I have a "great job," lots of money, responsibility and respect. Why aren't I happy?

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icuglyIn the late 90’s, I had a lot of fun conducting career development classes inside network giant Cisco Systems, which at that point was experiencing the benefits of an insane stock price increase.  As follow up to the classes, I had one-on-one sessions with the participants to discuss their personal career aspirations and goals.

One meeting in particular stuck with me, as I talked with an extremely successful young woman who had been with the company for a long time.  I had remembered in class that she was a little “numbed out,” meaning that it was hard to get a real reaction out of her beside guarded pleasantries.  In the individual session, it was very different.  She started talking:

“Before I took this class, I had a strange, nagging feeling that something was not right about my current situation, but I couldn’t figure it out.  I would beat myself up for complaining about my job, since I had achieved all my personal career goals and had a situation that most people would envy:  a great job, a great salary in a well-managed, growing company and tremendous stock options.  But despite these things, I was still unhappy.  When we did the exercise about defining personal values in the class, I had an intense reaction.  I went home and compared this list to the list of values currently represented in my work environment.”

Then she started crying.

“And I found that not one of my top 10 values was represented in my current work situation.  Suddenly, I understood why I was not happy!  It was a big relief.”

What she described is a very common feeling from people inside corporate jobs.

Each of us has natural, organic preferences for how we feel the most alive, relaxed, happy and passionate at work.
These can include things like:

  • Physical work environment:  type of building, color scheme, how desks are laid out, natural vs. artificial lights, etc.
  • Type of
    : for-profit, non-profit, retail, established, start-up, your own biz
  • Business culture:  how people treat each other, values displayed by actions of all employees (not just words), policies and procedures or lack thereof
  • Communication styles of managers, clients and co-workers: direct or indirect, confrontational vs. relaxed and open
  • Size of business: number of employees
  • Type of work content:  what the company is in the business of selling, IE. financial services, retail, consulting, consumer products, software, etc.
  • Skills and talents used in work: which skills you are using in your day to day work activities

Here is a little example of how your ideal work situation may be juxtaposed with your current, uncomfortable work situation (click on image to enlarge in pop-up window):


I liken it to the metaphor of wearing a shoe two sizes too small.

Your ideal situation is akin to wearing a pair of size 8 wide shoes of a stylish, comfortable brand that feels custom made for your foot.

Your current situation is akin to wearing a pair of size 6 narrow shoes, in an unflattering material, with a heel that is both ungainly and unattractive. (sample picture of said shoe at the top of this post, courtesy of my favorite “ugly shoe of the week” feature at Shoewawa.  Said the author of this particular shoe:  “I know what you are thinking.  It begins with “what” and ends with “the hell.”)

So why in the world do we try to jam our foot into an unattractive, uncomfortable shoe, otherwise known as our day job?

Because our social self (shaped by family, educational institutions, the media, religion) is so strong that we believe that our “great job at an investment bank where I have an outstanding reputation, many years experience and an amazing salary” should make us happy.  Even if we know that it is in direct contrast to the picture of our ideal life!

So like the stepsister from the grisly Cinderella story from the Brothers Grimm:

“The eldest went with the shoe into her room and wanted to try it on, and her mother stood by. But she could not get her big toe into it, and the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said, “Cut the toe off, when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot.” The maiden cut the toe off, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the king’s son. Then he took her on his horse as his bride and rode away with her. They were obliged, however, to pass the grave, and there, on the hazel-tree, sat the two pigeons and cried, “Turn and peep, turn and peep,
there’s blood within the shoe, the shoe it is too small for her, the true bride waits for you.”

As much as you want to make yourself feel good about a situation that is not right for you, it will feel awkward, uncomfortable and downright painful after awhile.

So stop pretending, put away your knife, and get to work defining the kind of work best suited to you.  If you already know that, start planning to make that vision a reality.

Update 4/19:  Perfect example of what I am talking about here.

14 Responses to “I have a "great job," lots of money, responsibility and respect. Why aren't I happy?”

  1. Chris says:

    The problem with your whole shoe metaphor is that there are quite often too many other people filling the shoe that fits your foot. To say money will not buy happiness is correct and I do not even want it to buy garbage type things but the government and living facility and the place I get my food at wants money. Unless I can convince them to accept my happiness instead, I just don’t see a plausible root for myself to obtain a satisfying job/life. Life is retarded.

