If you’re miserable at work and you got past my headline enough to read this far, I want to give you a high five. I’m not sure I would have read on when I was in the midst of grinding career misery. Misery was not my idea of a great time.
What inspired the headline is some emails and comments I get from the golden handcuffs prisoners. They aren’t happy, for sure, but they aren’t desperately unhappy, either.
And so they continue to lead their outwardly successful, inwardly unrewarding life for lots of good-sounding reasons:
- The mortgage I just signed on for,
- My family’s standard of living would take a nose-dive if I left law,
- My kids’ tuition for private school,
- My family would think I’ve lost my mind if I left what most people dream of achieving, especially in this economy.
What these prisoners don’t have is the gift of misery.
When you’re miserable, you’ve either figured out how little you care about most of that list, or you’re about to. You hate what you’re doing, and you hate yourself for doing it, even if it looks like you’re being responsible and hard-working. You don’t have your own respect, and that is making you miserable.
Misery can be a motivator to make change, if you can recognize it for the sign that it is. But career misery often is confusing, because you can get befuddled by what your real dreams are vs. what our culture shrieks should be your dreams. Things like jobs with shiny titles that pay lots of money, lots of bucket list accomplishments, having lots of toys—yanno, the external trappings of achievement.
When I was at that point of utter misery, I desperately wanted the Voice of God to tell me what to do. I wanted a clear, unambiguous message, preferably delivered by an angel dressed in fuschia with lilac wings and playing a flute, or maybe a cello.
What I failed to realize was that the misery itself WAS my unambiguous message: quit doing what you’re doing and find something else. Explore, for heaven’s sake.
“Find something else” is where most people get stuck. A big paycheck buys relatively tiny scraps of comfort, but those tiny scraps feel like the only comforts you’ve got. Who wouldn’t fear giving that up? Yet unless misery is louder than fear, fear shouts down your creative but timid voices that might help you find a way out. Misery, used well, can shove fear into a corner so you can listen to that quiet inner voice that might softly say
- I want to play around with visual things, or
- I want to sing, or
- Fighting for the underdog would be really awesome, or
- Being part of making actual things that people use sounds really cool.
If you can’t hear that inner voice very well, or at all, there are many time-tested methods for helping it emerge: journaling, meditation, solitary walks, or even sitting under a tree for a bit. (Oh, and do them without a soundtrack. It’s hard to hear yourself think if someone else is saying something, even to a tune.) Do anything that takes you out of your everyday grind and to another place, one where you can think for a few minutes about what makes you smile—that would be an excellent start to using the gift of your misery.
Jennifer Alvey is a formerly miserable lawyer who now really enjoys coaching stuck and trapped attorneys on finding alternative careers. Has misery ultimately led you somewhere great? Drop Jennifer a line at jalvey AT jenniferalvey.com, or drop a comment. She’d love to hear about it!