In an ideal world, our work lives would be completely fulfilling, full of meaning, and intrinsically motivating. But what if they’re not? What if you’re stuck in a job or a career that you once loved, but your heart isn’t in it anymore?
More people fit this profile than you’d think. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, only one-third of U.S. employees feel engaged at work; that is, only one of three workers brings a consistently high level of initiative, commitment, passion, and productivity to their job. That leaves the majority of employees less than satisfied with their work.
And truth be told, there could be any number of reasons for this sense of malaise. You might feel stuck doing the same thing over and over again. You might question the ultimate meaning of the work you’re doing. You might feel micromanaged or that company leaders don’t know or care about your learning and growth. Or maybe your own growth and development since starting your career has caused you to change your passions and priorities in life.
I see and hear examples of career malaise all the time — in my work teaching and training people in companies, in discussions following my corporate talks, and in conversations with my family and friends. Though the tendency among some of us in this situation is to simply grin and bear it, current scientific research suggests ways to reimagine — or reenvision — an uninspired professional existence.
Assess what you want out of your work — at this point in your life. Not everyone wants a high-powered career. In fact, according to research by Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski, people tend to fall into one of three categories: Some see their work as a career; others see it as just a job; and still others see it as a calling. It’s this third category of people, perhaps unsurprisingly, who exhibit higher performance and a greater sense of satisfaction with their jobs. The key for you is to determine what you care about now — what drives you, what you’re passionate about, what truly motivates you — and build from there. It’s quite possible that what drove your career in your 20s is no longer appealing. Don’t force your 40-, 50-, or 60-year-old self into your 20-year-old sense of ambition. Even if you don’t find your true calling, you will at least increase the odds of finding a meaningful work experience.
See if parts of your job are “craft-able.” There has been considerable research on the idea of job crafting, where you tweak certain aspects of your job to gain a greater sense of meaning and satisfaction. Research by organizational behavior scholars Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski has shown that people can be quite imaginative and effective at reimagining the design of their job in personally meaningful ways.
For example, if you enjoy analysis but not sales, can you adjust your responsibilities in that direction? If you love interacting with others but feel lonely, can you find ways to partner more on projects? One participant from Berg, Dutton, and Wrzesniewski’s research redesigned her marketing job to include more event planning, even though it wasn’t originally part of her job. The reason was quite simple: She liked it and was good at it, and by doing so, she could add value to the company and to her own work experience at the same time.
Or, consider this activity: Imagine that you’re a job architect, and do a “before” and “after” sketch of your job responsibilities, with the “before” representing the uninspiring status quo and the “after” representing future possibilities. What novel tweaks can you make to redesign your job, even slightly? Sometimes even the smallest adjustments can lead to qualitatively meaningful changes in your work experience.
Ignite your passion outside of work. It might be a latent hobby you’ve told yourself you don’t have the time for, a personal project that isn’t related to your job or career, or a “side hustle” where you can experiment with innovative or entrepreneurial ideas on a smaller scale. Having an outlet for your passion outside of work can counterbalance the monotony of nine-to-five daily work. These inspirational endeavors can even have unintended positive spillover effects at work, giving you energy and inspiration to craft your job or reengage with parts of work you actually like.
If all else fails, make a change. Think about changing your career like you’d think about changing your house. When you originally bought your house, you had certain requirements. But since then, your priorities may have changed or maybe you have simply outgrown it. Do you move, renovate, or stay put? You can think the exact same way about your job and career. Have your priorities and needs changed? Can you tweak or “renovate” your job? Or do you need to move on?
Of course, if you choose to change your career, you’ll want to think it through and prepare yourself before jumping in with both feet. Network with people in professions you might be interested in, get your finances in order, and test out the new career (perhaps on the weekend or at night) before making the change. It can feel daunting to change everything so suddenly, but it’s important to consider the option if you’re truly feeling a deep sense of malaise at work.
The most important thing, though, if you’re finding your interest waning at work, is not to lose hope. You can find ways to ignite your passion again — or at least make slight changes so you won’t feel so hopeless. You’ll likely be surprised at how resilient and resourceful you are as you walk down the path of career renovation.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.
IMAGE CREDITS: https://i.forbesimg.com