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  • Writer's pictureSana Z

Five Common Mistakes People Make When They Are Unhappy With Their Careers

Updated: Oct 9, 2018

If you have reached a stage in life where you are no longer satisfied with what you do, whether your work environment is toxic, you feel bored or underutilized, or you lost your mojo and don’t think you are where you should be in life, know that you are not alone. According to a recent study, up to 87% of workers worldwide are emotionally disconnected from their workplace.

Based on the work I do with clients and my own experience, I see five common mistakes that people make when they are unhappy in their careers. Below is a list of these mistakes and some strategies to tackle them.

Mistake #1:  Too Focused on the Negative

Have you ever noticed that when you are unhappy, you have a tendency to focus on what doesn't work and what you dislike? Maybe you repeat in your mind unpleasant conversations you've had with your boss, or you continue having those conversations in your head long after they're over. Maybe you blame yourself for being in this situation. Or you focus on the flaws of co-workers or the work environment.

There's a reason for this downward spiral of negativity. You are probably the victim of what neuroscientists call “negativity bias.” In order to survive as a species, humans have developed a greater ability to focus on negative signs and patterns than on positive ones. This was great when we had to escape predators or natural disasters, but not so great when our brain is wired to continually focus on negativity and confuses the emotional pain we experience at work as a threat to our survival.

But it doesn't mean that you cannot do anything about it. Using what you don’t like can be a powerful catalyst for change.

Tip #1: Write Down What You Want Based On What You Don’t Like

Create a simple table with two columns. On the left side write down a list of what you dislike and on the right side write down what you want to create out of the situation.

For example: “My boss is controlling” becomes “I want to work in an environment where I am independent and am given more authority.” Or, “I am incredibly bored at work” becomes “I will focus on one volunteer project or cause that will engage and excite me.”

Mistake #2:  Too Impatient

When we are in emotional pain, we often only want one thing:  RUN AWAY from the pain and the situation that created it. As a result, too often we jump into the next opportunity that presents itself more because we are running away from something than because we're pulled in by something. The likelihood that we'll feel unhappy again is quite high. Not taking the time to find out what we really want is a common mistake that we make when we seek to escape unpleasant situations.

Although it might sound counterintuitive, the best thing to do when you feel impatient is to slow things down. I am not talking about rare, extreme instances in which staying where you are can be harmful such as being sexually harassed or experiencing burnout. In such cases, running away is often a necessity. Rather, I am referring to situations where you can use your impatience as fuel to move forward.

The key is to understand yourself more deeply. Perhaps you want to be a consultant because you want more freedom and independence. The truth, however, is that other aspects of being a consultant (uncertainty about the next contract, loneliness, administrative work) may make you miserable. Perhaps you don't want a different career at all, but instead are longing to use your talents and skills differently.

Tip #2: Take a Deep Dive To Figure Out What You Really Want

Invest time in figuring out why you’re dissatisfied and what’s going to make you more satisfied moving forward. What professional identity will make you feel fulfilled? What values do you want to honor? What talents and skills do you want to utilize in your work? What are your non-negotiables?

Use my Career Path Assessment ( to take a deep dive and get insights on your next career move.

Mistake #3:  Too Fearful To Explore Unhappiness And Grow

Frustration at work can often teach you precious lessons. Take the time to learn and integrate them before you move on to the next job. Often the challenges you face are symptomatic of underlying problems that need to be tackled. Perhaps you have self-esteem issues and tend to let others interrupt you or take credit for your work. Perhaps you give your power away and have a hard time standing up for yourself. Perhaps you find it difficult to manage your anger and respond passive-aggressively when you feel frustrated.

In many instances, unhappiness at work can be an opportune treasure pointing you to where you need to grow and what you need to let go of in order to move forward. If you don't confront what makes you miserable, it is very likely that your challenges will come back to haunt you at another stage of your career—or even in your personal life.

