A reader is seeking advice for how to find the motivation to move on from a job he or she no longer finds satisfying. Sometimes the way forward starts with more questions.
This moving question from a reader popped up in my email after my most recent posting on Geoffrey Bruen and his life-changing decision about work — or his work-changing decision about life.
“I’ve been in a relatively satisfying profession for 2+ decades, though due to the vagaries of the marketplace, events now compel me to re-examine things. The job has become perfunctory and less than satisfying. While continuing in the same vein is easy, it’s harder and harder to conjure the motivation to do so. What’s next? … That’s the problem. I’m stuck (for some reason) and seemingly unable to imagine a more fulfilling life. Can the Human-at-Work mission/community/resources offer any path? … any tools? … any steps? for breaking through this log-jam? … I’m all ears!”
While Bruen’s course of action looked a certain way in his circumstances and phase of life, other people’s ways of asking the question will look different. It’s fascinating, those differences.
Look where you are
Meaningful work (or lack of meaningful work) can, and should, be described differently for each person. It’s complex and difficult to do. When I’m asked about what’s meaningful in my work, my answer varies with what’s in the forefront of my day. And if I try to step back and say something more global, it sounds too abstract and disconnected. There is a paradox to staying grounded: “Right where you are” is the best way to find the path forward.
So, Dear Reader, what I hear in your question is the yearning that underlies all the other logistics of life and work. I myself have spent most of my adult life juggling them along with the question of meaning in work. But those logistics should not erase the need to express a yearning that’s at our core, however impossible it may seem to achieve.
You should give yourself a pat on the back — you’ve already had the courage to identify that longing. Good for you!
A gateway to more questions
So rather than trying to give you answers, which can only arise over time from the wisdom in your own life, what I can offer instead are more questions — questions that I hope can be companions and tools to dig deeper into yourself.
When you create quiet space in your life (ok, so I’m assuming you can, but it’s a good idea to try), what comes up? Often we’re working so hard running across the surface of the day that we either discount the quieter signals from deeper inside ourselves, or we miss out on them altogether.
Listen for sadness — What’s it about? — and that in itself will probably be a process not unlike peeling back the layers of an onion. Listen for joy that comes naturally and spontaneously and isn’t forced. What brought the joy? Jot these things down or make little drawings. And no, you don’t remotely have to be a writer or artist to do that.
Are there moments in your past, maybe even childhood, when you felt totally natural with a certain activity? What was that like? How did it feel to be yourself? Why are these the moments that have remained in your memory?
Have you had an a-ha! moment? Like Bruen, when he saw the show in Fire Island and knew he wanted to engage people as a performer, or Liz Dow, when she read “The Tipping Point” (and, as she mentioned in our interview, when she was walking a labyrinth at a ranch out West) — is there a moment when something bubbled up and brought together your inner yearnings with something you read or saw out in the world?
When you’ve felt most empty or disengaged at work, in the past or right now, what was missing for you? What would have made work feel more alive for you?
Sharpen your focus
None of these questions will give a quick answer about decisions in your work life, but they may help you uncover what’s trying to speak inside you and whatever it is that led you to write to me. Often when we feel stuck in our work, it’s because we’re asking the wrong questions. Questions like the ones above can help loosen up the ossified ways of thinking about work and life, because they help us name our deep, and often longtime, longing for what we simply like doing, as basic as that sounds.
And then, as you begin to live with those questions, letting those moments of naturalness, sadness, and joy take center stage, you’ll be able to reshape the questions you’re asking about your work life. And you may start to feel something moving inside, deep inside, that used to feel stuck.
This is merely a pointer toward next steps from the dissatisfaction that you have already had the strength to identify. You have to claim that process before all the other bits and pieces of work life can, like a kaleidoscope, fall into a new design.