What To Do if You're Successful but Miserable at Your Job

By Julia Harris Wexler '83TC, '14BUS of the Columbia Career Coaches Network


"What do you do?" 

...is often the first opening question you are asked at any type of social or professional gathering. Why? Well perhaps it's because we spend most of our waking hours at work and it's simply easier to define ourselves by what we do, as opposed to who we are outside of work. We simply become what we do professionally. We say, "I AM a banker/attorney/physician/salesman/broker." If the conversation progresses any deeper, you may eventually disclose a few other tidbits about what you do when you aren't working: I also paint, read science fiction, play hockey, do yoga, etc.

We define ourselves to the rest of the world by our profession, and how far we have climbed on that particular career ladder. If you have worked for over 10 years, and have advanced into a senior capacity, you must be doing something right. Society views you positively. You receive smiles and nods at cocktail parties once you state: "I am a Manager/VP/Director/Partner" . . . of whatever. You must be happy. Correct?

Consider the possibility that a large percentage of mid-career, senior professionals are successful and simultaneously miserable. Why? It’s quite simple. They no longer enjoy their work and they are unable to change. The simple truth is they are trapped in a self-imposed existence because they have convinced themselves they either have no other skills, or cannot afford to financially start over. After all, they have families, mortgages, and college tuition. Living in Westchester is not free. They rationalize remaining in this stay pattern for another decade or so until they can eventually retire. That’s a very long time to stay in an unfulfilling job. A very, very long time.

What can they do?

This is where people are when they begin to work with me. I'm an executive career coach. They start from a place of being trapped and sometimes desperate to change their situation. The stress from working at a company, or in a profession that no longer fulfills them has taken a toll. They have lost the spark they had for their work years ago. They either despise the politics, the nature of the work, the commute, or the industry in general. They believe their options are limited. They have no real choice but to continue on as indentured servants. Sound fun? It isn't. Sound stressful and depressing? You nailed it.

I love my job. Seriously. No joke. Know why? I get to help people. It makes me feel really good. Sound hokey? The latest research shows that having an "impact" at work is the leading factor responsible for employee retention, productivity, revenue generation, and leadership potential. Professionals feel better about working when they feel that what they do matters. Doing meaningful work trumps a lofty title, a prestigious business card, even the spacious corner office. We are not machines.

The fact is that we all deserve to feel fulfilled at work. It's a basic human condition. We work to feel productive and to feel that what we do matters. Remember how you felt when you loved going to work? Contrast that to how you feel on Monday mornings now. How wide is the gap? Think about that.

Stress is a leading contributor to physical and emotional disease. Several male clients I worked with suffered life-altering health crises before changing their professions. They are now even more successful than before (Translation: they are earning more money and enjoy their work). They are also much happier. As they describe their story: their bodies simply shut down, forcing them to drastically change. Most admit they never would have changed without that siren of a wake-up call.

Next time you get on the train, look around at your fellow commuters and see if you can tell who is happy about going to work, and who is not. Who is energized by the work that awaits them at the end of their commute, and who is watching the clock. It's written on their faces. The vacant look of people who are trapped in their own lives. If only they knew they also held the key to escaping.

What will you do?

Bottom line: mid-career shifting is not only possible—it's healthy. We humans have a brain that requires stimulation. Without intellectual challenges to master our brain atrophies. Our malaise is a message: we need to learn new things and continue to evolve. Another factoid: taking classes and expanding your intelligence reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Of course it does.  So the boredom and malaise you may feel at work is telling you something. It's time to change; time to decide you aren't going to be on autopilot for another decade, and pretend it's fine. Time to decide you deserve to be professionally fulfilled. Do we dare to introduce the ingredient of joy into the equation? True career fulfillment brings joy to those who are doing what they love. I didn't see much joy on Metro North last Monday morning.

Consider this quote from Harvard PhD Martha Beck: "By the time I became a research assistant at Harvard Business School in the 1980's, things were changing. The simple fact that I was there showed that, but I learned much more about how the changes looked when I helped analyze a longitudinal study of 125 Harvard Business School graduates. The guys (they were all guys) who'd gotten great jobs right out of business school were struggling by the 1980's; they felt trapped and unfulfilled. The subjects who had seemed a little lost at first, who had wandered around and eventually created their own small companies, were thriving financially and psychologically."

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) experts tell us that motivation and passion are crucial ingredients in determining how professionals will thrive in an organization.

If you'd like to check your fulfillment level ask yourself three questions:

1) Does your work connect with your passions and your strengths?

2) Are you having a visible impact?

3) Does your career bring you gratification?

If it doesn't; then you may want to consider your options. You do have them. Many people don't realize they can reinvent. Folks are doing it all the time. It is not only possible, but it happens with greater frequency now that the economy has provoked constant assessment of your work and your financial rewards. It is possible to "shift" in mid-life. It is also possible to leverage your past skills and implement them into a career that speaks to your soul and to your W2. Consider the possibility it may be time. 

"By finding what you love best . . . you put yourself in harmony with today's increasingly changeable economic environment an add value to every job in ways that are absolutely unique. Your skills and passions will stay with you when corporate loyalty fades, or technology makes your job obsolete. In an economy where it's getting harder and harder to find organizations that will chart a lifetime course for your career, finding your inner navigational system is not only personally gratifying—it's the best chance you have of achieving financial security." -Martha Beck PhD

Julia Harris Wexler '87TC, '14BUS is a member of the Columbia Career Coaches Network and a certified executive coach who specializes in mid-career shifting. She can be contacted via her website.

Learn more about the Columbia Career Coaches Network.

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