Unhappy Career and Stuck. Help A Reader Out

by Neal Frankle, CFP ®

There is just about nothing worse than having an unhappy career and being stuck.  If you can’t turn your boss around, it’s a very empty feeling and one I’m familiar with from several years past. It bears paying attention to – and doing something about. You and I are meant to have a better experience than that while we’re on this planet. Right?

Here’s a comment I got recently that brought this topic up. This person read my post on reinventing yourself and came away with a really important question:

What can you do if your situation is completely locked up and you can’t change your career? Let’s say you’re unhappy with your career but there are people who depend on you, what then?

Great question. Have you ever been in this situation? I was a long time ago. But through the School of Hard Knocks, I found a solution. Here are 5 steps I recommend you take if you are facing similar challenges.

1. List what you can’t stand about your job.

The first step in solving any problem is to understand it. And the best way to really understand a problem is by writing about it rather than letting it bounce around in your noggin. So get out a sheet of paper and grab a pen. Write down all the things you dread about your work. Also, write why you feel this way. Here are some ideas that might help you get the ball rolling:

  • Your boss is a Class A doofus.
  • Your commute sucks.
  • Your hours stink.
  • You can’t stand the customers you work with.
  • The results of what you do leave you feeling empty inside.

Write down your own truth. Don’t feel constrained. Let it all out and take as much time as you need to be really thorough. You’ll feel better and it’s an important first step. Once you’ve done this exercise you are ready to move ahead.

2. What do you like (even a little) about your work?

Is there anything about your job or career that you enjoy? If so, write it down. Gratitude is the secret sauce of life my friend. Don’t worry. I’m not going to try to convince you that your job isn’t as bad as you say it is. I just want you to have the opportunity to really dissect your experience. This way it will be easier for you to plot a course of action. Please write down anything that you appreciate or are grateful for when it comes to your career. Once this is done, continue on to the next phase.

3. Are you really stuck?

Before we go any further, let’s talk about “being stuck” because this is super important. You may indeed be stuck (and if so I still have some solutions). But you may not be as stuck as you think you are. Shortly after I started my career I felt stuck and it was terrible. It was tough enough to build my business. Living in financial fear and feeling stuck at the same time was almost unbearable.

But when I thought about it and went deep, I discovered that I wasn’t as stuck as I thought I was. I looked at my spending, and I figured out what it cost me to live. Then I spoke with my wife and we looked at all the things that we could easily cut if we really had to. Then I looked into alternative ways to earn a living.

If I decided to make a move I would have made less money to be sure. But I could still bring something home. I realized that our family really could survive if I made a career change. Suddenly it didn’t look all that bad anymore.

The most important thing – the family – would be fine. (The only way my family wouldn’t be fine was if I continued being a miserable sour-puss dad. The money wasn’t that important to my family. At the end of the day, we all wanted everyone to be happy – including me. That peace of mind meant more than the fancy vacations and nice dinners.)

And you know what? When I realized this, the pressure was off. I started really enjoying my work. Ain’t that a kick in the head? I was prepared to make a change had I continued being miserable but I realized I wasn’t really stuck anymore. Either way, it was a win-win.

I share this with you because, like me, you may not be as stuck as you think you are. And if you look at your life and profession in a more liberated way, your entire frame of mind could shift. So let’s attack this “stuck” issue head-on.

4. Get Out of Your Trap.

Generally, what keeps us stuck in our jobs is lack of training, lack of money or both. But what you may not realize is that there are solutions to both these problems.

In my case, I thought I was stuck because I thought I needed to make a lot of money and that I couldn’t earn that much any other way. If that describes you, here is the best course of action:

a. Look into career alternatives and find out how much you could really earn.
b. Track your spending so you know exactly what you spend and what it costs you to live.
c. Slash your spending.
d. Get a second job or start a side gig if you have to.

If you really can’t stand your job anymore the question is what are you willing to do in order to change the situation? Are you willing to change your standard of living? Will your family support you in this endeavor?