  2. Ryan: I have nothing to lose. I started in this business with about 5,000 to spend. I’ m a college student, and fortunately, my parents are able (and willing) to cover all of my living expenses. This means that I had 5,000 to dedicate to this, and I didn’ t have to worry about saving a portion of it to pay rent and food. Now I have much more that I’ m able to spend, and I’ m still in the same situation- I don’ t have to use any of it for living expenses. This is something that many people struggle with. They work day jobs and must pay their mortgage, food, insurance, etc. Fortunately for me, I started early enough that I didn’ t have to worry about that. Having money that I’ m not afraid to lose has given me a huge advantage over many others.

  3. Dethe Elza says:

    Good post. Another aspect is that we are all terrible at anticipating the things which will make us happy.

    Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, has a great talk on how hard it is to plan our own happiness and why (and what the consequences are) in this TED talk: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7822696446273926158 .

  4. DIY CASHFLOW says:

    Size Does Matter – Context

    Is the glass half full or half empty?Does it really matter when the glass in question is the size of a shot glass? I say not really. What I want to know is how big the glass is, so I can put your perspective in context. Whether it is half

  5. Joe says:

    My excuse is:
    This job used to be rewarding and fun – it’ll go back to that again someday. But times change and the work environment I’m in keeps drifting further and further from where I want to be.

    I do have dreams of leaving the corporate live and pursuing other interests, it’s just hard to see how to make that transition. I guess I’ll be reading more of your blog!

  6. Stormy says:

    Your title is perfect “I have a “great job,” lots of money, responsibility and respect. Why aren’t I happy?” I think it’s because we let society, not ourselves, define what is a “great job.”

  7. Our personal happiness is limited when we allow our self identity to be defined by the narrow scope of what we do for work. Our opportunity for personal satisfaction vastly increases when work is kept in perspective as one aspect of a well rounded life that includes family, community, spirituality, and service to others. The link associated with my name on this comment provides a summary of ten easy steps to increase personal satisfaction from the Infinite Mind radio program. The list is simple, makes sense, and all of them are free. Remember, money can’t buy happiness!

    Thanks Pam for another thought provoking post!

  8. I love this post and the picture is perfect. I could swear you were writing about me before I had my little epiphany a few years back.

    I incorporated this article into my Career & Money series currently running at Queercents. Part 4 of the series today: http://www.queercents.com/2007/04/13/career-money-part-4-discover-your-ideal-career/

  9. Fab 5 on Friday 04/13/07

    It was a great week in the blogosphere. I did my first guest post over on Zen Habits titled, Practical Tips To Practice Being Present. But enough about me, here are the stars of this week!
    Steve asks, When Did America Become a Nation of Frighten…

  10. This is a great post and prompted me to respond in my own post: http://www.jibberjobber.com/blog/archives/541

    Jason Alba
    CEO – http://www.JibberJobber.com

  11. Mabel says:

    This is timely for me, as I’ve been giving a great deal of thought lately to the question: “Does it matter WHERE you work?” (I.e. what parts of “fit” or lack thereof are important, and whether things like what the company’s business/industry actually does really even matter.)

    Excellent fodder for my brain to chew on, thank you. 🙂

  12. Debra says:

    As an escapee from the corporate world, I recognized myself in this article and really appreciated that physical environment was at the top of your list. I got laughed at during an outplacement meeting for puttiing “window view” at the top of my list of needs while others listed high-sounding, but relative, terms such as “integrity.” ( I’m not saying integrity is relative, but in this context, I think it was.)

    In my corporate life, I sat in a cubicle in the middle of large office building and would call a co-worker half a mile away in another part of the campus for a weather report. Also, a “whether” report: whether we should leave the office before the snow got worse. . .

    I left the company before everything could get worse.

  13. JohnN says:

    Well said! There are many people that from the working world I have come into contact with who are in the above situation. Often people know they do not like what they are doing but it is either

    a) an eternal stepping stone to something better
    b) “just a bad project” the next one will be good.

    Life is too short to waste on such jobs, I dont wanna look back on 10 years and regret everything ive done.

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