“You Can’t Change Horses Midstream” and Other Fairy Tales About Happiness at Work

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I love asking small children what they want to be when they grow up, only because the answer can change three times a week, and be delivered with perfect sincerity on each occasion. This makes me feel much better about the somewhat erratic path my own career has followed.

One person I know gained a degree in computer science found out that he couldn’t stand coding, and became a diesel mechanic instead, less than a year after graduation. As it turns out, a skilled mechanic earns much more than a mediocre programmer. Another friend studied for several years to be a dentist but eventually realized that the routine involved in running a surgery wasn’t for him, and became a self-taught computer programmer instead. Are they happy, are they fulfilled? It’s difficult to tell about another person, of course, and these are not the kind of questions that frequently crop up in casual conversation, but they certainly appear to be.

Many people believe being one’s own private drill sergeant is the best way to be a good person. — Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT

On the other hand, we all probably know a number of people who rarely talk, or constantly complain about their work without even considering the possibility of making a change. This is a situation which just might resolve itself without the person concerned doing anything about it: he might be promoted into a new role, or the nature of his industry might change overnight, or he could be fired tomorrow. These are all possibilities, but by not choosing the direction his life can change in, he might only end up worse off than before.

The truth is that almost nobody knows what’s important to them and what will make them happy when they’re eighteen, few have figured it out by the time they’re 25, and a pretty significant number still have little idea when 40 comes around. Instead, we strive towards what we think should be important to us, which may come from the expectations of parents (or the perception of these), a desire to fit into a certain social role or just something we saw on TV a decade ago.

How to Tell Whether You’re Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Every now and again, we should each turn off the phone, unplug ourselves from Facebook and ask if the “me” part of ourselves is happy, miserable or somewhere between those two extremes. This is both difficult and essential, and so also when it comes to deciding to do something about an obstacle to our enjoyment of life. Some objective, professional help (even if it’s online help) would not go amiss in this process.

The people in your life—even the ones who encourage your desire for self-improvement—aren’t accustomed to your new way of doing things. — Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S

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You should understand that every career, from driving a truck to playing the ukulele professionally, has its rough spots. Unreasonable bosses, tight schedules, and disappointed expectations will always be with us, so try to think only about those aspects which are inherently part of your industry and profession.

Instead of occasionally being under pressure at work, do you find that stress invariably carries over into your home environment, or has become a constant feature of your life? No salary in the world is worth sacrificing your health for, including your mental wellbeing. Have you lost all passion for your job and its meaning? There are plenty of ways to earn a living, not all of which will make you miserable. Perhaps there is simply no further room for you to grow along with your current path, but you have a lot of growth left in you. This process is all about deciding whether your current job (or entire career path) and your long-term goals are in alignment. If this is not the case, one or the other will have to go, without exception.

A workplace situation can become unbearable for a number of reasons: too much routine, too much worry, too much travel. Even once we realize that something drastic, like a change in career, is necessary for us to feel fulfilled, most of us will think that we lack the energy and courage to take the necessary steps down this road. While this is a fool’s game, we would much rather squander both energy and determination by simply dragging ourselves through another few decades of purgatory.

Can’t Quit now, I’ll Lose all I Haven’t Got
Another aspect that holds many back from making a hard but necessary decision is known as the “sunk cost fallacy”. This can have a number of different manifestations: continuing to bet on a losing team because their luck “has to” change, or staying with a romantic partner you can’t stand because you can’t get back the years you’ve already spent with them.

Actually, things that aren’t going well tend to keep heading in that direction, and you can’t retrieve the past under any circumstances, anyway. The sunk cost fallacy, as applied to careers, means that someone is hesitant to make a change because of the years they’ve already spent studying for and doing the job that they’re in.

While there is some truth to this, the actual impact on your career trajectory will probably be less what you think. Unlike wasted time, experience doesn’t go away and can often find application in a completely different industry or role. As one example, companies serving a certain industry are often hungry for employees with experience in it, even if their specific skills aren’t required. True, if you apply for a new job, an interviewer might be less impressed with specialized experience in a completely different field; but if you are sure that a change is what is needed, specializing any further is not going to do you any favors.

We do not get to choose the content of our minds, but we certainly try. — Maury Joseph, PsyD

Making Dramatic Changes, One Act at a Time
You can, in theory, walk out of your current job this minute and never come back. In practice, you are most probably not alone in life. If you have people who depend on you, including at work, simply announcing that you’ve been on the road to Damascus before darting out the door is not only impractical but selfish. Besides, just because you’re sure of your decision today doesn’t mean that you’ll be quite as certain in a week’s time.

Plenty of people have already leveraged a hobby into a new career arc or started a small business without summarily throwing their day job overboard. If you know that what you really need in life is a revolution, there are almost certainly steps you can take, starting today, that will ease the transition and perhaps provide something of a safety net.

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Talking things over with your family is the best place to start. Explain that you have to pursue your own happiness and how you plan to go about it, rather than one day proclaiming that you’re suddenly as free as a bird. Do some careful financial planning, using both optimistic and pessimistic assumptions, to see how you can make things work on a practical level.

Above all, remember that time invested in yourself is rarely wasted. Gaining knowledge and skills in your spare time is one of the best ways to prepare for a new kind of employment, and courses you can follow in your spare time are now easier to access than ever. You can gain both skills and certification in anything from data analysis to Dutch, converting those spare hours you currently spend doing nothing into employment options that might take you along paths you cannot currently even imagine.