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What to Do If You Feel Trapped in Your Career

Our career choices give us purpose but can also cause pain.

Source: monkeybusiness/DepositPhotos

A question people ask me often is “How do I know I’m working on the right goal?” And in no area of life is this question more important than choosing a career. Choosing a career can be a lifelong process that involves not only a significant amount of time and money, but also a lot of self-exploration. Choosing a career is the kind of goal that we hope to get right the first time. We spend the majority of our day at work. We define ourselves by what we do. And in many ways, our careers determine our lifestyle, our relationships, and our purpose in life. So, we can’t afford to get it wrong.

But how prepared are we when things don’t work out? This had always been my hidden fear when I was in graduate school. That I would get it wrong. That the career I chose was a mistake. That all the hoops I had to go through (and there were many), all the hard work I put into it, all the time and money I invested, would be in vain. That I wouldn’t get the rewards I was expecting.

So to make this feeling go away, I did what all graduate students do. I made my conundrum the focus of my dissertation. During my graduate training, we studied several career theories, so we could help people make good career choices. The theory that piqued my interest the most was Gottfredson’s career theory of circumscription and compromise. In a tiny nutshell, the theory suggests that for a variety of reasons, people may end up in careers that they don’t love, careers that they perceive as compromises. What makes people perceive their careers as compromises is complicated. It entails a combination of factors, like gender, upbringing, parental professional background, socioeconomic status of the family of origin, academic performance, expectations set by others, one’s own ambition and need for achievement, as well as the availability of resources and opportunities to support the pursuit of a highly desirable career.

Career compromise doesn’t mean not liking your job, or your boss, or your co-workers. It means not liking your career. It is not about going from one accounting firm to another, or from one hospital to another. It is about being an accountant when you wanted to be a nurse, or being an advertising executive when you really wanted to be a pilot. Could career compromise also compromise your well-being?

The focus of my dissertation was on the emotional consequences of career compromise. I wanted to find out what happens when you end up with a career that you don’t love, that you’re not passionate about, that you feel is second best. The results of my dissertation weren’t rosy for career compromisers. Career compromise can cause a significant blow to one’s well-being. People who perceive their career as a compromise report more negative feelings, more stress, less joy, and lower job satisfaction.

Imagine spending years and years in school and accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, only to end up in a career that now feels like a compromise. A career that isn’t consistent with your bigger vision of yourself. A career that makes you miserable.

Hopefully, you are not one of the people who feel trapped in careers they don’t love. But what if you were? What is the cure for career compromise? What do you do when you find yourself disillusioned and dissatisfied by your career?

Changing jobs is easy. As you build experience in your area of expertise, you become more competent and more attractive to other employers, and as a result, you can switch jobs easily. Changing careers is an entirely different experience. It requires bigger life changes, that may involve retraining, going back to entry level positions, and risking never getting to the highest levels of professional accomplishment as other people who have longer tenures on the job.

There really isn’t a quick fix for this kind of situation and a list of tips in a blog is not a solution, but to avoid feeling chronically dissatisfied and spending the rest of your working years with regret, here are some helpful reminders:

1. Rediscover your love for what you do. Whether a first choice or not, you chose this career path for a reason. Something drove you to it. Revisit those reasons and think about why you choose this career among many other alternatives in the first place.

2. Focus on what you love about it. Careers have multiple aspects to them, some of which you may love, some you may hate, and some you simply accept. Identify the aspects of your career that you like the most, and shift your focus to those. Alternatively …

3. Fix the aspects that you hate. Think about aspects of your career that you hate. It may be the salary, the work environment, the lack of job security, or the low prestige and lack of appreciation. Whatever it is, find the aspects of your career that you dislike the most, explore why you dislike them, and think of ways to change them.

4. Explore what other people in your field are doing. There may be other people in your field who have also felt trapped and dissatisfied the same way you do. And some of them may have discovered creative and unconventional ways to use their knowledge and expertise. Find who they are and seek them out.

5. Prioritize other areas of your life. Not all people assign the same importance to their careers. If your career is not the highest priority in your life, seek pleasure and satisfaction in other areas of your life, to find a balance. This may seem obvious, but we often forget that there is life beyond work.

6. Be the best at what you do. What you do for work may not be as important as how you do your work, especially if you are a high achiever. Being good at what you do, helping solve industry-wide problems, or getting recognition and accolades for your work, is another way to career satisfaction. As Cal Newport suggests in his book, be so good they can’t ignore you.

7. Stay updated in your field. Stay abreast of any new developments in your area of expertise, because you may discover new opportunities and new directions that could reignite your passion and make your career seem interesting and exciting again.

8. Start your own business. Running your own business requires learning a whole new set of skills, which may offset the feelings of compromise and dissatisfaction with your career choice. In some ways, it is like going back to school again. Moreover, the autonomy of running your own business gives you the ability to shift focus on the aspects of your career that you enjoy the most.

9. Consider changing careers. If all else fails, and you have the energy, resources, and support, consider changing careers. You could go back to school to develop a new specialty, you could teach others what you know in your area of expertise, or you could take the plunge and start capitalizing on your other ideas that are worth spreading and worth getting paid for!

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