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What If You Hate What You’re Good At?

It's best to do what you care about, not just what you may excel in but abhor.

It may seem counterintuitive that you could be highly skilled at something yet actually loathe it. Most of the time if you really dislike some subject, process, or activity, it’s because you’re not particularly adept at it. But it’s hardly uncommon to detest (or come to detest) what you excel in. Below, even as I catalog various instances of this phenomenon, I’ll critique them and offer some suggestions for ameliorating them. Moreover, you might wish to reflect on how many of the following examples pertain to yourself—or consider additional instances from your life of things you do well, but take little or no gratification from engaging in them.

The bulleted examples that follow are extrapolated from an extremely lengthy Reddit thread I discovered while exploring what might already have been written on this curious topic (i.e., almost nothing). Here readers were specifically asked the question: “What's something you're really good at, but hate doing? I’ve chosen to slightly tone down the language of many of the respondents. For—not surprisingly—the subject seems to inspire a high rate of obscenity (!):

  • "Customer freaking service. I'm the best damn customer service agent ever, and I hate it…I treat professionalism as if it were damn near part of my moral code…Thank god, I'm out now, but the thought of ever going back makes my stomach knot.” [And from another customer service rep] “It's always the stupidity that gets me. When someone says something so jaw-droppingly stupid, I just can't suppress my anger." [In general, it’s difficult to believe that either of these discussants was that good at their trade if they could barely conceal their own impatience and irritability—as (in their non-edited descriptions) they admit. Had they been better able to empathize with the disappointments and frustrations of their admittedly disagreeable patrons, they might have taken their surliness more in stride—i.e., less personally.]
  • “I've worked both retail and waitressed. And I wanted to stab my f-----g eyes out every day. It took ungodly amounts of self control not to just punch some crabby old lady in the face after a few years. I don't know HOW anyone has the b---s to yell in someone's face over a f-----g coupon or because their food’s taken more than 10 minutes to come out, but yet there it was! [And from another former waitress] “I'm with you, just thinking about it sometimes makes my blood boil…”
  • “Sales. When it comes to talking people into buying s--t they probably don't need, especially over the phone, I tend to do very well, but I hate the feeling it gives me and have worked to build a profession where I don't have to do it anymore." [Here’s another dimension of detestability: call it a sense of dishonor from having acted ignobly, so that it can’t help but leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.]
  • “I'm a really good listener. I know when to shut up and what questions to ask. I'm tired of hearing about [others'] troubles…” [And from a second supposedly adept auditor] “I'm apparently good at listening/giving advice. This means I get to hear every single one of my friends' petty problems.…” [And lastly] “Listening. I can keep silent, pay attention and actually listen. I would prefer in most cases to be left alone or walk away.” [All three commenters here suggest that their listening skills end up making them feel “used”—not valued for who they are, but only as a sounding board for others. (I can only hope that none of the three are therapists!)]
  • “Teaching people things. I'm great at dumbing things down so anyone can understand them. I end up teaching some very stupid people easy things. It's sometimes painful and frustrating.”
  • "Math. I hate it probably more than any subject I can think of, but I'll be damned if it wasn't the easiest for me to learn and the best subject academic-wise I ever had. My grades were so awesome in high school/college, my mother (an accountant) pushed me to be an accountant. I told her if I had to do her job everyday I might just kill myself…” [And another discussant chimed in] “Accounting. Understand it like the back of my hand, but I hate doing it, professionally and personally.”
  • Public speaking. I can get up in front of a large audience and give a presentation with no problem and even hold their attention for a while. I just hate every minute of it.” [In such instances, it would be instructive to know just why this individual found public speaking so odious. For most of us—if we felt confident in our ability to effectively communicate our ideas or beliefs to influence others—would probably welcome the opportunity to do so.]
  • “Making cookies. I make amazing, melt-in-your-mouthgasm [sic!], kick-a-- cookies. And I f-----g dread Christmas because everyone wants some. It's f-----g grueling, man.” [And from another respondent] “I too make amazing cookies. I like to mix everything up and all that rolling the dough. [But] putting it on the sheets? Not at all. And then cleaning up? It almost isn't worth it because of those two things.” [Ah! it’s useful to note that in many of these Reddit comments (far more than I’ve had space to include), it’s not the whole task, just some part(s) of it, that lead to an attitude of dislike, even animosity. The solution here? Either relegate the least gratifying aspects of the task to another (after all, they’ll get their tasty reward later), endeavor to change your attitude toward its more tedious aspects, or simply don’t take it on at all.]
  • “I’m very good at fixing airplanes. The Air Force taught me how to do it. They taught me how to do it so well that I got a degree in HR and got out as soon as I could. I f-----g hate airplanes.” [Reading this I had to lament over how many millions of people historically were apprenticed when young to learn a trade, eventually developed mastery over it, and then spent the rest of their lives doing it—even though they may have despised it and would never have chosen it on their own.]
  • “Playing the viola. I sure can play but I moan and [groan] when asked to play it. I'm auditioning for the St. Louis Youth Orchestra, which is one of the hardest to get into in the country. I don't really want to do it, but it would be a waste of time to not.” [This comment is one that many of you may relate to: being assigned a musical instrument and getting quite proficient at it—without, however, caring that much about the music you’re playing or the instrument you’re playing it on.]

