Recently, I found myself in two different conversations with guys who hated their jobs. One of them has been trying desperately to stay afloat, moving from position to position and working at all hours to try to make ends meet. The other was fairly successful in an engineering career, but had a nagging longing to do something else and a feeling that life was passing him by. I noticed that both of them said the same words, “I hate my job,” but there was a significant discrepancy between them. I also knew that I loved my own work, and I wondered at the differences between us.
I think there are four ways to approach work, or perhaps four stages of work through which we mature.
First, we can approach work as a means to an end, that being survival. Work is there to provide resources for ourselves and those we hold closest. When that’s the case, work never has intrinsic value. The goal is to have enough, and that goal is almost never met, because the costs of life are always compounding and don’t let us rise to the comfortable nonchalance we anticipate.
Second, we can approach work as a means to a different end, that being success. We seek to be productive to the point that we are recognized and compensated. Our goal is to expand and to potentially be the best. In this case, likewise, the goal is never achieved. There is always more to accomplish. There is always someone doing better. Some people stay stuck in this stage, because they never get a vision more compelling than a competition for trophies.
However, third, we might approach work as something sacred, an end in itself. The value of meaningfully pursuing our calling and treating daily interactions with the people we encounter as divinely appointed intersections transcends the tangible rewards of work. We may enjoy the fruit of our labor, but not despite the labor; we enjoy the cycle of contribution and participation. I see people in their 50s who are content with their careers make this shift, and the specificity of their chosen field starts to look peripheral to their enjoyment of work. You kind of suspect this person could be happy in any number of jobs, because it isn’t the job that’s making them happy.
…it’s a shame to hate your job. The marketplace will tell you a career change is the corrective, but in fact, we have to change how we see career.
Ultimately, we want to find our way to the place where work is a secondary expression of compassion. I think if there is anyone truly happy in the world, it’s this person. It’s the one who wakes up with the aim of loving someone, or many someones, and work is simply a practical outpouring of that love. The exchange of goods in the marketplace becomes an excuse for being a presence and a voice in the marketplace. Educators, medical professionals, and non-profit managers perhaps cross-over to this most naturally, but it’s available to everyone.
All that to say, it’s a shame to hate your job. The marketplace will tell you a career change is the corrective, but in fact, we have to change how we see career.