You don’t owe anyone an explanation. But, here are seven likely reasons why you’re unhappy at work and how it’s probably going to carry over into your retirement, too.
Why can some people easily find work they love while others (like yourself) remain eternally doomed to work that sucks them dry? In the past seven years I’ve worked with more than 900 professionals to find greater satisfaction in their work and to smooth their transition into retirement. Here are the seven most common reasons that are not only stopping you from finding that special work, but are also why any work you have done hasn’t been satisfying and meaningful.
There’s this huge elephant in the room when it comes to work in our conversations. People are increasingly saying “I hate my job, I’ve never been happy at work.” “I only work for the money.” “I’m burned out.” “I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.” And this isn’t just coming from twenty-somethings, I hear it from people in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Although it is often said with a sense of longing, embarrassment and resignation, the essential need for engaging and meaningful work is critical for each of us.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself saying or thinking one of these:
- “Work isn’t supposed to make me happy or be fun, that’s why it’s called work.”
- “It’s too late for me to make a change now.” or “I’m too old.”
- “I can’t afford to do what interests me, I’ve got to make a living.”
- “No one would pay me enough to do what is meaningful to me.”
- “The only way to earn enough to support my life is to do THIS ONE THING.”
- “I don’t have time to figure out what else I could be doing.”
- “I only have to do this for ten more years, then I can retire and do what I enjoy.”
- “I don’t know what I’m interested in.”
- “This is all I know.”
- “I’ve lived my whole career by accident.”
- “It’s too risky to make a change.”
- and so on and so forth …
The simple truth is you don’t owe anyone an explanation about why you are still not doing work you love. The problem is, that research shows those who remain in work that makes them unhappy tend to carry that sense of dissatisfaction into their retirement.
If you would like to change that unhappy work situation, and increase the likelihood of a rich and satisfying retirement for yourself, there’s still time. Here are seven reasons that may be the cause. At least one of them will apply to you, but more likely you’ll notice it’s a combination of a few.
The first possible reason that you aren’t doing work you love is that you choose not to. The only reason this wouldn’t apply to you is if someone is forcing you against your will to be in this job and you are unable to choose differently even if you wanted to. Since you are reading this, I will assume that is not the case (thankfully) and you are making your own choices.
Whether it’s because you don’t want to do work that matters to you, you haven’t found the right way to do it yet or you don’t believe you can find anything that interests you AND pays you … a series of choices has led you to where you are, choices you made under your own will.
The key to changing things moving forward is to realize it has all been your creation so far, even if you don’t like your current results – own it and then you can change it. Thinking that you will make those changes once you retire is unrealistic after hard-wiring for decades how you think about your right to do what is meaningful and engaging. Start now so you have a benchmark to carry into your future.
2. Unreasonable Standards
Some people call this “picky.” If you’re doing work that’s sucking you dry and you still haven’t found what lights you up, then this may be you. How long has it been since you last were engaged in work you loved? Weeks? Months? Years? Maybe never?
If you believe this is you, try easing up on yourself and worry less about things being perfect, focus more on what delights you. That’s not to say just take any work just for the sake of change. You have your list of what you want your work to contribute to your life, look at that list and identify the top five “non-negotiables” (less is ok) and let the rest surprise you. If you don’t have a list, I can help you with that. Bringing in delight with the unexpected is a skill. Cultivating it now in your work helps to open you to the synchronicity of it for later.
3. Economic Desperation or Hyper-Focus
There’s nothing more unattractive than desperation. It’s pretty easy to see in people when they need something to happen. You can’t help but sense they are in it for their own gain and no-one else’s. If it seems like the more you chase after a position, the more it seems to run from you, you could be projecting economic desperation or hyper-focus into your work life.
Focus on who you are serving and the value that you bring to the table in the work you do. Desperation multiplies when you need something outside of yourself to be happy, and your life goes on pause until you have it. Abolish the belief that you can’t or won’t have work that supports and nourishes you and which you find interesting and meaningful. It’s out there, but you have to stop making every decision from a place of economic desperation and hyper focus. Loosening this desperation and hyper-focus will allow you to ease into retirement later without the panic that often comes from worrying whether the money will run out or you’ll be bored to death.
4. Playing It Safe
It’s a very romantic idea to trust in fate, or to think that this job you have will last forever, but it’s a mistake not to be proactive with your work life. If you’re imagining that you can just keep your head down and that this job will allow you to stay safe and secure, you’re kidding yourself. Likewise, waiting for work you love to come knock on your door, or if you have a fixed idea on how meaningful work will/should materialize for you, then this is you.
