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Leadership House Call

Should I Leave My Unsatisfying Job In this Tough Climate?

The Question:

Unlike the 8.5 percent of Americans without a job, I actually have a very good paying job, pretty good benefits, a nice home, and I am paying off all of my credit debt with my bonus and tax refund this year. Yet I'm not fully satisfied.

I took my current job a few years back because it propelled my career into the stratosphere from where it had been. The job, however, requires some compromise on my part. I find myself wanting to move back to where I was or to take on something new and exciting. Personal vs. professional fulfillment: Can you ever have your cake and eat it too? -- Golden Handcuffs

Dear Golden Handcuffs,

While many people would be willing to trade for your challenges, we are increasingly hearing from executives, young lawyers, community advocates and entrepreneurs all questioning how they are spending their time. This moment appears to be a catalyst for many of us to re-examine how we are spending our lives and where we are placing our energy and resources.

There is no reason to make a significant change without a compelling purpose. Just as there seemed to be a compelling, if self-absorbed, purpose a few years back to invest significantly in your career (at the cost of some other things that were important to you), the current reality has burst a lot of personal bubbles. You are not alone in beginning to think that money and power as ends in themselves are not fulfilling.

Money and power are quantifiable, easy to measure and easy to compare with others. Finding personal purpose takes time and deliberate attention.

Here are some things that may help you answer the important questions you are holding without quitting your job and running off on a naive vision quest.

The first challenge is to prioritize what is really important to you. Making the list of what you value is usually the easy part. Research and experience has shown us, however, that people make decisions only based on the top two to five values they list. We all "believe in" the things we wrote further down the list, but we just don't do anything about them. Take me, for example. I tell myself I believe in ending illiteracy, but have not done anything about it in a long, long time. Same, unfortunately, is true about going to the gym regularly.

Identifying what is really important to you, and keeping the list to no more than five priorities, is difficult because it requires you to tell yourself and the world that all those other things on your "important" list are just not that important. You can no longer kid anyone else, or yourself for that matter. They are not motivating you to act.

While you are looking for what is most important, don't skip over the values that look less "noble." You may not be so proud of some things on your list, but if you're being honest with yourself, you'll realize these items have earned their place in your top five. Being the first born, for example, I have a need to be seen as great and smart; that's what I was always told should be important to me. But wanting to prove to others how smart I am cost me other things that I value as well (further down the list), like intimacy and partnership.

Second, watch what you do, rather than listen to what you say. Words are easy. What decisions do you make about how to spend your time? Where do you feel most the alive? Deciding between personal and professional fulfillment may turn out to be a false choice.

Run a few low-cost experiments. If you stopped working at night, for example, so you could spend more time with family and friends, would that make you feel better about your job? Or, try different avenues to increase your personal fulfillment at work. Nurture relationships. Organize some colleagues to do something to save the world. Be the person who takes responsibility for helping the organization close the gap between the espoused values and the current reality.

The decision of whether you are in the right job is more difficult. We are all in a reset mode, even if we decide to stay where we are. But there is something afoot. In just the past two weeks, I have heard a number of stories of lawyers leaving large law firms. And I know a former AIG employee who is now teaching high school (insert your own joke here).

You are one of the lucky ones. You can take real risks to try to close that gap for yourself. Nice work putting yourself in that place. Now take advantage of it.

To submit your own leadership question, email leadership@washingtonpost.com or simply write it in the comment section below.

By Cambridge Leadership Associates

 |  April 21, 2009; 11:28 AM ET |  Category:  Career Management Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg     Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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I would suggest that anyone considering leaving their job in a Global Financial Crisis reconsider and take a lot of time to think about what they’re actually considering doing, unless they have adequate funds to support themselves for 12 months or another equally satisfying role to go to.

It's a bit like playing Russian roulette when you leave a job in a GFC and if you have a family to support you could be in for a very stressful time.

I work in the area of leadership development and also write about this topic, having recently published my second book on leadership called Sex in the Boardroom. From time to time this subject comes up and sometimes clients are just so tired and sick of their job that they are not making good decisions; rather they are allowing their emotions to dominate.

Posted by: IBCoaching | May 6, 2009 10:22 PM

I would suggest that anyone considering leaving their job in a Global Financial Crisis reconsider and take a lot of time to think about what they’re actually considering doing, unless they have adequate funds to support themselves for 12 months or another equally satisfying role to go to.

It's a bit like playing Russian roulette when you leave a job in a GFC and if you have a family to support you could be in for a very stressful time.

Posted by: IBCoaching | May 6, 2009 10:19 PM

It's a great question, Golden Handcuffs, and one worth just letting stew a bit. The poet Rilke wrote of the power of big questions that we live into rather than quickly answer. You may find more particular versions of your question: e.g., where do I get the most meaning? How important is it to me to have that meaning? How much of that am I willing to give up to accommodate more practical needs and concerns? What would happen if I followed my passion? Might it put cake on the table?

I had a similar question and it took me some years to live into, but I found a solution. A helpful resource to me was Joseph Jaworski's "Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership."

Good luck!

Posted by: gradymcg | April 23, 2009 4:00 PM

Great post. For me, the only question it raised was how to effectively design a personal "experiment" the way they described. If you introduce charity work into your life for a few weeks, for instance, but other factors make life difficult during that span, how do you fairly evaluate the new variable you've introduced? (Especially if the new charity work puts more pressure on your existing schedule?)

Posted by: postposter4 | April 23, 2009 10:13 AM

Great post. For me, the only question it raised was how to effectively design a personal "experiment" the way they described. If you introduce charity work into your life for a few weeks, for instance, but other factors make life difficult during that span, how do you fairly evaluate the new variable you've introduced? (Especially if the new charity work puts more pressure on your existing schedule?)

Posted by: postposter4 | April 23, 2009 10:10 AM

You should be lucky you have such a stable job. Keep it.

Posted by: profyle424 | April 23, 2009 10:02 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
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