I’ve many times observed this sort of predicament with sports as well: individuals being virtually coerced into playing a sport and—ironically—being “blessed” (or cursed!) with just about the perfect body build and natural athleticism to distinguish themselves in it. Yet unable to enjoy it at all. And in most cases, the problem is that the parents (or possibly, coach), watching them excel, put considerable pressure on them to continue the activity—even after the child tells them that it’s burdensome to them, or that they’d much prefer doing something else. And then the parents—whose (conditional) approval the child may still depend on—react by saying something like: “Don’t you realize your team needs you? Do you see how selfish you’re being?!” Or, “Are you just going to quit? We don’t have quitters in this family! Is that what you want to be?!” insensitively guilting and shaming their child into staying with the activity they’re so desperate to extricate themselves from.]

Doubtless, any such list as the above could go on indefinitely, referring to individuals who are accomplished at—but hate—housecleaning, washing cars, gardening, running, swimming, writing, grading papers, researching … in a word, anything. But surely, by now you get the point. So to conclude, because by far the biggest aversion I encountered on Reddit’s website (and also in my own psychology practice) centers on people who hate their job, let me end here by offering a few suggestions to the many individuals who, daily, get almost nauseated just driving to work:

1. Consider that it may not actually be the job you hate but those you work for, or with: say, your boss, co-worker(s), or subordinate(s)—who might be lazy, ill-tempered, aggressively demanding, or just plain incompetent. In such situations, you need to determine whether there’s anything in what you hate dealing with that might be alterable—as well as whether it might be possible to leave your present job to find a position similar to it but less likely to get on your nerves.

2. Look for pleasurable activities you can do outside of work, whether in the evenings or on weekends. Anything that affords you enjoyment will at least help compensate for obnoxious workplace conditions that may not be changeable. Whether it’s exploring a subject you find fascinating, indulging yourself with a challenging computer game, practicing your beloved guitar, energetically working out (and in the process perhaps “discharging” some of your anger), socializing with friends you’re fond of, or simply listening to music you delight in, don’t allow your life to revolve around your abhorrent work situation any more than absolutely necessary. And if you can avoid attracting negative attention by doing something diverting while at work—something that enables you to take short breaks from what antagonizes you—well, go for it.

3. Pursue anything that might make your job more interesting. Can you ask your boss whether you might work on something different, or at least do it differently? Might you be permitted to take some time off to develop a new, and potentially valuable, skill—even as you continue to explore other job opportunities in your field? Or might you take evening classes, or classes online, to prepare yourself to enter an adjacent field more to your liking?

4. Don’t lose hope that (sooner or later) either your work circumstances will change just enough for you to feel less disgruntled with them, or that you’ll be able to re-locate yourself professionally to a position substantially more satisfying. As difficult as it may be, if there aren’t yet any viable alternatives to what you’re presently doing, focus on the positive aspects of staying put. (The salary is decent, benefits are good, commute is short, it beats being jobless, etc.) And try not to catastrophize your situation. As bad, as frustrating, as it may be, you can bet there are others worse off than you. So—as trite as it may seem to say it—make every effort (ahem!) to look on the bright side.

Note: If this post “spoke” to you and you think it might address others’ concerns as well, please consider sending them its link.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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