Quit confining yourself to a narrow slice of what work means and start getting out there to identify work you love – before a change at your company or in your industry forces you to figure out what you’ll do with yourself. You’re NOT really safe when you’re playing it safe, that’s an illusion. And, guess what? It turns out that people who stay in a job they hate are 63% less likely to be satisfied in retirement too. It pays to find what you enjoy and start doing it NOW so that pleasure can spill over into the rest of your life.
Try new things and be open to having fun in your work, even when it comes in the most unlikely form. Let life surprise with how it comes to you, just make sure you give it plenty of opportunities to come to you because you never know where it could lead.
5. Fear of Being “Odd” or Losing Your Status
In the movie Forrest Gump, Jenny asks Forrest what he wants to be when he grows up. He answers, “Why can’t I just be me?” Just being your own unique self and allowing others to do the same, you begin appreciating one of a kind views of the world and look for ways to bring your unique self into your work.
If you prize your status and are terrified about losing it, this may apply to you. Perhaps you had a position in the past where you felt insignificant or one in which you felt that others dismissed or demeaned you as less important than them. I suggest that for one week you make a note of every time you think negatively about someone else’s work and jot down what your thought was about the person’s worth based on your judgment. It’s important to start noticing this now.
If you want a life entirely based on avoiding judgment from others (which, by the way, the judgment is happening whether you know it or not), then staying in the work you dislike (even long after it makes sense to retire) may be the path for you; but if you truly desire work that supports you and lights up your world, and a retirement that holds promise, then respect for your own path as well as others’ is paramount. Allow yourself to find a small sliver of unexpected respect or admiration for the work of each person you encounter for the next week. The busboy, the housekeeper, the school crossing guard, the clerk at the grocery store. Know that your status and respect doesn’t come by surrendering your uniqueness and joy, it increases because of it … at the end of the day, we are all in this together. Begin with paying close attention to the value that others bring and appreciating the unique ways that they contribute in the world.
6. You’re Uninterested in Feeling Happy in Your Work
What’s the point in trying to find work I enjoy? Why bother? If you’re disinterested in improving your experience of work and past roles just haven’t been worth the time and effort to make them better, it’s been easier to just move on, then this is the category you fall into. You probably have had plenty of interest from others in helping you find ways to improve your experience of work, but you just have no desire to look deeply enough at yourself to make it happen. It’s no one’s fault, and sometimes you may feel bad turning down the offers of help from others, but you just don’t care – and no one can be mad at that.
If this is you, you may find that you have short-lived or economics-only positions – others may even call you a “mercenary”. While there’s nothing wrong with this at all, if you DO want to be engaged in work that allows you to take care of your family and provides a sense of pride, excitement and meaning for you, it begins with identifying what WILL engage you NOW, not just in some “future” work or retirement you imagine is out there. The evidence shows you’re the ones most likely to die within three years of retirement. It’s in your own self-interest to start finding what you enjoy now and incorporating it into your daily work, it will actually extend your life.
7. Not Giving Enough
The last reason applies to you when you find that your satisfaction with work never seems to last. In a short period of time it always falls apart and you’re on to something new as soon as you get bored. You’ve presumably had a few serious positions before, roles that you thought were the one that would last, but just seemed to fall apart and you always end up feeling taken advantage of and dissatisfied. If this rings a bell (and especially if you’ve struggled with reasons #5 & #6 in the past) then you may be holding back from bringing your real self into your work and other areas of your life.
You’re also likely to hear yourself later postponing retirement with comments like “What will I do with myself?” “I can’t just sit around all day!” “I’ll never retire, I’ll always keep working.” Finding meaning, satisfaction and delight in the work you do now ensures that you will be able to carry that same sense into your retirement, instead of being one of the ones who dies at his desk or makes the ones next in line wish he would so they have a chance to move up when he won’t move on.
It’s possible (in fact, essential) to have work you love, that makes you feel engaged, contributes meaning to your life and supports your family. I know because I’ve been helping clients find it for years. At the end of the day it’s all about choice, and knowing what choice you’ve made to get where you are today makes it easier to get to where you want to go – whether that’s work you love or retirement that is a rich legacy to all you worked for.
Start with the simple idea of seeing your work as a place to integrate your skills and abilities with your values, dreams and passions. It’s not just waiting at some future date when you retire, it’s out there right now waiting for you in your work. The question is Do You Want It? If you do, let’s start with a call. It’s your choice.