Sally was a licensed nurse and mental health counselor, working as a health coach for an insurance company. The company sent clients to her for evaluation and counseling, mostly by phone.
She should have been happy. She was working in her field, she set her own hours, got paid $15,000 more than any other job she’d ever had, and she had good benefits.
Yet at the end of every day, she felt restless and empty inside. Eventually she began to hate her job, even though she was good at it.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Sometimes we dread a job we’re actually very good at.
How can that be?
If you find yourself in that situation, it’s crucial to understand why you’re there -- otherwise, you may switch jobs, only to wind up in the same predicament.
In my experience, there are three main reasons you hate a job you're great at.
Read each and see if you can find the one that fits your situation.
Reason #1: The Missing Mission
Remember Sally? She was earning the best money of her life, but she felt empty inside.
Why? Why not just take the paycheck and go on with her life?
Deep down, Sally wanted to work with teenagers, not adults. She was especially concerned about homeless teens and their risk of falling through the cracks.
Sally was unhappy because she had a case of mis-matched mission: the mission of her current employer did not fit her deepest, truest personal mission in life. She took the job after eight months of being unemployed because the job paid well and had other perks – but after she caught up with her bills, that missing mission felt like a big hole in her life.
Why is mission so important?
The diagram below illustrates the Four Career Domains. These are the four aspects of your self-ness that need to be fulfilled, in order for you to love your career over time.
Here’s a quick summary of what’s in the Four Career Domains:
- Best Self: Can you be your “best self” at work – who you really are, at your best? This includes your values, the roles you like to play at work, and your temperament.
- Passion, Mission, and Purpose: Why do you work? How does your work create meaning in your life, address an issue you care about, or involve your passions?
- Natural Talents and Learned Skills: Does your job use your favorite skills? Does your job challenge you to continuously grow and learn new things?
- Personal Requirements: Does your job fit into your life? Does it pay enough, enable you to live the lifestyle you want? Do you like the hours, the commute, the benefits? Does it allow you to “be there” for your kids? Etc.
Each of these domains must be reasonably satisfied in order for you to enjoy work and be energized (rather than drained) by it over time.
As you might guess, what’s in each domain varies quite a bit from person to person.
Here’s what it looks like when you have a case of the Missing Mission:
If you have something you’re very passionate about, or a strong sense of personal mission, you need to have it fulfilled somewhere in order to feel fulfilled in life. Some folks call it their “calling” or their “higher purpose”—those are all terms for the same need.
Some folks get their personal mission fulfilled through volunteer work, time with family or even hobbies. There’s no requirement that you get it fulfilled at work. However, if you hate a job you’re good at, this is one possible reason why, and it’s helpful to check your “mission match”—and how much this matters to you—as you determine why you are so unhappy at work.
Reason #2: The Square Peg in the Round Hole
Angela has been at her job a long time. She’s a talented engineer, and she’s been promoted a few times. Now, she’s the head of an international team, working on an airport security project. It’s important work that has the potential to save lives. She gets a lot of recognition, she visits exciting countries, and she’s paid well.
Why is she so miserable?
Angela does not want to be a project manager. She’s’ an introvert, and she really prefers to work behind the scenes. Moreover, her values include total honesty and transparency, yet her position requires a lot of political maneuvering.
Angela is miserable because she can’t be her Best Self at work. Your Best Self is a composite of your values, the social roles you prefer to play, and your temperament. It’s the person you are when you’re at your best, when you’re in your groove, when work feels effortless and exhilarating.
Now, it’s unreasonable to expect that every moment of work will be blissful. But, if you’re constantly working against the grain of who you naturally are, work will eventually wear you down, even if work fulfills your personal mission, uses your natural talents, and pays well.
If you’re constantly working against the grain of who you naturally are, work will eventually wear you down.
Three reasons you can't be your Best Self at work:
(1) You get promoted beyond the type of job you originally choose – for example, getting promoted into managerial roles. We think we’re supposed to climb that ladder at work, moving into jobs with more and more prestige or pay no matter what; yet doing so can sometimes take us away from the kind of job that fits us best.
(2) You choose a job based solely on a strong sense of mission. For example, I started my career as a social studies classroom teacher, and I was very passionate about the work and about education, citizenship, and so on. Yet, my temperament was not suited to it for a number of reasons. I had to uncover other ways to fulfill my passions and mission.
(3) You picked the low-hanging fruit. If you've been unemployed for a while, and you get offered a decent job, you take it, right? Sure, in many situations that's a very prudent decision. And, it's important to see it for what it is - a stepping stone to a better choice. Take the job, but remember that it's just a way to pay the bills while you look for The Real Thing.
Your Best Self may not be missing entirely, so this can be hard to spot. It may look like this:
Here's my advice: If you suspect you can’t be your best self at work, start considering your options now—before you experience total burnout.
