Many people move through life with a deep dissatisfaction about their career. Trust me, I get it. And now in my work as a career coach, I notice that most of my clients fit into one of two camps when it comes to career-related unhappiness.
One camp is holding out for a career that will treat them like royalty – great compensation, intellectually-stimulating projects, and a profound sense of purpose and meaning in their day-to-day tasks. This camp is typically characterized by a yearning for "perfection," constantly asking some version of the question, "Shouldn't I hold out for something better?"
As a result of this attachment to a singular ideal, people in this camp often wind up feeling stuck when the career path they've been dreaming of does not match up with the reality they’re encountering.
This camp tends to include recent college grads who immediately expect high-level responsibility and/or a salary in line with what their parents are making (who have decades of experience). It also encompasses those who are fixated on only ONE "right" career answer (I will work for Company Z doing only X.) Nothing else will do.
This camp’s sky-high expectations and laser focus on glittering fantasies leaves them rigid and uncompromising. They get stalled out and struggle with finding a foothold that will help them enter a career or make a transition.
By contrast, the second camp is too good at being flexible:they tend toward settling. People in this camp tend to believe that they are "doing their best," and say things like, "I should be grateful to have a job at all."
Some of the key parties in this camp include people with years of experience in one job (and a correspondingly limited scope of other possibilities), people who have foregone any type of salary negotiation, and those who have disconnected from grander ambitions altogether. This camp lives so squarely in the reality of their life that they can’t see beyond it to imagine something better.
So do you fall into either of these camps?
If you’re in the dreams-on-steroids camp, you may be asking too much from your career. Ask yourself these three questions instead.
1. What are my core needs?
For example, how much money do you really need to support yourself at a basic level? What’s the minimum number of working hours that you need to be doing engaging work? Do you really need a job that allows you the freedom to attend yoga and meditate for an additional hour during the workday? We’re adaptable species, so challenge yourself to get real about what you really need.
2. What can I let go of in order to gain?
If you let go of an astronomical salary expectation, you may gain a foothold into actually starting your career. If you let go of completely passion-filled days, you might gain a more interesting life outside of work.
3. What is my lead desire for my career and what are my sub-desires?
Your lead desire could be a subject matter are you drawn to, a quality of life factor that you care most about, or a level of fulfillment that matters most to you. Now think through how you could fit your sub-desires into your life in ways unrelated to your career. You might volunteer as a mentor on the side to fulfill your desires to do good, go on weekend writing retreats to scratch your creative itch.
Now, if you’re in the second camp, who is all too good at having reasonable expectations, you’ll want to ask yourself three very different questions:
1. What is one area of my career where I’d like to ask for more?
This could be asking for a raise at your next annual review, asking for a new, challenging project at work or standing up for your own professional development and attending a course or event that furthers your education.
2. What can I do to broaden my horizons?
Often people who are super at settling are not seeing available possibilities. Push yourself to actively expand your vision by talking to new people, trying new activities and learning new ideas.
3. What inspires me to dream bigger?
Keep a lookout for quotes, people and ideas that inspire you to ask for more. Expect some feelings of uneasiness and look to the aforementioned guideposts for courage and encouragement as you go along.
Our careers can’t be everything to us, but they are a lot of where we put our time and energy during the day. It’s important to acknowledge that not every day at work is going to be ideal, but it’s also a savvy idea to try to make your days better bit by bit.