Tip #3: Address Underlying Issues That Need Your Attention

Again, use your frustration to ask tough questions. Once your underlying issues have become clear, decide what parts of you (that are no longer serving you) to leave behind, and how you want to move forward. I recommend doing this type of examination with a therapist or a coach to accelerate your learning and establish new, healthier habits.

Mistake #4:  Too Patient

This mistake sounds like I am contradicting myself, but there is such a thing as being too patient in a job. Trust me, I've been there. A few years ago, I was in a job that was not a good match for me and I realized it within the first couple of months. I was bored, felt I was not fully utilized, and the workload was insane. Within less than a year, another opportunity presented itself, but I didn't apply because I felt I couldn't afford to leave the job prematurely.

I started finding justifications for why I should try harder in the unsatisfying job. Maybe if I convinced management to hire more staff on my portfolios, I could reduce my workload. Or perhaps I could get along better with my boss and adjust to his style. The truth is that I quit that job several years later for the exact same reasons I had identified in the first few months. The only difference was that when I finally left the job, I was burnt out and resentful.

There are a number of reasons why we stay too long in a job. They are often symptoms of the same phenomenon—we lack self-confidence, feel inadequate, or believe there is something wrong with us as opposed to the situation. Lacking confidence and letting your inner critic rule the show is a big reason why career-changers can make mistakes.

Tip #4: Confront Inevitable Change Sooner Rather Than Later

When you have a gut feeling that tells you a job is not the right fit for you, you're probably correct. Of course, there is a natural learning curve that can be uncomfortable in the first few weeks or months of a new job, but these circumstances should not make you feel forlorn or constantly frustrated. Don't waste your time trying to make a job work or beat yourself up over a mismatch. Brave up, ask for help, and develop a strategy for leaving sooner rather than later.

Tip #4: Bonus—The "golden cage" phenomenon

When the only reason why you stay in a job or employment situation is the salary or the prestige/status brought by the title or the organization you work for, consider the trade-off of your decision. Is impressing your family and friends, paying your mortgage or your children's education worth feeling unfulfilled for years? Are your constraints and obligations real or your own mental construct?

Mistake #5: Too Convinced a “Big Leap” Is Needed

There's a common false belief that changing jobs means risking it all and taking a “big leap.” The truth is that many people start small; slow-and-steady strategies often pay off over time. This is especially true for those of you who want to begin a totally new career. In other words, don't quit your day job to become a life coach because you feel fully alive when you coach people. Test life coaching as a “side gig” first.

A related mistake is what I call the Either/Or approach. Our brains are really good at being binary and thinking in oppositional terms. The Either/Or approach traps us into believing, for example, either I apply for another full-time job in my organization or I become a consultant. Either I try to get promoted and reach a management position or I focus on being a technical expert in my field. Either I start a new career as a photographer or I stay put where I am.

There's nothing false with these considerations. The only problem is that the Either/Or approach limits our ability to creatively imagine other possible opportunities. Perhaps you can start testing consulting while you have a full-time job. Perhaps you get great joy out of photography as a serious hobby and can have passion projects related to it, but not make it the core of your livelihood. Perhaps you can consider leaving your organization for a couple of years and come back after having acquired more experience in a donor agency or foundation—and in better stead for a promotion.

Tip #5: Test Out a Different Career Path

Identify a career you are curious about and spend 10-20% of your time testing it, such as volunteering for a project (within or outside your line of work) or applying to be on a non-profit board. Make the career experiment an absolute priority and see if it resonates with you. Does it give you inspiration? Or does it drag you down?

The above mistakes and tips all point to one thing: being unhappy in your work can be an excellent opportunity to reinvent yourself and start creating what you truly want in order to live a fulfilling life. The process is not necessarily easy and it can take time and energy (not to mention uncertainty and anxiety), but it is definitely worth your attention and efforts. You'll probably look back at this challenging phase of your life, and think it was a very rich experience both for your personal and professional growth.

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