you just read is an excerpt of our E-Book called The Ultimate Guide to Life Engineering. By clicking the link you will be taken to the resource section of our site where you can download it.

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