I do a lot of writing and coaching on the issues of finding one’s life purpose and transitioning to a career aligned with that purpose. I don’t write as often about exploring new ways to experience the career, and the life, one already has, but I think it’s equally important.
I know a number of people who have tried several different careers, but nothing they’ve done has satisfied them as much as they’d hoped. After working in a given field for a while, it seems they inevitably find themselves asking “is this all there is?” And they wonder if they’ll ever find what they’re really supposed to do with their lives.
In these situations, I often suspect that the person’s dissatisfaction doesn’t stem from making a bad career choice. Instead, the problem is with the way they experience their career, and their life in general. More specifically, they have a desire they’ve never been able to fulfill, and they’re using their career to satisfy that desire. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of desire that no type of work, no matter how engaging or lucrative, can satisfy.
People who use their careers to improve their relationships with their parents are a common example. I know one man, for instance, whose parents split up when he was very young. He was mainly raised by his mother, and as a kid he wanted to see his father more often. To make sure his father continued to visit and care for him, he decided to rack up as many academic and professional accomplishments as possible. That way, he thought, his father would view him as worth seeing. He continued to follow this strategy long into adulthood.
No matter what he achieved, however, he was never satisfied that he was pleasing his father. He began to despair, wondering if anything would ever be enough to create the relationship with his father he wanted. One day, however, he had an idea. He decided to ask his father if they could spend more time together. To the man’s surprise, his father quickly agreed.
As it turned out, the man’s problem didn’t result from his failure to accomplish enough. Instead, the problem stemmed from his own perception that his father didn’t want to be with him unless he proved himself through his achievements. In other words, to reach his goal, he didn’t need to change the facts of the world around him by making more money and garnering more professional accolades. He needed to question his own experience of the world–in this case, the assumptions he’d made about his father’s attitude that ultimately proved to be false.
Perhaps you’re in a situation similar to the one I just described. Maybe it seems like you keep making more money, accomplishing more professionally, earning more degrees, acquiring more possessions, changing careers, and so forth, but nothing seems to satisfy you. If you’re feeling this way, a simple but important step toward change is to ask yourself what exactly you want.
Put differently, what are you really trying to get with the career moves you’ve been making? How do you want your job to make you feel? What do you want your work environment to look like? How do you want your career to impact your relationships with others?
Once you’ve determined what you want, notice that you’ve been assuming that your career is going to satisfy your desire. You’ve been relying on your career to get you where you want to be in life. But take a moment to carefully consider that assumption. Can your career really fulfill the wants you’ve identified?
Take a moment to ponder the possibility that, like my friend, you’ve been using your job to get you something it can’t get you. Striving for more career success often isn’t the key to creating more inner peace, better relationships with the people in your life, and other goals that tend to be important to us. If you’ve been expecting your career to meet a need that no vocation can satisfy, it’s no wonder you’ve been looking at your career situation and asking “is this all there is?”
If this observation resonates with you, I invite you to test your assumption that your career can satisfy your wants. Just as my friend gave up trying to earn his father’s approval through professional accomplishments and simply asked to see his father more often, experiment with pursuing your goal through means other than your career. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.