It's so tempting to see a greener patch of grass when we're having a bad day at work, isn't it? We think instantly of our high school dreams of becoming an interior designer, of working on a passion-project at a café all day alongside other freelancers, of winning the lottery as a means of escape. And more!
Work can be tough, even at jobs we fundamentally feel happy with. The trick is knowing when you're in a temporary slump, or when the challenges can be opportunities for growth, and when your unhappiness at the office is signifying something deeper. Here are five essential steps (or "tests") to help you figure out what your malaise at work is trying to tell you.
1. Pay attention at the front door, literally.
Your first assessment tool is quite simple, but yields very profound results: pay attention to how you feel when you walk in the door of your workplace. Once you walk across the threshold, immediately start asking yourself questions. Do you feel excited, happy, looking forward to your day or do you feel weighed down, uncomfortable, or like you're steeling yourself for the day ahead?
I love this particular line from The Devil Wears Prada: the Art Director yells to everyone else in the office, "Gird your loins," as the menacing Editor-in-Chief walks through the door. I like to call this the "gird your loins" test: if you feel you have to gird your loins just to get through the day, it's a sign that your job is probably not the best fit for you and your career.
2. Question all of your assumptions.
When we've spent a long time building our careers, it's difficult to see what we could possibly pursue next. When we reflect on the choices we've made in our adult lives, we tend to focus exclusively on the past: the time and money we've invested in our education, our networks, our reputation. It makes sense. Because the future in unclear to us, it's easier to stay invested in the past. We tell ourselves, This is it. This is what I chose. Now I have to live with it.
But these "facts" are ultimately assumptions we are making. In fact, there's never a need to stay committed to a dream that you've outgrown. To give a more bite-sized example: yes, you can put down the book halfway through if you're not enjoying it. In short, you can veer right when your whole life is set up to turn left.
3. Locate the happiness in your current situation.
The best way to succeed in life is to identify what is making you happy, and proactively recognize your ability to reproduce this feeling based on choices you make in your thought patterns and behaviors. So notice what makes you happy, and why it's serving you. In the case of a job, realize too that it's easy to get to the point where you despise a job you once loved. But odds are, there are still one or two things that make you happy on a daily basis, even at a job you think you don't like.
For one, try to go back in your memory to a time when you liked your job. What did the good aspects of your job represent to you? What did it give you? Are those things still valuable to you? If not, what do you value now? Do you see a viable way to take the positive things in your current job with you on a new path?
All of these questions will all give you hints — hints about where you've grown and how, hints about what you now value. Make some notes. They'll start to show you a path.
4. Honor your frustrations.
Recognizing your happiness can coexist with honoring the not-so-good feelings too, at work and elsewhere. Ask yourself: Where are my frustrations with my current job? Your answer(s) will tell you a lot about where you're holding yourself back. Frustration can be a mirror, exposing us what aspects of ourselves we are frustrated by.
So learn to love your frustrations. Bring them close. This process will either help you release your frustrations and instead learn to grow in your situation of discomfort, or you will be better prepared to figure out how to approach them head-on.
Maybe you're the person who gets annoyed at colleagues for not working hard enough or not caring enough. If this is the case, the more useful question would be, Why am I working myself so hard? How am I not caring enough about myself, my needs, my desires?
The answer to those questions often create a doorway to something new and more aligned with your deeper dreams.
5. Watch for clues.
The present moment is going to tell you everything you need to know about where you want to go next. To be really cognizant to those clues though, you need to be paying attention to your life. Not floating through it.
Pay attention to all of your experiences, conversations, interactions, moments of eye-contact, fleeting emotions. Engage with them by simply noticing. Suspend judgment but also trust your intuition. What makes you happy is direction north on your compass. It tells you what to say yes to and what to say no to.
So question your assumptions, but trust when your intuition is trying to tell you something. Get happy, but respect those moments when your desires aren't met. If you learn to follow your own compass, you'll always, always find your way home — or to your dream job!