In 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
business: 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.