Reader question: I am unhappy in my job. What should I do with my life?

IMG_0409Our reader question this week comes from a woman we will call Wanda. She works full-time for a smallish firm, managing HR (among other things). The job is incredibly flexible. She knows how to do it well and efficiently. Indeed, she has managed to work out an arrangement where she works from home two days a week, but she does not work much on those days. She does almost everything she needs to on the three days she is in the office, and then she hangs out with her 2-year-old son on the other days. She takes care of anything pressing during nap or after bedtime. As she puts it, “I am required to manage what I am responsible for…no one cares too much when that is done.”

So the problem? “I am unhappy with my job and want a change.” She does not feel close to people in the company, and she sometimes feels powerless about the overall big picture. She would not mind trying something different from her current responsibilities. The trouble is that it is hard to envision any other situation providing nearly as much flexibility. “I want to work outside the home and my family needs my income but are there other jobs out there that allow for this arrangement?”

So how do you go about searching for a flexible job? Or is this the right way to approach this question? In other words, should Wanda figure out what she wants to do with her life first and then deal with the flexibility question, or the other way around?

I would love to hear what readers think. My personal inclination is to start with the soul-searching of figuring out the perfect job, hunting for something that could be shaped into it, and then negotiating the flexibility, keeping in mind that she probably will not get the exact same set-up, but might be able to get something feeling comparably good. But some might argue that if flexibility is a key consideration, that needs to be taken into account first. What has been your experience?

11 thoughts on “Reader question: I am unhappy in my job. What should I do with my life?

  1. What a great topic. I think there are many people who struggle to answer the questions you present.

    It is often a big leap of faith to leave the familiar and seek out something better.

    In terms of the soul searching part, one of the better books I’ve read is Callings by Gregg Lovey.

  2. I have a lot of advice! 🙂 But, unfortunately, a lot of it is dependent on what the reader wants. Considering that she has both knowledge and a high degree of competence in HR, I would first suggest she look at what aspects of her job she enjoys. Is it mediation of disputes? Is it calculating correct payroll? Is it training new recruits? If she does find fulfillment in whatever that part of HR is, then she can take steps to increase that role at her current job or strike out looking for a new job that is more enjoyable to her.

    Let’s say that there is absolutely nothing redeeming about HR to Wanda. She wants a complete change of pace. I’d suggest two things: (1) strengthen your professional network and (2) consider entrepreneurship. In fact, these 2 things are good to consider regardless of your stage in life and job satisfaction.

    Re. the network- if she wants to break out of HR entirely or simply find a new and better HR gig, knowing people is the best way to know about opportunities. Also, it is way more likely to make a career shift if maaaybe you don’t have directly on point work experience, but you have demonstrated competence in other ways via a professional contact.

    Re. entrepreneurship: OK, this is a way to be COMPLETELY in charge of something. There’s no one, other than a client I suppose, to tell you what to do or when to do it and you set your own rates. Is it “flexible”? It can be. Is it high paying? It depends. But, one benefit of striking out on your own is that you might be able to start out small- doing consulting or something on the side- and then growing it at necessary. I highly recommend getbullish.com for inspiration!

  3. This is the exact situation in which I found myself a few years ago. I was the breadwinner, with a good, flexible job, yet no longer engaged by my work.

    I’ve completely redesigned my life in order to reach early semi-retirement. This goal will allow me to work only part-time, choosing how to allocate my time between different types of enjoyable work.

    Wanda should start using her free time to do a little side-hustling in different areas of interest. She can definitely try out some different types of work with two days at home and two days on the weekend (remote work would probably be the best idea for security of her present job). One of the problems with people feeling trapped is that they believe they can only have one full-time job. She seems to have a lot of free time that she can devote to trying out some different things, until she discovers what really makes her happy.

  4. Oh yeah, this dilemma is very familiar to me. I quit a part-time “dream” job to stay home for a while, feeling like I was crazy to give that up because I wouldn’t be able to find it again. And then after returning to work a year later, I quit another part-time, super flexible work from home gig, that was perfect, except for the fact that it was REALLY boring. After a year of doing the same work, I needed something more.

    It is extremely hard to get flexibility from the start (or even to negotiate it) if you are an “unknown” quantity to the new job. So I’m wondering if you can talk to your current manager about changing your job duties a bit so you can keep your awesome schedule.

    I ended up sacrificing the flexibility (for now), with the promise that they would let me work from home 1-2 days a week within a year.

    Another option is to keep your job until your child is a little older – at age 4.5, my older daughter started attending a Montessori preschool that had *only* 5 day/week schedules, and her teacher very much wanted her to attend for 5 full days (rather than half) because she was happy and engaged and learning A LOT. So we sent her, 9am to 3pm, and she thrived. Now she’s in Kindergarten and HAS to be in school 5 days a week, full days, so it’s a lot easier for me to work a more regular “inflexible” schedule. (At 3.5, my younger daughter is also in a 5 full day Montessori program and is doing well, though I will say the days are a bit long for her.) My husband and I work staggered schedules so he can pick them up at 3pm (I drop off in the morning).

    I have had limited luck in finding a flexible/part-time schedule right off the bat – easier for contract jobs than full time, but it still took me over a year to find a flexible, part-time contract.

    My current job is one I’mreally excited about so I was willing to take the hit to flexibility at first, and then work on getting an official day or two to work from home once I can prove that I know what I’m doing 🙂 It does also help that we have remote team members in a few locations, so the team is already used to the idea of Skype calls,etc.

    Good luck!

  5. I agree with ARC – it’s an option to put work changes on hold until kids are a little older. Are you thinking of having more kids? What are school options like in your area? Could you negotiate 3days at home per week in your current job, or even 2.5?
    There’s societal pressure to find the dream job RIGHT NOW, and I like to take the big picture of keeping a career going while the kids are little, while keeping the door open to ramping up when it works better for me and my family.

  6. My first thought is not to set it up as a choice between two options (as you have said before). Can her current job be improved so she is happier with it? For example, not being close to people: Is it because they’re truly incompatible, or is it that she is being so efficient on her days in the office that she is not taking the time to interact with them? Would a couple of extra hours in the office each week to chat or go out to lunch or happy hour help with that? And wanting to take on new responsibilities: Has she told her boss she is interested in new responsibilities? Has she looked for ways she can stretch beyond her current role, either formally or informally, by looking for things that need to be done and just doing them? “Powerless” might be a state of mind. I can’t speak for the climate of her office directly, but in some cases, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Those would be easy and fairly low-risk things to try, and she may as well try them while she is pondering a change of career.

    1. @K – I think this is always an interesting question, of whether to double down where you are, or try to go somewhere else. Just about any job situation could be improved with enough effort. I am reminded of the Love It or Leave It TV series on home renovations. Often, people decide to stay in their old homes once a pro has fixed it up and decorated it!

  7. Since her child is 2 right now, I wonder if she will be comfortable with a little less flexibility as he gets older and moves into preschool. I’m wondering if she could take advantage of her relatively unchallenging position right now and work on developing new skills that might help her in transitioning to a different role or career, so that if her child starts preschool in a year, she would be a more attractive candidate to move into a new, more challenging role.

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