A buddy of mine has a step-daughter who works three or four 12-hour shifts each week as a
clerk in a hospital emergency room. She’s a single mom with three kids, all still at home, all still outgrowing their shoes every other week, and all seemingly capable of eating Walmart’s entire grocery section in a single sitting. She took the job in part because it paid a couple of bucks an hour more than her previous job and because she liked the idea of helping people who were sick or hurting.
Everything started off great. She was energetic about her work and enjoyed serving the patients and the hospital staff. A month or so into it, though, her supervisor called her in and said they had made a mistake on her pay scale. She was going to have to take a cut, but, thanks to the administration’s amazing benevolence, she wouldn’t have to pay back anything from the checks she’d already cashed.
She thought about fighting the decision, but she really needed the job. She felt trapped: stay quiet and take less money or speak out, risk getting fired and possibly end up with nothing. She couldn’t afford nothing so she stayed quiet. Now she hates her job, doesn’t trust her supervisor, and dreads going to work.
The hard, cold reality is that hundreds of thousands of people don’t love what they do. They might be clerks in an emergency room, CEOs in a corporate office, or managers on a factory line, but they find no joy or fulfillment in the efforts that produce their paychecks. For them, work sucks.
What to do?
I don’t have a can’t-miss, silver-bullet solution. But I do believe that everyone can and should do what they love in the service of people who love what they do. It’s highly aspirational, I know, but why settle for less? If, however, you find yourself in a my-work-sucks situation—or if you are counseling someone in that situation—here are a few tips for dealing with the dilemma.
Don’t give up. We’re told from an early age that we should do what makes us happy, but happiness is circumstantial. Sometimes work is hard, even if you love what you do, and sometimes we simply have to adult our way through the tough times. Typically, we learn from those tough times, grow from them, and emerge better in almost every respect. So don’t start with the assumption that you’re in the wrong place and have to leave. That could be true, but don’t operate with that assumption or it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Remember how you got there. What were the events, jobs, projects, and other experiences that led you to your current role? I recommend that people literally draw a map on a piece of paper with “I Am Here” in the middle of the page. Above that, write down the milestone events of your career, good and not so good, and then connect those dots with a line. Now answer these questions: Why did I take this job/start this company/enlist in this program? Are the ideals that I started with still in place today? If not, how can I bring them back to life?
Inventory your work/job/career. The bottom of the page represents today. Use it to write a list of everything you can think of that’s related to your work—every task, project, role, responsibility, colleague, supervisor, employee, customer, client, underlying value, etc. Then circle the aspects you enjoy and draw a square around the ones you don’t.
Plant a gratitude tree. What are the things on that list that truly resonate with you? What do you love doing? What people do you really care about? What values do you see that you strive to live by? What things make coming to work worthwhile? Use a highlighter to mark those things on your list. Find anything and everything about your work that you do love, or even just like, and make note of it.
Spend time in that tree. Review those highlights daily, ideally in the morning or before your work begins, and allow yourself to feel genuine gratitude. That one simple, reflective practice can help stoke or re-kindle a love for the work you do.
In some cases, things will change and you’ll realize you actually love what you do and where you work more than you thought you did. In fact, your change in attitude and commitment will likely be part of the reason things improve, not just for you but for everyone around you.
In some cases, of course, the job or the culture or both simply aren’t worth the stress and anxiety that come with them. You can do your part, but you can’t fake a love for the work and you can’t force other people to change. You can love them and influence them, but you can’t force them to change. The tips might provide a stop-gap solution to help you survive a few weeks or months with more joy and satisfaction, but the ultimate solution might be to leave. That takes courage, because the next place you land won’t be perfect, either. The goal isn’t to find a job with no problems or challenges, but to do something you love so much that you are willing to sacrifice and even suffer when necessary. That job is out there. Find it and fill it with love.
Steve Farber is president of Extreme Leadership Inc., an acclaimed speaker, bestselling
author, and consultant. His new book LOVE IS JUST DAMN GOOD BUSINESS (McGraw-Hill, Sept. 6, 2019) follows The Radical Leap, a bestseller cited among The 100 Best Business Books of All Time by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten; The Radical Edge and Greater Than Yourself. He and his family live in San Diego.