This will give you time to make a transition on your own terms—rather than getting fired for poor performance or a bad attitude.
Reason #3: You’re not using your preferred skills.
Most of us have lots of skills. The trick is: do you use your preferred skills at work?
For example, I myself am really great at changing diapers. I’ve had lots of practice, and I can change diapers with the best of them.
But, I don’t want to do it all day for work. Oh sure, if you paid me well I’d do it for a while. But eventually, I’d grow quite weary of doing it all day, even if I was well-paid. And pretty soon “bleh” would turn to “grrrr.”
Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you want to do it all day. There are most likely other things you’re good at, too.
Three reasons you aren't using your preferred skills at work:
(1) You picked the low hanging fruit — once again, take a job that’s passed on by a friend or relative if you need work now. But remember that it's easier to find a job if you already have a job - and keep looking.
(2) There's no room for growth. You can also get into this situation if you chose a job that you originally liked, but which has no room for growth. In this case, your issue is a combination of both Preferred Skills and Best Self–especially if some of your values are “growth” and “being challenged.”
(3) You chose a career very early in life–in high school or college—before you really had a sense of everything you can do and can learn to do.
Regardless, if you’re not using your Preferred Skills, that job will get pretty old.
Some FAQs about the Four Domains:
“What if I just don’t get paid enough? Where does that fall?”
In that case, you generally don’t walk around saying, Bleh, I hate my job. If your Personal Requirements are unfulfilled, you might have the experience of loving the job, but feel stressed in the rest of your life – you hate your commute, or you are always broke, or you feel trapped living in a city, or you don’t have enough time for your kids, etc. In these scenarios, your Personal Requirements aren’t being properly fulfilled. And although that’s definitely a problem, you’ll diagnose it with a different trigger thought other than I hate this job.
“Okay, I’ve identified the reason I walk around dreading work. Now what - should I quit?”
Bravo! Diagnosing the problem is the most important step. Without it, you have a real risk of repeating the pattern again and again.
But should you quit? Here’s my perspective: many people who walk around thinking I hate my job probably should change jobs, eventually. Life’s too short to hate the thing you do more than any other waking activity, right?
And, I am 99.99% certain that there is something else for you out there, something that satisfies all of your Four Domains better than the job you hate now.
But, depending on how stressed you are, you may be able to plan a very gradual transition, 3-5 (or more) years from now. You may want to wait, for various reasons—until your child starts/finishes school; until you pay off a credit card; until you finish that degree; until you do some career counseling. How soon you should leave a job you hate depends on your situation.
I've lived with the job this long, and I'm developing a good 401K. Doesn't it make sense to just stick it out until retirement?
Let me answer this question with two other questions:
(1) How close are you to retirement?
(2) How happy are you, when you're not at work?
If you are close to retirement, and you're reasonably happy when you're not at work, then it may make sense to stick it out - especially if you will retire young enough and healthy enough to have some fun after you retire.
If you're under 55, but you are good at "compartmentalizing" - leaving work at the office - then you may want to stick it out for a while. I've met people who have such a strong need for financial security that meeting their deep need for security is far more important than "enjoying" work. And of course that's fine.
But - and this is the thing I want to stress - if you're unhappy even after you go home, if you fall into a funk Sunday night at the anticipation of going back to work Monday morning, if you're too drained to enjoy your weekend, if you're drinking too much or eating too much chocolate to drown out your feelings of emptiness - then "sticking it out" is just. Not. Worth. It.
If you think you're stuck with the job you have - think again.
Most likely, you believe you're stuck
because you have not yet discovered the better option.
Wrapping Up: Helpful Questions
(1) Which Domain(s) do you think are missing or mismatched? (It may be more than one.)
(2) What are the chances you can get those Domains satisfied somewhere other than work? (For example, at home, or by volunteering.)
(3) What are the chances you can shift your work responsibilities, title or roles to better meet the missing Domains?
(4) How important is it to you to have those Domains satisfied at work specifically?
(4) What numbing activities might you be doing, to numb the sense of restlessness, emptiness, or frustration from work? (For example, drinking, binge chocolate-eating, 3+ hours of TV per day, etc.?)
(5) What is the price you are paying by not having those Domains satisfied at work? What is the impact on you and your life?
(6) Have you ever had a time when you loved your work (even if it was unpaid work)? What would it be like to feel that way most of the time? What would that do for your life overall?
Sometimes, we really don’t like the work we’re doing, even if we’re great at it. We may dread going to work, and it may make it hard to enjoy the rest of our non-work life as well.
This can be really confusing, and it can be tempting to disregard the thoughts, because we’re able to do the job well.
But, as human beings, we need to feel a fulfilled sense of meaning and purpose. We need to feel we can be who we naturally are, and we also need to like the actual tasks we do all day.
Understanding what’s in your Four Career Domains, and which ones are unmet in your current job, is the first important step in getting back on track.
Good luck, and let me know what you discover.