Can you get unstuck from a rotten career? Absolutely. Is it easy? Not always.

The reality is that everyone has to make a living. I get it. The reader who asked the question has real pressure to bring home the (vegetarian and kosher) bacon. But you get to decide what you standard of living is going to be. This isn’t forced on you. Let’s continue.

5. Improve Your Current Situation

Let’s recap. So far you’ve reviewed what you like and dislike about your job. You have also considered whether or not you are really stuck or not.

Let’s assume that you have a long list of things you don’t like about your career and a short list of things you are grateful for. To make matters worse, let’s say you really are stuck and there is no way to make a change right now. Ugly. Right? Maybe not.

There is a solution for that. That’s right. There is still a ton you can do to obtain your freedom.

Embrace a two-track solution.

A few paragraphs ago I suggested you investigate other careers, track and slash your spending and consider finding a part-time job or (better yet) side business. These actions may not bring about an immediate opportunity to tell your boss to stick it. But over time these steps will lead to freedom. By getting into action on these items, you’ll feel more in control and less dependent. Get going on putting these actions into place even though it doesn’t solve the immediate problem.

The second track is to improve your current situation as best you can. Go back to your list of things that make you lose your lunch when you think about your job.

Does your boss remind you of Dark Lord Sauron? You can take 3 easy steps to improve your relationship with your boss fast. Treat her well. Take her out for a coffee. Find out what you can do to make her job easier. Believe me; nobody in your office has ever treated your boss this way. And if you step up it’s going to get noticed and have an effect.

Are you dissatisfied with your pay? Approach the problem methodically and learn how to ask for a raise (and get it).

If your commute or hours stink, consider moving. Or talk to your employer about working from home – at least part-time. More and more people are going this route. It saves the company money and time and keeps nice people like you happy. Look into it.

Finding it hard to relate to your customers? Maybe you need an attitude adjustment. Of course it can be very difficult to work with the public. But are you putting yourself in their shoes? Are you focusing on what you can do for your customers rather than what they can do for you? A service mentality is the best medicine I know to turn a difficult environment into something more pleasant.

Do you feel empty because your work isn’t’ meaningful to you? Look at your gratitude list for a moment. Your work is providing something – even if it’s only food and shelter for your family. Can you love your work for what it provides to your loved ones?

If you aren’t satisfied emotionally you might indeed need a new career. But who is to say you’ll be happy at your next gig? Maybe you are a perfectionist like me. If so, you’ll be challenged to be content no matter where you land.

The remedy I’ve found for this malady is to focus on the positive. As trite as this sounds, it works. Rather than thinking about failures, consider those people who are better off because of what you do. Are there clients who benefit by working with you as opposed to your competitors?

This kind of mind-shift may be all you need to lift (or at least shift) that empty feeling.

Bottom line.

If you are left unfulfilled by your work, there is plenty you can do about it. First examine your situation carefully to be sure you are as stuck as you think. Even if you are stuck, you can take the action detailed above to get yourself free over time and improve your work situation while you are there.

Have you ever felt stuck in a career? What did you do about it?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

eemusings November 22, 2012 at 4:19 PM

My partner is feeling stuck in his job too – but doesn’t know what else he wants to do. I definitely want him to be happy in his work and will support him, but it’s harder when you don’t have a specific goal.

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Pauline November 12, 2012 at 12:32 PM

I was stuck at work and wanted to get rid of office jobs once and for all. It took me a few years to save enough but I had a goal which made my awful job more tolerable. I looked for what had made me happy recently and how I could turn that into a job. Now I am a travel freelance writer fixing a house into a guest house in Guatemala. But I understand people feeling stuck and having kids / a mortgage isn’t that simple. I would try to go back to school and study something I like, or volunteer somewhere I like on weekends or freelance at night until I can live off whatever makes me happy without taking too much risk.

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Neal Frankle November 12, 2012 at 12:53 PM

You are amazing! You did the work and made your dream come true. I am so happy for you and that you shared this success…..GREAT!

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