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Dealing with the Dead-end Job

Before you cut and run, figure out where you want to go

When Anna was hired for her job it seemed to offer not only good pay but an opportunity to be creative and more fully use her talents. But now 6 months into it, she’s finding that it’s not turning out at all as she hoped. Her boss seems controlling and rigid and any of her innovative ideas seemed to be dismissed by “it not being the right time” or a “bit outside our usual style.” She feels frustrated, discouraged, deceived, and is about ready to bolt.

Dead-end jobs. Unfortunately for many dead-end is their reality. They don’t or can’t get the skills to move up or out. Or they have 4 kids to support and need the benefits or need to hold onto their seniority however unsatisfying the work may be, and are resigned to taking what they get. For others less constrained, with more options, the dead-endness of the job comes because there is no career ladder to move up on, because the next step up demands too much in terms of skill, or like Anna, the organization is too stifling, regimented, not interested in tapping the true potential of their employees.

And like Anna it’s easy to get tunnel vision, to be consumed with and driven by frustration to get out, to cut and run, to get away. Understandable but not necessarily smart. Tunnel vision makes you think about what is wrong with this job, this place. The counter-intuitive move in these situations is to slow down, step back and look at the big picture, see where you want to go towards rather than just obsessing on what you want to get away from.

Sorting Out Your Head

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you sort out next steps:

Do you consider work a job, career, or calling?

What is your sense of purpose? Why are you here and how is work part of that? To paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, What is the one thing you can do that no one else can do because of who you are?

What would you like to be able to say about your work life when you are 70 years old? What would you like to say is the moral of the story of your life?

How does your ideal job represent your values or sense of self, your vision of your future, your priorities?

What do you need to turn your current job into your ideal one?

Are there other aspects of your life besides work that do or can express the best of you?

This should get you started in exploring the role of work in your life. The next step is converting your answers into action. There’s 2 parts to this – exploration and developing a plan.


One obvious next step is for Anna to talk with her boss more about her vision than her frustration. The challenge here is that she needs to make her case by talking in her boss’ language rather than her own. She needs to present her vision about her work and ideas by linking them to ideas that her boss, not Anna, cares about – about the potential of company, revenue, community reputation, company mission. This is the only thing that will, perhaps, motivate her boss. Anything else will sound superfluous or like whining. Anna needs to link her vision to that of those above her.

If this garners some positive response it probably would be helpful for Anna to set some timeline for herself for seeing if change occurs – 6 months, another year – to give her a frame, to help her feel proactive, and to help her not slip into limbo-land or worse yet, resignation and accepting the day-to-day.

If her boss’ response is negative, it’s time to brainstorm. Rather than the cut-and-run and looking for a better lateral move that seems better, Anna may want to think a bit outside the box. Other ways she can use her talents, figure out the true take-away of what she needs most besides relief. Here she pays attention to any out-of-the-blue idea no matter how crazy it seems that captures her energy -- it tells her something about what she needs most. She may look at other adjacent lines of work, or going back to school; talk to people who are doing what she would like to do, who are having the life she would like to have, or better yet are role models of change; even re-orienting for herself the role of work in her life. This is about setting priorities – what is on top of her list about what she wants most. Can she find other outlets for her creativity besides work? A bit of brief therapy or life-coaching may be helpful here.

Make a Plan

You can’t figure this all out by sitting on a couch and mulling. Next is making this all concrete – Anna developing timelines, drilling down into the details – finding money for school, devoting more time for her passions, connecting with folks in her field or speaking to headhunters about what’s out there that’s possible. The key here is to map out steps. Rather than looking for the ideal job or the making the "right" decision, thinking instead in terms of a 2-5 year plan. Only by having boots on the ground, clear steps along the way, with each helping her clarify and refine what she truly wants will she discover what she really wants.

All this is, of course, easier said than done. What’s important here is not so much the content of Anna’s of your current problem and dissatisfaction – such hurdles and obstacles will always come up over the course of her or your life; the content is always a moving target. The bigger challenge is process, figuring out how to go about tackling these points of discouragement and frustration as they arise, as she and you change.

This is about how she and you run your lives, how you shape yourself and listen to the voices within, how you find ways to close that ever-changing gap between who you are and who you now want to be.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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